Upon arriving in Legaspi we took a cramped, but cheap, van hire to get to Donsol, or more accurately Dancalan Beach. We arrived after dark, so spent a quiet night in setting up our activities for the following days. The next day was rainy and the dive boats were full, so we stayed in at the Dancalan Beach Resort. We enjoyed the beautiful beach views, swung from hammocks between palm trees when there wasn’t any liquid sunshine, and read books until our eyes were tired. We knew our legs needed the rest for the following day.
The next morning we woke up with the sun to set out on our first dive adventure- and we picked the most perfect day possible. We set out on the Noah 2 to Manta Bowl, an inconspicuous bit of ocean set between two islands. Similarly to Monad Shoal, Manta Bowl is a small submerged seamount, only 6.2 hectares large. On either side the slopes lead off to deep water. The top of the seamount lies around 55 to 60 feet deep, and it’s always got a heavy current whipping across the top- making it a favorite spot for filter feeders like mantas and whale sharks. All they need to do is stay in one spot (easier than it sounds) and let the current push food into plankton into their mouths. The diving was a bit treacherous- low visibility (by Philippines standards), whipping currents, and the danger that a few moments of inattention could send you hurling alone, too deep, into blue water- but was far beyond worth the reward.
During the first two dives, we got the majestic experience of seeing several manta rays- the most majestic, largest, and most beautiful of the mobula ray family. Our first few sightings were quite brief, though, as I made the stupid mistake of staying up in the water column and off the bottom. It spooks the animals, and they just dart away from the big scary bubbly thing. Instead, you should sink to the bottom and stay in place. These gorgeous giants fly effortlessly through the water, and they’re curious too! They were just as interested as getting a closer look at us as we were in them, which made the sightings all the more wonderful. They seemed to use the current a bit like a treadmill- staying stationary by slowly flapping their wings while having their mouths wide open. But, unlike us, they could glide away at moments notice, against the current, or in whatever direction they wanted. It really gave us a sense of their true power. At the end of each dive we got gorgeous glimpses of giant whale shark silhouettes floating above us. We weren’t close enough to see their spots, but we got a pretty good sense for their enormity and grace. It the best we expected to get.
Then, between the second and third dive of the day, we spotted a whale shark hanging out at the surface, basking in the day’s warm sunlight. Naturally, we wanted to snorkel with him, and our dive boat obliged. We steered far ahead of him in the current and the expert spotter Melvin from Bicol Dive Center got us in the water at the perfect time and place to flow right towards this gentle giant. We were able to swim right next to him, and see his magnificently patterned skin in all it’s glory. I’ve never felt smaller than swimming next to this gorgeous animal, which was probably 15-18 ft. long. We only got a minute or so with him before he disappeared in the depths, but I was on an endorphin high like I’ve rarely ever experienced. I screamed in exultation at the service, along with every other diver on the boat. We all realized how fortunate we were to get to see this incredible animal in its natural habitat.
The third dive was a bit of a bust at the bottom… not a single manta showed itself while we were down. I can’t say we were disappointed; we had just had an amazing day, but we were hoping to encounter some. When our divemaster signaled that it was time to head to the surface, we expected not to see anything, and instead got the experience of a life time. We heard an insistent and excited tapping from our divemaster’s tank, and moments later saw a giant dark shape appearing out of the gloom. A whale shark! And this time, close enough that we could see him in full. Melvin, experienced with these gentle giants, quickly swam under his belly and began spraying him with air from his spare regulator- and the whale loved it. It’s easy to tell when an animal is happy, and this one seemed in bliss from the tickly feeling the bubble must have been giving him. He repeatedly circled around and around our group, swimming up to the surface, then straight down towards one of us and over the top of our heads to get our bubbles. He was probably 20 feet long and a jolly beast. It was easy to see that he was incredibly curious about what we were. He swam pretty close to all of us in turn to get a closer look. At one point a smaller one came in from behind over my shoulder and created one of the most memorable moments for me: two whale sharks, one gigantic and another around 12 ft., crossing paths just above me, close enough that I could see their patterning, with the sunlight coming down in rays around them the surface creating the backdrop. I will never forget it for the rest of my life.
There’s something incredibly special about a wild animal deciding to trust you. Historically, humans have never treated animals very well. Still today in Oslob in the Philippines, whale sharks are baited to come into a bay every morning for the entertainment of tourists. Though it remains to be scientifically proven, it seems fairly clear that this practice interrupts the natural migration routes of whale sharks, thus most likely interrupting breeding. Normally, whale sharks can be spotted in this part of the world November to May, but they come to Oslob every day, all year round. I’ve never been there (because I refuse to support it), but I’ve seen the photos and heard the stories- there are no rules in Oslob. People ride the sharks, an undoubtedly stressful experience for the animal, and boats hit them. The focus in this area is only on money, not on the animal’s well being, although the Philippines is working to change that. We feel so fortunate that the whale sharks we saw chose to grace us with their presence, and give us just a small glimpse into their world.
The second day of diving was a little less sharky and a lot more full of rays. We only had one whale shark sighting at the very end of our last dive, just a shadow in the deep below us, but the rays were out in number. They glided around us, coming close enough to touch (although we never would). The largest on we saw had a wingspan of approximately 16 ft. from tip to tip, and the cutest was maybe 6 ft. across. Altogether our days diving in Donsol were humbling and uplifting, a time in our lives that we will remember forever.
After our dives we were excited to meet volunteers form the LArge MArine VErtebrates (or Lamave) Project. Lamave is an official Philippines NGO working on obtaining ecological data about the various vertebrates inhabiting Filipino Seas, namely manta rays, whale sharks, and dolphins. Since the reality of scientific research and funding prevents them from being able to go out and survey every day, they work closely with local dive shops to obtain everyone’s photos at the end of the day for ID purposes. Of course, we were happy to oblige. Anything for science! Once they are able to get a good handle on the existing populations, their movements, and migration, they will use the data to work with the government to set up better and more protective management practices. Yay for Lamave!
We spent the night after diving relaxing at the hotel restaurant and having a few beers with newly acquired friends from our dives. We laughed and exchanged stories, and found out once again that the world is ever smaller than we thought. One of the divers we were with that day actually had gone to Coastal Carolina University, our alma mater, for a semester, and roomed with our best friend’s fiance during the time she was there! She’s also traveling the world, from Australia to the Philippines and now off to South Africa for a divemaster internship. Good luck Jennifer!
On our last day at Dancalan Beach we spent the time resting our sore legs- it was hard work, kicking against that current for three dives, two days in a row. We chatted with our new friend, read, and most of all soaked up the sunshine and waves at the beautiful beach. The next morning we took a van back to Legaspi to wait for our flight out and enjoyed the wonderful views and huge lunch buffet at our hotel.
The southern part of the Bicol region, near Legaspi, is home to a famous volcano, Mt. Mayon. Mayon is known for being one of only two “perfectly” conical volcanoes in the world, the other being Mt. Fuji. It truly is a sight to behold. It erupted as recently as 2013, and the paths the lava took down the side are very clear on the side of the mountain. We were lucky enough to get clear days during most of our time here, so we were able to see the summit and shape as well the smoke consistently spewing from the top.
Next up we head to Singapore, and although we have loved our time in the Philippines and certainly had some life changing experiences here, I can’t say I’m not excited to return to a real city, hopefully one that has fast wifi, hot showers, and washing machines for our exceedingly smelly handwashed clothes.