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Apr
15

conquering my fears

That’s it, below, in the picture, welcome to what keeps me up at night. My greatest fear.

not a lot of fun

not a lot of fun

They say people are divided into two groups: Ocean lovers and mountain lovers. I am most assuredly an ocean lover. Everything about the sea, the sand calls me. And yet I am terrified of sharks. I am, I can’t help it. Terrified. But also a little fascinated.

My husband is a diver, he has no fear. I am a snorkeler, I hang close to the gated entrance of reefs, hug the ragged coastlines of non-shark places like Italy and Greece, acclimating myself slowly to the sea and succumbing to it.

reefs

reefs

And yet I yearn to submerge and become part of it. I secretly watch dive shows where divers go so low it’s dark, where sharks look at them and could care less, where fish are no longer afraid, because you are in their world now and escape is a lengthy affair.

Because our world is shrinking, growing more polluted and over-poached, there are less fish to see now. Less coral too. But there are certain places where Mother Nature has actually won. And the Philippines is one of them. The Philippines is made up of 7,107 islands and boasts 34,000 sq. km (13,124 sq. miles) of coral reefs, over 800 classes of corals, over a thousand species of marine life, and one of the most populous and diverse aquatic ecosystems on the planet, making it a sure hit for true snorkeling enthusiasts.

Diving with the Dugong

Diving with the Dugong

Of the 500 known coral species in the world, 488 are found in the Philippines. Some of the unique aquatic life includes the gorgonian butterfly fish, gigantic sponges, seafans, and starfish. Some snorkelers are lucky enough to have the chance to swim with kind-tempered whale sharks, or the rare dugong; an endangered species of water-dwelling mammal whose intelligence rivals that of the dolphin.

In the past, hunters flocked to the incredibly rich, lush marine system circulating through the islands of the Philippines to take all they could, and there was so much: coral, soft and spongy, in all the colors of the rainbow. Sharks and in particular, those docile whale sharks, huge vegetarians who peacefully glide through the seas like a chain of huge greyhound buses. Hammerheads, not so docile,  I’d be scared to death if I saw one, but still so gallant and important. Because of the revenue brought in my marine lovers, the Filipinos have now all but banned poachers and have created strict laws to protect their incredible wealth here.

Scuba Diving in Cebu

Scuba Diving in Cebu

There are so many great dive spots throughout the Philippines, it’s just an insanely diverse and rich place to go. And it’s cheap!  But where you go depends upon what kind of diver you are as well as what you want to see. Sunken treasures, or tropical fish? Reefs or the dark depths below? Sharks? Sea turtles, coral?  I have come with a very specific purpose in mind, I have come to swim with the whale shark  in the Bay of Donsol, the whale shark capital of the world. Yikes.

my shark

my shark


We fly in from LAX  with super cheap tickets to Manila.
No time to stop here in this large city, I have a fear to rid myself of. A morning flight takes us to Luzon Island. A car-and there are so many waiting to be hired, and they are so cheap too, takes us a short distance to the coastal fishing village of Donsol, where we’ll launch a search for whale sharks. The waters off Donsol have the largest numbers of recorded sightings of whale sharks on the planet, with the highest concentrations occurring in the spring. WWF researchers conduct studies and conservation on the whale shark, which locally is known as butanding.

We board what are called bancas, Filipino outrigger canoes, and  head in the bay in search of whale sharks. Our guide briefed us on the rules for swimming with the sharks: No scuba gear, snorkel or skin dive only.

But the first day we went out too late. We waited in the bay for over two hours but there was nothing to be seen.  Our guide had warned us that we might have just gone out too late. They feed in the morning when there is the highest concentration of plankton. We made arrangements to go out at seven the next morning. That afternoon we snorkeled at a nearby reef teeming with tropical fish, they were so brightly colored and  swam so leisurely, as if not afraid of all.

tropical sea life

tropical sea life

The town of Donsol is nothing to write home about, it feels more like an outpost of adventure than an adventure in and of itself, which was so perfect for me. The last thing in the world I wanted was a Four Seasons kind of thing. I wanted this, I wanted raw exploration and nature. We stayed in a hotel called Giddy’s Place which was clean and absolutely perfect for our needs. And here I’m not going to lie, the food is not my favorite. I’m a vegetarian so the idea of a whole crispy pig’s leg doesn’t make my mouth water. But white rice, vegetables in a coconut curry and the coldest beer in the world is  fine with me. Just as long as I didn’t have to eat the same vegetables in coconut for breakfast.

sign of donsol

sign of donsol

giddys place donsol

giddys place donsol

That night after dinner, we went out to see the fireflies, thousands of them lighting up the skies, twinkling inside trees like fairy lights, over the river and above the huts. I swear there must be some pretty incredible wildlife in the jungle which is probably a lot scarier than the sharks I plan to meet in the morning.

dance of lights

dance of lights

The next morning we get up at six and it is a morning so blue, even the water is a pristine blue which is rare at this time of day and year when it lures these whale sharks with its plankton and marine caviar . Our guide hands us a bag of sweet breads, two cups of coffee and off we go to wait for the sharks. They’re there before we get there.

whale sharks

whale sharks

“Get in.” The guide removes my coffee from my hand.

“In there?” It’s like staring into huge swirling tank, they appear to be everywhere but maybe it’s just one, they’re so dang huge.

“Come on,” my husband straps on his snorkel and mask. I do the same. It feels so strange to be so naked jumping into their water.

wow!

wow!

“I’m scared.” And this is my fear talking. I know they can’t hurt me, but still my heart is beating like I’m running the race of my life. Then my husband just does it, he jumps in. The guide laughs, looks at me, and point to the sharks. I feel like I’m going to the guillotine for some reason, even though I came here to do this. I  sit down, resigned to the strong possibility I just can’t do this.

“Honey!” My husband calls. “Look at this!” He puts his hand on the dorsal fin and is being pulled b this mammoth creature. I watch him play in their midst, touching them as they scoop up their food. I can see their mouths, no teeth, zero teeth.

no teeth

no teeth

“This is the capital of butanding, nothing has ever happened, not once.” He took my hand, “they have never hurt anyone.”

sharks

sharks

“Okay.” And I walked to the side and rolled myself in like a giant tub. I’m scared, I’m scared to feel them against my legs, I’m scared to have one come at me from behind. But I can see them and from a safe distance I watch. The longer I watch the safer I feel. Slowly I make my way toward them until I am along side one. Their skin is spotted. I reach out to touch and it’s so soft, I try to swim alongside, but they are faster than you can imagine. I put my hand on her fin and let her pull me as she vacuums the bay with her massive mouth. I am surrounded by whale sharks, they are so massive, playful, interested and aloof.  You become aware of your smallness and because they glide so effortlessly, I am not afraid anymore.

But real sharks, well, that’s a whole other story.

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