04 September, 2008

Tourist Power - Discover Donsol (Philippines)

This post was kindly contributed by Jessica Noelle Wong of Donsol Eco Tour in the Philippines. Thank you Jessica!! Jessica is directly involved in this terrific operation which has great ramifications into diving, preservation and development both below and above the waves!!

Tourist Power:

If there is one place that must be visited at least once in your life this would be Donsol, Sorsogon, Philippines. The Whale Shark, the biggest and probably the gentlest fish in the world, migrate to Donsol waters from December to May annually. Although there are other areas worldwide known for Whale Shark sightings, Donsol has marked itself internationally because of the fact that the largest known congregation of Whale Sharks worldwide is in Donsol. Imagine swimming beside a fish that is 18 meters (approximately 60 feet) long and 40 tons heavy? Now, imagine swimming with a school of fishes that big! That is what Donsol has to offer. There is an indescribable thrill when you catch yourself beside this magnificent creature that glides in the water with a certain grandeur of timeless beauty. Without any words, the Whale Shark tells you, I have been here for millions of years, respect me...admire me...be awe stricken. And while beside his grandness, one cannot avoid but just bow in humility.

The Whale Shark (Rhincodon Typus), is said to trace back 245 to 265 millions of years back to the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. The Whale Shark has managed to survive until this time and age, but little is known about them and these creatures are currently marked as endangered. Several organizations like the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and ECOCEAN are active in finding ways to protect and preserve these animals.

Generally speaking, Whale Sharks were unharmed in the Donsol. The hunting of these Whale Sharks were rather controlled until the 1990s when there was a sudden demand for Shark meat and Shark fin by the international market. In 1998, the slaughtering of Whale Sharks in Donsol and around the Philippines somehow caught media attention. The news attracted both potential hunters, but also tourists and conservationists. The attention that was brought to Donsol paved the way for the protection and preservation of the Whale Sharks in Donsol. WWF, the Philippine Department of Tourism, and the Donsol Local Government has since then been working together to push for eco tourism in the area. Among the actions done was the administrative order giving Whale Sharks protection from all forms of harm, the municipal waters of Donsol was declared as a sanctuary, and the set up of the parameters for responsible Whale Shark interaction for tourists.

These protection, preservation, and ecotourism efforts have shown its success. In the past 5 years, the popularity of Donsol internationally has increased, the number of tourists that visit Donsol continue to double year after year, and more importantly, the number of Whale Sharks in the area are increasing, there is proof of revisits from the same Whale Shark, and there have been more active studies on these animals.

I go on at least one holiday every year, and sometimes I wonder if going on holiday is a selfish act for self enjoyment. I honestly ponder on that thought and try to rationalize my actions and my (over)spending. I think to myself, why is it important to be a tourist? In Donsol’s case, each tourist has contributed in his/her own little way and has brought back hope and life to these creatures. When visiting Donsol, the locals have a level of respect for the tourists because with them, the locals have found an alternate source of livelihood in tourism and have veered away from the thought of hunting the Whale Sharks for livelihood. And in the same regard, these Whale Sharks have given each tourist, an experience worth a lifetime.

What else is in store in Donsol?
1. Diving at the Manta Bowl, “Manta Ray Capital of the Philippines”, the habitat of the world's biggest ray.
2. Diving at San Miguel and Ticao Islands. Only an hour’s boat ride from Donsol’s shore, get stunned with the beautiful fish and coral life. Known for great for macro encounters and overall beauty.
3. Trekking up Mt Mayon. Mt Mayon is an active volcano, famous for its perfect cone shape. Spend a day or two trekking up the majestic mountain.
4. Island Hopping – Spend a day at the beautiful white sand beach of San Miguel Island. Enjoy the day snorkelling, swimming, kayaking or just wading by the pool created by the beautiful waterfalls.
5. Firefly Watching in the evenings is a must! The Donsol River is lined with mangroves lined with trees overflowing with Fireflies. Especially on a starless and moonless night, let these Fireflies light your path.
6. Spending your early morning or late afternoon, River Kayaking down the Donsol River, is a great way to get exercise and to enjoy the creations of mother nature.
7. City/Provincial Tour – Hop into a hired vehicle and ask the driver and/or tour guide to take you cultural and historical sites in the Bicol province.
For more information, visit http://www.donsolecotour.com/.

