Monday, March 28, 2011

Whale Sharks in Donsol

I saw whale sharks!!!  5 of them!  A whale shark, to me, is one of those animals that you are not sure if you will ever see in your lifetime but if you ever do it would be one of the best most wonderful experiences.  And it was.  Whale sharks come to an area of the Philippines near the small town of Donsol on the island of Luzon.  There are very few places in the world like this where they come every year to a place where they are so easily assessable.  And this happens to be the right season for them.  I couldn't justify going any where else in the Philippines for any other reason for a least a day or two of our last few days here.  So this is how the experience went... We flew into the city of Legazpi (which by the way is a no smoking city- you can't be caught smoking on the streets-I thought that was great!) and you take a bus, minivan, or taxi to the town of Donsol.  We took a Taxi because we were traveling with Emma and Chris and could split the cost four ways, and to splurge a bit.  It costs 800 pesos, so about $4.50 each.  Doesn't seem like much of a splurge now that I'm writing it. We got into Donsol, found a guesthouse and decided it was too late to head to the visitor center.  The next morning by 7:30 we were headed that way.  You pay a fee to rent the snorkel gear, then a marine park fee, then you pay for a boat, split 6 ways.  All in all the cost is about $20.  We found another couple to share the boat with to keep the cost down.  A man from Clarksville, TN, which we both found funny, small world, and his very nice Filipino wife.  Not the creepy old man with a little girl kind of situation that abounds here, but a very nice same age couple.  After a short video from the World Wildlife Fund about how to treat the animals to not harm them we got on the boat with our guide Jerry and headed the short distance to all the other boats already out there.  It was a huge adrenaline rush!.  As soon as Jerry said it was time to get in you had to have your fins and snorkel on and be in the water.  We jumped in under the outrigger and glided quickly from under the boat.  We swam our legs off trying to follow Jerry, because we knew he knows exactly were we would encounter the big fish.  The moment had come!  I saw a giant mouth within a meter or 2 of me.  I had to get out of the way of this gentle giant! 

Then it was just swimming over him following his every whim unless it took him down to the depths.  He (they are he's here, young bucks there for the plankton) didn't seem to mind at all 6 people swimming with him occasionally diving down to take a closer look at his beautiful poke-a-dotted skin or his sweet little eyes.  After he decided to swim down where we could no longer see him we climbed back on the boat to wait.  A "spotter" sits on a high part of the boat to keep a look out for them.  So every time we hear its time to go we geared up and were in the water within seconds.  It was so wonderful being so close to them.  They are magnificent and so huge!  I have never swam next to something so big.  Their heads alone are the size of a king sized bed.  They have these tiny eyes compared to there big bodies.  At times I was totally taken aback by it all.  What if he decided he didn't like us swimming with him and he got mad.  All he had to do was give one flick of his giant tail and he could inflict some serious injuries.  It is a really good thing they are so docile and sweet.  It seems a bit fleeting now, only 3 hours with them, when the locals get to seem them everyday!  So lucky!  This was a wonderful experience and I am so glad to be sharing with you!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The rest of Malapascua Island

We have already left Malapascua, but there is still so much to tell about it.  It was a bitter sweet leaving with some excitement about traveling again and some sadness leaving the tiny island behind.  We really grew to love the locals and understand their ways better the longer we were there.  We loved all the children.  Even the smallest ones always said Hello with so much enthusiasm.  Many people knew our name even though they had never met us or spoken with us.  We loved the bakeries!  The ladies were always so nice and it was a great way to eat a cheap breakfast or snack.  We even had our own pup on the island.  It was a very sweet small brown dog with beautiful facial markings.  She found Jeff one night when he was walking to dinner.  She was trying to herd him, nipping at his heels and running in front of him.  When he found me at the restaurant she was in tow.  I gave her a long pet before our food came.  She followed us down the beach on our way home, but when we left the beach she stayed behind.  Almost every single day we made a point to go to the beach and find our sweet pup.  She would see us and start running to us.  I loved that sight so much!  She would lean into one of us and just cuddle until it was time to go.  

Low tide was a great time to go to the village beach and find the locals out looking for dinner.  They gathered the hermit crabs and shell fish in buckets.  The kids would go out just to play with whatever they found.  One kid we saw was torturing these giant slug things and making them spit out ink.  Another group of boys was scooping up the tiny fish in schools and separating them.  Don't know why.  Jeff says its because they are little boys.  We finally found some time on the last night to go out and play too.  

