MANILA, May 16, 2005
(STAR) GOTCHA By Jarius Bondoc - A whale shark-watching adventure in Sorsogon does not start with viewing the world’s biggest fishes. One would likely arrive in Donsol town towards dusk after a 10-hour trip from Manila, so they won’t be visible. But there’s a treat of a curtain raiser: firefly watching by boat down Ogod River. Under the starry night, fireflies would swarm around the leafy tops of their favorite miyapi trunks, lighting up the swamp woods like Christmas trees in an ever-changing spectacle. "O God, praise and thanks for such beauty," one would remark and wonder if that’s how the riverside barrio got its name. Special cameras, or rather, special photography skills are needed to capture the moment with nature; otherwise, commit it to memory.

The whale shark show starts the next morning with a briefing on safety – theirs, not the watchers’. The butanding (whale shark) interaction officers tell visitors that they may dive from the tour boats to see the gentle giants up close – but never touch to avoid stressing them. Butanding are said to be near-sighted. Their eyes are incongruously small, the size of peso coins of old, in relation to the head, which are as large as washtubs. The fins too seem small for their long 25-foot bodies. They have no scales, just gray furry skin. They float beneath the surface with wide smiles of whale-like baleen to feed on plankton, sucking in water in the process and pushing it through gills for oxygen. They are fish, not marine mammals: no blowhole like a whale’s and, more tellingly, with vertical tail fins in lieu of horizontal flippers.

Whale sharks reside in Donsol waters for the food, which include alamang (krill) and small fish like dulong. Jun Principe, a butanding spotter, says his grandfather used to tell stories of good catch in Sorsogon’s seas, but they’d always respect the serene butanding. Yet there were shark eaters among the residents up to seven years ago. In 1998 David Duran, son of Sorsogon City ex-Mayor Fernando Duran Jr., suggested an end to the voracious slaughter for food, and think instead of eco-tourism revolving around the butanding. Provincial Governor Raul Lee readily agreed.

The startup met with the usual resistance from the shortsighted. But the townsfolk eventually saw the cash potential of saving the butanding, and organized bantay-dagat (bay watch) teams to patrol the waters against poachers from adjacent towns or as far as the Visayas and Mindanao. (As recent as 2003 I wrote about a poaching ship from Bacolod whose crew had the audacity to shoot at boatmen who confronted them.) Donsol Mayor Salve Ocaya, Vice Mayor Dennis Cleofe and municipal councilors have convinced the fisher folk to go along with a ban on krill fishing. Emboldened by the positive response, Lee borrowed P10 million from the bank to erect tourist facilities by the sea. PNP Director General Arturo Lomibao came visiting last week, to commence building a tourist-class police station. President Gloria Arroyo is expected to go butanding-watching at month’s end.

Not only Donsol but the rest of Sorsogon too is going eco-tourism. Thanks to World Wildlife Fund-Philippines, which keeps a field office in Donsol to guard the endangered butanding, and the province’s environment NGO Tambuyog, Sorsoganons are learning new livelihood ways as tourist hosts. It wasn’t all that easy at the start, though, provincial fisheries chief Serafin Lacdang recalls. Getting destructive fishermen in the ‘90s to stop using dynamite or cyanide for their own good was invariably met with howls about where they’d get the next meal. Persistence paid off. Sorsogon, like Palawan, is one of few provinces where the fisher folk guard their seas against illegal catchers.

Provincial board legislative officer Rustum Mirasol met a similar challenge in his Prieto Diaz hometown 15 years ago, when residents were denuding mangrove forests for charcoal, and every three meters of shoreline had sand kilns spewing black smoke and soot. Under a determined mayor, he simply banned any more mangrove cutting and led a handful of residents in replanting. Today hundreds of once-barren hectares have been reforested, yielding crayfish and seashells for export. The laughter of children frolicking in the water fills the air each morning. Cited as the country’s model mangrove restoration, it now hosts hundreds of bird species for watchers, and students from all over troop to the town for research. Residents earn from board and lodgings. Prieto Diaz’s fishermen’s cooperative makes extra cash selling mangrove seedlings to adjacent towns.

Lacdang and Mirasol’s successes stem partly from perseverance, and from fate. They happen to be anglers with provincial board secretary William Delgado, agriculture technologist Ramon Magdamit, Sorsogon City ex-Mayor Rosalio Delgado Jr., and Prieto Diaz barangay councilman Nilo Bayoca. After each fishing trip, they’d discuss newer ways to save Sorsogon’s seas, forests and pastures, and suggest these to the governor, mayors and environment groups. The latter then push the right buttons to preserve Bulusan Lake, make Irosin the cleanest and greenest town, or beautify Rizal beach in Gubat. An initiative is underway with leaders of Masbate island-province to protect common waters where manta rays feed.

Eco-tourism goes hand-in-hand with cultural tourism. So Sorsogon is preserving as well its Spanish-era structures, like the coral stone church in Barcelona town. Abaca handicraft and pili nut confections are being taught to the youth, along with best ways to cook laing and Bicol Express (always available at 50-year-old Tia Tinay’s restaurant in Sorsogon City). Too, the pantomina courtship dance, in which couples imitate an aggressive rooster and a shy hen.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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