LOL – Lauren on Location – Lauren gambles with the ATM and gets to swim with whale sharks.
After a good nights sleep in Manila I was back in the Airport this time flying domestic with Cebu Pacific (terminal 3), to Legaspi in South Luzon, here I was hopefully meeting up with a representative from Donsol EcoTour / PADI Dive Asia who I had been corresponding with for some months and then travelling to Donsol where I would be staying and (fingers and toes crossed) going out to see the whale sharks.
A mild panic at the airport ensued when I decided to get some more cash out just incase (I had previously exchanged travellers cheques and some US currency at Manila airport and for ease I would recommend other travellers to do the same), I had put my card in the ATM (Country Bank) and it had accepted my PIN but froze when about to dispense the cash, I waited a little while and then thought I should probably press cancel, when my card was still not spat out I became slightly worried and just as my mind started to go into action plan mode of phoning the bank etc, my card re-appeared – phew! I later learnt that it is best to use BDO ATM’s and I would urge others to use these where-ever possible (note the limit for some ATMS is 10,000 pesos per day, however at times certain ATMs will not dispense the 10,000 – instead giving you less, and in other cases it is possible to put your card in several times extracting 5,000 each time – almost like a game…. almost).
The flight across with Cebu Pacific was like no other I have ever experienced! Mid flight the air hostesses play a game where they shout an item out and the first to wave it in the air wins an airline travel pouch, believe me I have never seen so much energy, excitement and enthusiasm on a flight before! Excellent!
On the flight I was seated next to a couple from Arizona, G & Ray, we started chatting and fuelling each others excitement at the prospect of seeing whale sharks the following day. When we landed I felt like what I used to refer to as a “Champagne Backpacker” (someone who claims to be travelling but insists on staying in hotels and who refuses to use the public / cattle class transport), this feeling however did not prevent me from climbing gratefully into the air conditioned pickup that had been provided for me by my Donsol EcoTour contact.
Legaspi is quite striking with Mt Mayon the volcano as the backdrop to the town, as we made our way through the city the concentration of shops and people became less and the landscape gave way to coconut palms, banana trees and rice paddies, the journey through to Donsol took about 1hour and 10 minutes, upon arrival I went into the PADI Dive Asia shop and registered to go out on a boat the following morning; at this point I must pause to thank Jessica Noelle Wong with whom I had been corresponding before my trip and also Ruby Lita who took care of me on-site, their help and generosity enabled me to go out on 2 trips free of charge, the value of such actions are immense in a place where money provided by the whale shark ecotourism venture is vital to its continued success and existence.
That evening I watched the sunset on the beach which gave way to a brilliant red sky, at which point I had already begun praying to the shark god for a whale shark sighting the following day (red sky at night, Lauren’s delight?). I headed to bed full of hope…
I should never have been worried … over the 2 days I was spoilt with 10 whale shark sightings!!!!! All of which I was able to swim / freedive with, the largest shark was estimated at around 12m, the longest interaction time I had was about 20 minutes, and I am pretty sure that one of the females was pregnant (as I dove down her lower abdomen was extremely swollen). The buzz I got out of being in the water with these animals was phenomenal, their grace, their patterns and colouration and of course their immense size.
Here I was cruising along with the biggest fish in the sea – I say cruising, they were cruising, 1 slight change in direction for them meant some hard fin work for me! Just incredible sharks and I felt honoured to be in the water next to them, the length of time with the animals also allowed my mind to register the fact that here I was in their presence, this led to much “YES WHALE SHARKS !!!!” being shouted in my head, plenty of fist clenching and grinning (which led inadvertently to me joining in with the whale sharks diet of plankton, thanks to me flooding my snorkel on more than 1 occasion).
The huge female (12m) which hung around for 20 minutes was exceptional, she gave me eye contact on more than 1 occasion, but didn’t appear to be bothered by me presence in the slightest; after all I probably qualified as an oversized remora with me measuring in at (1.5m). When it came time to let this female be on her way I dropped back and followed behind her for a little while from an appropriate distance, which was immense – I mean how many times do you get to ride a whale sharks wake?!
Way too amazing!
On the evening of the 9th I met up with Jackie Ziegler, a whale shark researcher investigating the effects of whale shark ecotourism around the world for her Masters thesis. I had spoken to her earlier in the day about ongoing whale shark research and sharks / elasmobranchs in general and was eager to discuss more. I headed to where she was staying which turned out to be the Mayors house in Donsol (Mayor Alcantera’s), there I enjoyed rather too much local hospitality and was spoilt with home cooking (had my first encounter with pigs intestine!) but primarily with (what felt like gallons) of Red Horse Beer, G & Ray also joined us which was great but after 5 hours Jackie got more than she bargained for when I had to stay with her for the night having had too much Red Horse to go anywhere!
I left Donsol the following day with a slight headache, but most importantly feeling like I had a connection with the place despite having spent less than 4 days there in total, mind-blowing sharks and incredible people an experience never to be forgotten.
Dr Lauren E. Smith is a marine biologist who specialises in shark research; she is a keen surfer, freediver and SCUBA diver and loves nothing more than to combine these activities with her passion for sharks.
Sharks have evolved for over 400 million years, surviving some of the earth’s greatest mass extinctions. They are superbly adapted to their environment: apex predators, intelligent with unique immune systems and yet for all this perfection they are vulnerable particularly to the actions of man.
Therefore I believe that the key way to save these animals is through education; through informed understanding, misrepresentation and fears can be replaced with appreciation, respect and compassion.
It is for these reasons that I have taken a 3 month sabbatical from my current research position based in the North East of Scotland in the UK, and am heading off to the Philippines for as many shark based activities as possible!
The primary reason for me choosing the Philippines is because it is home to a well established shark research laboratory, with an excellent reputation the – Thresher Shark Research and Conservation Project (TSRCP), based on Malapascua Island, off the North East tip of Cebu, where I will be working for 2 months. The TSRCP’s mission statement is as follows:
“To promote and disseminate shark research, education and conservation to a broad local, regional and international public and scientific outreach”.
A statement that I fully endorse and follow when conducting my own shark research.
During my stay in the Philippines I will also be going to visit the whale sharks that descend on the waters of Donsol, located at the Southern tip of Luzon Island for December to May each year. Here I will be getting in the water with the whale sharks and meeting with employees of Donsol EcoTour (http://www.donsolecotour.com/whale_sharks.htm) to find out more about the whale sharks, with a view to developing future research possibilities.
During the first week of June I will be flying to the Republic of Palau, 500 miles east of the Philippines for a 2-week stay. Palau is made up of over 300 volcanic and coral islands, it attracted a lot of media attention in September of last year when it effectively created the worlds first ‘shark sanctuary’ after banning all commercial shark fishing in it’s waters. Here I will be SCUBA diving and freediving and hopefully in doing so observing yet more shark’s in their natural environment.