The cemetery on the island was very very strange.  They have tombs stacked one on top of the other, you would think to avoid flooding bringing up bodies, but apparently that has failed.  Bones can be found coming out of some of the crypts.  A room at the back of the cemetery with a skull and "Do Not Enter" painted on the door houses all the bones that have come out of their crypts and been gathered in a big heap along with some trash.  It was odd that no one took care enough to keep it clean.  But of course my morbid curiosity gets the best of me and I had to poke around.

We also found a very sweet baby monkey on the island.  It was a pet who had been put in a tree on a rope next to a restaurant half way up the island.  Because he was so far from our main base we only got to visit him a few times.  It wasn't until the end that I worked up the courage to get close enough to see what he would do (bite me, run, or jump on me).  He immediately jumped into my arms and snuggled in.  It was really hard getting him to go back to his tree.  You could tell he was taken from his mom way too early.  He couldn't get enough cuddling.  I was holding him and Jeff came to stand beside me.  The monkey took his sweet little finger and started to pick bits of sand off of Jeff's face.  It was really sweet!  

The food on the island was hit or miss at first but we learned quickly the good places to go and stuck to them the entire time.  A place called Ging Ging's was one of our main staples apart from our own dive shop that has pretty good food, but a bit pricey.  Ging Ging's had about 8 young girls as waitresses who always wore matching outfits.  They get to know the people staying a long time and we give them a big sum of money and get our name in a book.  This way we never had to carry cash, just come, eat, then deduct the amount written in the book.  They had lovely pancakes and really good chicken curry and pork sizzling plates.  When we wanted a real treat though we went to a restaurant called Isla Bonita that had some of the best pizza I think I've ever had and really good pasta.  The waiter there was super nice which always made it even more enjoyable.  I do miss certain things from home like broccoli and hamburgers, but I was happy to find some good food on the island.

We will miss our landlady, Teresa, dearly.  The day before we left she came around waking us all up at 7:45a.m. because she had made us breakfast as our going away meal.  We had rice, noodles with egg, corned beef, and egg rolls.  Not exactly what I am used to for breakfast , but I was so grateful.  She told us a bit more about herself as we ate.  She said they had started out really poor as fisherman.  She said she just got fed up with living like that and saved up 800 pesos (around $18) and started a store selling vegetables out of the front of her house. She has been relatively successful at it for the last 15 years.  She said she had to stop giving the other villagers credit because they never paid her back, but she said she never held a grudge about it because she understands what it can be like.  I think the world of this lady and feel so fortunate to have lived in her home.  

The biggest outcome of being in Malapascua is that I am now a Dive Master!  It was a long and hard road sometimes, but at the end it feels worth it.  We went through the course side by side with a British guy and a Swedish girl who had met while traveling.  We easily bonded with them and they are the reason we were able to move to Teresa's house.  Chris is a fun loving funny guy who was often shirtless and who finds it hard to concentrate and tends to interrupt during class, but he made the whole thing far more enjoyable than it would have been. Emma, his lovely girlfriend, was so so sweet and a breath of normalcy in a group of what seemed to me like strange people.  We all four got banned from doing the shark dive for 2 days after Jeff forgot his weight belt, an important part of diving (you can't go down without it), and Chris swam away from the group.  Two very small things that got the whole lot of us banned.  It is not uncommon to be banned from this site, but I certainly never thought I would!  It's important, more than ever, on this site that you follow all the rules because of the shyness of the thresher sharks.  Emma and I, however, had done absolutely nothing wrong but got banned anyhow.  We of course didn't just take our punishment but put up a bit of a fuss.  This got lots of people mad but brought us 4 closer.  Eventually after some talks and apologizing everything was sorted out.  I do feel like I got a good education, but I also know that I learn better in a nurturing environment and this was not always that.  But it is over now, and we all four are now traveling for a few days together having a lovely time!
                                     Jeff, Kristen, Alex (one of our instructors), Emma and Chris

                                            The Dive Shop (Jeff and Chris are sitting out front)

                                           The Beach outside the shop where we left from
                                           everyday to dive.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Muck Diving