Editor's note: Also check out how to adopt a Whale Shark.

The picture appearing on this post was made available by Jessica Noel Wong and was taken by Gutsy Tuason.

02 September, 2008

Diving in Koh Tao

Koh Tao (Turtle Island) is located off the eastern shore of the Gulf of Thailand. Not far from Koh Samui and Koh Pha Ngan. It offers some of the best diving you can hope for in the waters of the gulf and, while it offers a good selection of dive sites, in my opinion, it cannot be put in the same league of sites on the west coast. Surprisingly, or perhaps not surprisingly given the rapid development on these islands, in spite of its name, over the five days of diving in the area, we did not spot a single turtle. It ultimately all depends on the kind of diving one likes and, in my personal opinion once again, although the island in itself offers plenty opportunities for rest and relaxation, diving can be either extremely exciting or extremely boring.

The dive sites the local dive operators refer as Local Sites tend to be fairly shallow dives. Some with nice coral formations and the usual suspects swimming by. Ideal for beginners or for divers who feel most comfortable at shallower depths. We dove with Planet Scuba which, like with other operators during peak season, appeared to have a tendency to revisit a limited selection of local dive sites like Japanese Garden, Twin Rocks and Mango Bay all located on the north west side of the island thus leaving us ignorant of any other local site of which the island of Koh Tao, judging from its map, appear to be rich of. So please do bear this in mind when reading this post as I can only base my judgment and thoughts on what I was ultimately able to experience. However, I don’t mean to sound negative as, in fact, there were also some exciting dives to be had at Sail Rock, which lie at south east of Koh Tao not far from Koh Pah Ngan, and the Chumphon Pinnacle (see previous post). Given their respective locations in more open, deeper waters, both can offer a greater variety of depths and sights including caves, chimneys and sharks (grey reef, black tip, bull and the occasional whale shark). The dives we conducted at the Chumphon Pinnacle were worth the entire trip to Koh Tao as far as I am concerned and will certainly provide me with the incentive to go back again with the view to explore more of the dive sites the island has to offer.

We stayed at the Sensi Paradise Resort just off the piers at the Mae Haad Village. A very good location for divers as it is located at walking distance from all of the major dive operators offices and piers saving considerable time to and from diving excursions. A very relaxing set up with impeccable and extremely friendly service by both the local and the “imported” Burmese staff.

The entire trip was arranged through the Bangkok offices of Planet Scuba whom also have an office / dive shop in the center of Mae Haad Village in Koh Tao. They run a smooth operation and try their best to keep to their promise of keeping dive groups small and visiting sites off peak times which can make a huge difference in the quality of the experience. Their diving staff is friendly and caring, the only sour note being one member of their office staff who seemed too concerned with being paid for extras immediately, in spite of the fact that we had already booked and paid for a full 10-dive package, instead of trying to blend into the relaxed / care-free / fun attitude divers normally enjoy and look for. In any case, when seeing other dive operators boat loaded with tens of divers all heading out for the same dive sites at the same time, I was prepared to put personality issues aside and rate Planet Scuba as a good diving operation in Koh Tao.

There are two ways to reach Koh Tao. We flew with Bangkok Airways from Bangkok to Koh Samui on a 06:00 am flight to catch the 08:00 am Lomprayah high speed catamaran which put us at Koh Tao at about 10:30 am. The same operator can also be used making use of a bus service from Bangkok to Chumphon and on by ferry to Koh Tao which is a slower yet cheaper option.

All pictures shown in this post were taken by Marco Gorin whom retains copy rights.