Quick stop the search, I think I’ve found it, I think I’ve found paradise.
Ok so a few tweaks need to be made, mainly the exclusion of the 11 mangy dogs we currently live with (though plus side –they have a crush on Gonzo), but the little barangay (village) of Son-ok in Southern Leyte is a pretty good match: a village nestled on the coast, looking out towards Sogod Bay and the island of Limasawa, where the sunsets are breathtaking, the people are welcoming and the green mountains that surround the blue waters make you feel like anything is possible in a place so picturesque.
This is my new home. Well at least for now. It’s a little bit rural, we are still to find a fruit stall, the internet is questionable and we are beginning to wonder where we’ll find a fridge for the new house…. well that’s what we will be thinking once we have actually found a house in the first place! But it’s beautiful and was well worth the two-day journey to get here.
The journey itself, took its toll on each of us in it’s own way – Gonzo needed food (cue angry monster), Ale was a little tired and wide eyed, jess was sleepy, and I was delusional, or perhaps more fitting, crazy. My state of mind first became apparent when on arrival I changed into what Ale has described as something the Mel B (from the Spice girls) would wear (minus the attitude). I like to blame it on the heat/exhaustion/journey (any other suggestions welcome) - it really was the first thing I could find that would cover me from the mosquitoes (honest!). And so after anticipating our arrival for so long, this is how I first introduced myself to the rural community of Barangay Son-ok.
By the next morning the crazy in me had diluted, just in time to meet the mayor (phew). Add a few days of sorting things out – taking over a family home (poor people)…searching for a house (still searching), writing articles for books (another day chained to the computer), checking out the local Marine Protected Area (MPA), marvelling at the landscape, being chased by children, eating rice, rice, rice…on Saturday we finally made it into a boat and out to sea to look for sharks!
And what a day! You know how I was talking about first impressions. Well let’s just say this is maybe NOT the way to do it (not that I’d know anything about this, of course).
Wetsuit clad…sunglasses on, cue sea breeze and heart beat flutter…we are off to find a whale shark. The midday sun was hot, the sea glittering and for a moment I thought I’d died and gone to heaven ;-)
Tourists boats frequent the cool waters of Sogod Bay between the months of October and June, cruising the calm waters for the worlds largest fish. The number of tourists here is much lower than that in Donsol and Oslob, coming in at around 2000 per year, as opposed to Oslobs’ 100,000 and Donsol’s 27,000 (figures for 2012). The tourism practice here is an example of a much lower impact practice than those found elsewhere in the Philippines: less invasive, with (we believe) less of an impact on the shark. Studying tourism and shark behaviour here is an important measure in ensuring the best interaction guidelines are developed and that the population of whale sharks frequenting the Bohol Sea (and the Philippines) are protected, both for the welfare of the species and for the communities here.
That’s why we’re here setting up a new research project.
And so, there we were skimming the water, searching for a hint of a shadow….ooo ooo is that a shark…no no, sit back, relax, lub dub lub dub, my heart was so excited. Ok shark spotted! Quick, quick fins on! I’m ready (obviously ;-) )… “Gonzo..ready? Gonzo?!”
Gonzo: “quick sal in the water” (push)
(Me) - “what!?” (glug glug)
(Gonzo) “…my fin…I’ve dropped my fin!!?? Grab it!”
“Where is it?”
Ale – “Sally WHAT are you doing in the water?!!”
Boat men: “here, it’s over here”
(Me) “where? where did it go?”
(boat men) “here, here…..swim, swim, here!”
Deep breath, under I go……
“WOOAHHHH WHAle shark!!!” That’s not a fin.
Ale –“have you id-ied”
Me - “No I haven’t got a camera”
Ale “WHAT the hell are you doing?!”
And so that is how I ended up face to face with my first whale shark of the year, without a camera and without Gonzos fin. And yes, THIS IS also how we, as researchers first introduced our selves to the Tourism industry here in Southern Leyte. Hugely professional, as always ;-)
Luckily, we managed to get our act together and photo-IDied 3 new sharks (by new I mean 3 new individual whale sharks that have not been photo-identified before). Incredibly Gonzo even found his fin – ok so it was dancing in a current 8 meters down, but fortunately we have a new friend – Ery – one of the whale shark spotters here – who as well as possessing a wicked laugh, is an incredible swimmer. In fact I have an inkling that he may be related to superman, for he retrieved Gonzo’s fin without even taking a breath, and you know since that memorable day, we’ve been out on the water and see him swim what must be 20meters down to help us ID whale sharks. Sometimes he swims so deep, I lose sight of him in the deep blue sea, until what seems like minutes later when he reappears, swimming powerfully towards the surface. MADNESS.
And so the adventure continues. There’s still a long way to go (like sorting the boat, a house, the research strategy, mending the car, treating the 11 mangy dogs) but we are here, the sharks are here, and hopefully with a few tips from Ery we’ll all be living underwater in the blink of an eye.