It sounds awful.  I thought so too before I'd done it, but is absolutely thrilling.  Muck Diving is basically diving along or around a barren sea floor (as opposed to a coral reef) where your main focus is all the weird little creatures that make their home in the sand (and mud in some instances).  Several of the dives I have done on a regular bases here include an area of muck diving.  My favorite is called Bantigue, where I have had one of the best dives of my short diving career and where I have seen the most interesting things. My absolute favorite thing to spot is a frog fish.  They are so cute!  They usually are very hard to find and even harder to spot.  Once I sat and stared at one for awhile not sure if it was a rock or a fish, I later was told it was a frog fish. While on a dive at Bantigue I found my first one all by myself.  He was a white one nestled in some fishing debris just being cute.  Another time while assisting an instructor on an Open Water course, which is the first class you take when you want to become a diver, a big orange one just came bumbling by.  It was so funny to watch him with his short front legs just bopping along the sand in a very haphazard way trying to make it to his new hiding spot.  I had a hard time focusing on the student with him walking past!

Another very frequent site while muck diving is nudi branches.  The best way to describe them is a very colorful and small slug.  I have seen beautiful bright purple ones, blue ones with orange stripes, black ones with green and orange, and so many more.  Some are bumpy some are long with strange spouts coming out of their heads, others are just small and simple with two eyes that come in and out of their heads as they walk, just like a slugs.  I think SE Asia is where they reside because I have never seen them anywhere else.  Or maybe I wasn't looking close enough.  

Another really crazy and neat critter I've seen is the Spiny Devil Fish.  They are poisonous and very small.  If you could hold them, the ones I've seen would fit in the palm of your hand.  I just love how them blend in and look so messy and grumpy!

The sea moth was one of the very first really exotic, totally different creature I saw here and I immediately thought it looked like a wounded baby bird and fell in love with it.  I often do a morning shark dive and there is a certain spot where one of these little guys always is.  I love going to look for him and finding him still within his 5 by 5 meter area just putting around.  He scoots along the sea bottom with no obvious destination just as cute as can be. 

I see so many beautiful tropical fish in the reefs, but I really do love finding all these animals.  Its like a treasure hunt and you get the prize almost every time.

(FYI... I didn't take any of these photos.  I don't carry a camera while diving so I rely on the internet or others.  So thanks to everyone who does take a camera!)

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Sabrina, Karen, & Laura

I finally got a chance to sit and read my friend Laura's blog. Her and her husband recently adopted a little girl from Korea.  I also recently received emails from my friends Karen and Sabrina when they found out the gender of their baby's.  I feel totally overwhelmed with happiness for all three of my dear friends and I want to share it.  It is so special to be blessed with a new little soul that you get to be responsible for and love and I know that these three ladies will be absolutely wonderful mothers and I am so proud of them.  I was sitting here at the internet cafe in the Philippines crying reading Laura's blog about little Olivia who arrived only a few short weeks ago.  I just knew Olivia was meant for her and John as I read each word.  They seem like the sweetest family and I am amazed at how fast she seems to be adapting.  Karen and Sabrina are getting to go through the adventure of pregnancy and are doing it with such excitement and class. They both seem to really relish each new development with their growing belly's.  I have always loved children and am excited to one day have my own.  You ladies make it look even more wonderful!  Thank you for sharing your experiences with me even from across the world.  I love you guys!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Malapascua Island (Philippines)

We arrived in the Philippines to a significant weather and culture change.  All those summer clothes I'd been lugging around I am now putting to use.  We immediately had to deal with swindlers and being lied to as soon as we flew into Manila.  Our taxi driver somehow talked us in to over paying him despite our best efforts to avoid scams.  They use tons of little tricks.  They tell you the meter hasn't been calibrated so its wrong and you owe more (one that didn't work on us) or they may even have a print out telling you a higher price when the meter clearly shows a lower price (we failed miserably on this one).  We spent one night in Manila then got on a plane to Cebu Island to then head straight to Malapascua Island where we are doing our Dive Master training.  The journey getting here involved a taxi to a bus terminal where we were asked several times if we wanted him to take us all the way to the ferry for the low price of 3,000 pesos.  We opted for the 100 peso bus ride which is about $2.50.  When we got to the ferry there were about 10 other travelers waiting to get on a boat.  We noticed immediately the frustration amongst them all.  They had been passed up a few times while locals boarded boats and left.  We only had to wait a half hour til we left, mostly due to everyone else complaining of having to wait an hour and a half.  So thank you to them.

