Thursday, February 05, 2009

Caramoan and Donsol

Ok, so we stayed in Naga a few extra days waiting for Flager, our host, to finish her exams so she could travel with us for a bit. We left Naga heading east to get to the Caramoan peninsula, a quiet part of the country that is just beginning to think of developing themselves for tourism. At present it is relatively untouched and well preserved with some empty beaches and developing hiking trails. There are also a bunch of small islands just off shore and one of the more popular activities to do is to rent a motorboat for the day and island hop, visiting various beaches. In fact, it's so unspoilt out here that after arriving we learned that last year they filmed French Survivor here and are currently setting up Israeli Survivor. It begins shooting on the 15th of Feb and it was quite annoying because the crew had taken over the hotel next to ours and had also acquired exclusive access to the closest beach and some of the islands. We walked a few km over to the beach (beautiful walk through the hills and villages) only to be not allowed on and had to resort to a bush-trail shortcut involving a waist-deep walk through mangroves to get to another beach, where, sure enough, the Survivor crew was building huts for something.... I've heard that the Swedes, Bulgarians and Turks all have plans to do Survivor here as well so maybe it's not a good idea to visit if the beaches are going to be shut off. The weather has been sporadic lately with lots of rain, especially in the evenings, but it can't be all bad because I do have a killer sunburn at the moment :(

To get to Caramoan we had to take our first Bangka ride. They are the local little boats that connect all the various islands on the shorter routes. They look like oversized canoes with bamboo outriggers to stabilize them. It's another first so the answer is no, we haven't seen and done everything yet. Caramoan itself is on the mainland but the peninsula is best accessed by boat. It's a one-street town really and we went out to try to buy phone credit at sunset (6pm) and almost everything was closed.....except for the terrible videoke places. We did go out on a motor boat one day to visit a few island beaches. Small beaches and being on the east coast, lots of wind and waves coming in. It's still the end of the rainy season I think.

From Caramoan we travelled down to Donsol. It's one of the most famous places in the Philippines because of it's cheap and nearly guaranteed sightings of Whale Sharks (in season). The season runs from about Jan-June so we were good to go. A Whale Shark is really a shark the size of a whale. It is passive and eats only plankton (one of only three sharks to do so) which is a good thing because they are the world's largest fish and can grow up to 18m (50ft long or so). Anyway, in Donsol it's not a question of whether you will see one, just how many. We had a chance in Mozambique (they are found all over the tropics) to do the same but it was a lot more expensive. So this morning we jumped in a boat with our snorkel gear (not allowed to scuba dive with them here) and head out to do some viewing. There were 7 boats with a maximum of 7 tourists per boat. It took a while to spot them and by the time we did it became obvious that it was going to be a bit of a chaotic day. The "rules" state that only one boat of 6 people is allowed per shark and you have to stay 3-4 meters away and should always wear a life vest. Did we follow any of these rules? Do I need to say "No"? There was a shortage of sharks so only one was spotted at a time and just like whale-watching at home, each boat tried to cut off the other trying to get their people in position. Also like whale-watching, the idea is to get in front of where it's headed, drop off the snorkelers, have it swim under you and then follow. Well, when 3 boat loads of people jump into the water at the same time trying to see the same fish all you end up seeing is bubbles and feet smacking you in the face. I got a few people back though :)
As with most war zones, a system eventually developed and towards the end we did get some amazing swims. One or two boats would start out with people while another would go further up, drop their people off and as those people cut off the first set, they would usually give up and get picked back up. It would then continue as long as the shark would swim within view. Two problems with that. If you find a shy one, it will dive fairly quickly and there are no rules that say it has to come up again (it's not an air-breathing whale after all). Also, the damn thing swims fast! We really have to kick and swim to keep up with it, so it's quite easy to fall back as you get tired or if someone kicks you in the head and you have to adjust your position.
So what did we see? A couple of sharks, but always just one at a time, and the last one that we all followed for a long time was about 6-7m long and just below the surface. It is huge! When you first spot that thing coming straight for you out of the empty blueness of the ocean you are definitely not caring what it does or doesn't eat because the head/mouth is massive. Then it's a quick move to the side and swim hard as long as you can. It was so amazing and once it came up almost to the surface right under me so I actually had to touch it to push myself away! Wow! That was great. And to think that it was just a little one..... Dad dove down under it to get a look from a different angle. He looked right into it's eye.... He has only great things to say as well.
Despite being cloudy out there, my bad sunburn is now terrible, but it was soooo worth it :) Tomorrow we are heading south toward Bohol island to continue the adventures.
Ammon

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