Friday, June 8, 2007

Philippines - Whale Sharks in Donsol

Hello Everyone,

Since the last update, we’ve ventured over to the USA during Easter, stopping in NYC and Florida. Got a dose of cold weather to remind us what life is like outside of Singapore’s proximity to the equator.

We finally were able to catch up with old friends in both places and even were given the good luck of having some friends joining us in Florida from Phoenix and Connecticut. Proving the world is a small place- especially thanks to airfare prices nowadays.

Afterwards, Patrick returned to Singapore and two friends arrived from Switzerland that same morning. So, they were able to share the experience of jet lag together. Our friends arranged a Singapore stopover on their way to Ko Samui. Singapore is a great hub! Actually with all the problems with the new Bangkok airport being defectively built and the old airport re-opening again to take on certain carriers and flights, it makes some nightmare travel connections when flying into Bangkok. (Those of you who have dealt with road travel in Bangkok know about the congestion and unpredictability, so Singapore is a great alternative!)

Then we re-packed our bags, this time with diving gear, and departed for Philippines. A German globetrotter friend (working in India) flew over to join us for this adventure. So here begins the story…

Our last trip to Philippines was in June 2000 and it was a pleasure to return. Especially since a good friend and his family live in Subic Bay area, north of Manila now.  He’s now semi retired and enjoying life as few people do. And one of his passions is driving. The roads in the Philippines require full attention and lots of skill. Luckily our local friend is a pro. Sometimes it felt like we were in a video game. And unbelievably, Our German travel companion slept through most of the 1-2 hour drives (to and from various airports). He’s been well trained by the streets of New Delhi! I think it’s like a sleeping pill for him!

From Manila, it was a short 1 hour flight to Legaspi and a longer winding van ride to Donsol (1.5 hr). Then we arrived at the beach and found a room and dinner. The next morning was May 1st, a national holiday in Philippines, and a busy day. We arrived at the whale shark organizing office and were allocated a boat and crew. 18 longtail boats departed that morning with mainly Filipinos and a few foreign tourists, so it’s also a popular outing for locals. Although the two Filipinos on our boat missed seeing any whalesharks, due to the fact that they had never snorkeled before, and by the time they were ready to jump in the water the sightings were pretty much over. We determined that the first hour was the best out of the three hours of cruising around. Perhaps, it’s due to the preference for feeding off plankton early in the morning or that the whale sharks were “fed-up” with boats motoring around like kamikazes all over the bay.

There are seven “visitors” allowed in each boat and a “whale shark spotter” is one of the crew who searches for the tell tale signs of a dark shadow on the surface of the water. Once spotted, the boat captain slows down; we pull on the masks and fins and jump into the water to attempt to chase this elusive and gigantic creature. Swimming was more gasping for air since Mr. Whale shark always slipped quickly away!

A whale shark is up to 46 feet (14 m), weighing up to 15 tons, so his speed and ours are no competition. I thought my heart would burst when I submerged a couple of meters (a few times in a row) in order for Patrick to try and get a picture.  Being a model is tough work!

Just to help you understand the beautiful gentle “shark”, here are some facts. This also is calming to know that our size and the size of plankton are easily recognized by the whale shark’s digestive system.
The huge, gaping mouth is the whale shark's adaptation to feeding on plankton; the wider his mouth opens the more plankton he can scoop up with each "bite". All the water that he takes in to scoop up his meal is simply passed out of his body through his gills, which have sieve-like membranes covering them to filter out the little critters and prevent them from escaping. If you were accidentally scooped up by the whale shark you would find yourself being spit back out through an interesting process called gastric eversion. The whale shark actually turns its stomach inside out and spits it out through its mouth, ejecting the entire contents.

Note: the gill action is caught on our video that you can check out our whale shark video on YouTube

Video notes: The wobbly movement is due to holding the camera and swimming strongly which is not easy - requires only kicking since one arm is occupied. I am the purple and yellow creature that attempts to cuddle next to Mr. Whale Shark and the black suited creature is our friend who also is an underwater voyeur with a camera. Patrick is only shown at the end of the video experience.
Also, due to the plankton content (which is why the whale shark come to donsol bay), the visibility is not the best.

After a few days in Donsol, we flew back to Manila and enjoyed more time with our local friend and his family. His home is situated near to another interesting diving area: Subic Bay. This was once a USA marine base and there is quite a community of retired military men roaming around. Diving in this area is different than most areas. It is not filled with coral reefs but instead a garden of sunken treasures: Ships everywhere, from Spanish ones to American and Japanese boats. Most were only 18 to 28 meters deep which allowed enough time to explore them without going into a decompression dive. The only drawback is the water quality. It’s a major shipping route and sometimes was quite murky.

Patrick uploaded a The Wrecks of Subic Bay Video to YouTube

And here another link to YouTube where we had funny episode between a grouper and octopus

That ends this trip and we can’t wait to return to explore more of the Philippines. It’s such a wonderful country. Our next trip for diving will be from June 22 to July 1. We are going to Sabah, in East Malaysia. There we are diving at Sipadan, which is the only oceanic island in Malaysia, rising 2,000 feet or 600m from the seabed. It is located east of Tawau (Borneo), in the Celebes Sea. It was formed by living corals growing on top of an extinct volcanic cone that took thousands of years to develop. So we are really excited to explore this region and Patrick will be once again working on his video and photography skills. This is his latest hobby. So keep tuned…

All the best and happy summer travels,

Julane and Patrick

Julane the Model
Patrick, the future Jacques Cousteau

The following photos are all taken from the web. We only took a series of videos, since that was the easiest way to record while snorkeling. So we can’t take any credit for the following images. I just wanted everyone to get a “closer encounter” with these amazing creatures.

Basking Shark

The whale shark is the world's largest fish. Second largest is the basking shark which is also a filter feeder. Now these are a scary looking fish, like out of a horror film! Thought I would include a few pictures of the next potential adventure…just kidding.

These are NOT found in tropical waters. In the spring, when the amount of plankton is increasing in the cold temperate waters, the basking shark is found off the eastern coast of North America from North Carolina to New York, then migrates in the summer to the northern part of its range, the eastern tip of Canada, and vanishes in the autumn and winter. The same pattern can be observed off the British Isles.