Malapascua is a very small island that you can easily walk around in an hour or two.  There are a handful of villages spread across it but our main hub is the southern end of the island were there is a beach lined with restaurants and dive shops.  The closest village, called "The Village", clever huh?, is where there are various shops and a couple of  internet cafes.  We stayed at BB's Lodge for the first 8 nights which cost roughly $12 a night.  It had huge spiders, tons of mosquitoes, and rodents, which we never saw, but they left their poop behind as evidence.  It was open at the top where the thatched walls met the tin roof so the critters had free reign and came and went as they pleased.  It was incredibly noisy at night. Barking dogs, rain, karaoke (a love of the natives, and humorous to me), and the disco made it hard to sleep at night.  The shower only dripped so we were left using a bucket to shower and there was no toilet seat so I'll let you imagine how hard it was going to the bathroom...  I'm not sure why we stayed so long, but the important part is we are now very happy and comfortable in our new place.  Two other DMT's (Dive Master Trainees) told us about a lady in the village that rents rooms out.  They told us she left out bananas, tea, and hot water everyday and was really nice.  We were sold.  She only charges $4 a night and we get to live with the locals.  Teresa, our landlady, is beyond sweet.  She is always checking on us and gives us free access to her kitchen if we need a plate, cup, or whatever.  She has a maid that cleans our room once a week and does our laundry which is so so nice.  The room itself is a bit warm, but it's neat, clean, bright feel makes it worth it.  One night at around 10pm I was starving and couldn't sleep so I quietly got out of bed to see if anyone in the village was still awake at one of the shops.  I went out and found some yummy peanut butter crackers to fix my hunger.  When I got back I sat in our common area to eat and Teresa came out to make sure I was okay and to offer me food.  This is most of the reason I love staying at her house.  Its like staying at an aunt or grandma's house.  I love it!  

A day in my life here goes like this.  I get up, sometimes as early as 4:30 or 5:00am, eat a quick breakfast of oatmeal or bread,  head to the dive shop, pack my box full of all the gear needed to dive, then I get on a little boat which takes me to a big boat.  If I am on the early morning dive we are looking for Thresher Sharks, which the island is known for.  We take a 15 minute boat ride out, jump in the water at around sunrise, then sink down to a shoal (a sunken island) that rests at about 22 meters below the surface.  Then we usually wait, and wait in hopes of catching a glimpse of this beautiful fish.  I have seen it twice now and Jeff 3 times.  They have really long tails that they use to hunt little fish.  We are way too big to be food.  It is so wonderful to see them after getting up early day after day.  

We also see big devil rays and sometimes manta rays flying by.  After this dive we go back to the shop and if we are hungry we eat or study then go on another dive.  Then its back for lunch, then another dive, then more studying.  So basically our day is filled to the brim with diving and studying.  I now have 50 dives so I am further along in the process.  Now we are doing more underwater workshops were we learn things like search and recovery, finding a lost object on the sea floor, and deep dive planning.  There is so much to learn and pack in our heads.  We have skill circuits sometimes where we are graded on how well we can perform certain skills like taking off and putting back on your mask underwater.  This particular skill happens to be my personal nemesis.  The first time I was supposed to do it I panicked and refused.  I wanted to cry, but found that difficult underwater.  One of the instructors had to take me out on my own to practice.  Now I do it beautifully, or at least I think so.  We have also started assisting instructors with classes.  I helped one of my favorite instructors with an Advanced Open Water course (what I did in Honduras).  The girl's name was Anna.  I had to make sure she set up her equipment right then help her if she had in problems in the water.  It was fun, and I really liked her!  Eventually I will lead dives, but that's not until closer to the end of the course.

I am learning a lot but in all fairness it has been a bit difficult here.  I have gotten so angry and frustrated on more than one occasion.  To the point that I wanted to leave.  I am going to stick it out because I owe that to myself and to my wallet, but I anticipate more frustration to come.  Sometimes the people we work with have horrible attitudes which totally affects my morale (I'm working on not letting it), then the next day they are really nice.  I am not only getting a lesson in diving here, but a lesson in dealing with difficult people.  2 for 1 :)  I do really love the diving and I know I am very fortunate to be doing this.  I just have to try to keep that thought in my head when it gets tough.  More later when there is more to tell......

 This is the mandarin fish.  I think it is one of the most beautiful I've seen here.  We go on night dives to watch them mating.  Its amazing!