I swam with sharks—the real creatures, not the Hollywood variety, for a change—in Oslob, Cebu.
And it was one of the most thrilling experiences I’ve ever had. I’ve been itching to write about my morning spent with whale sharks—which are the largest fish in the world, with some growing as big as a school bus—as part of my homecoming to the Philippines this year.
I am glad to finally have the time to write about my trip home, which reminded me that my country of birth truly is one of the most fun, beautiful countries to visit.
The highlight of the trip was seeing up close the butanding (whale shark in Tagalog). It was hard to wake up and leave the cozy confines of Cebu Parklane International Hotel at the ungodly hour of 4 in the morning for the drive to the southern tip of scenic Cebu island. But it was worth it.
Upon arrival just after sunrise in Oslob, our group went through a quick briefing. No touching nor riding the sharks, always keep at least 1.8 meters (6 feet) distance from the sharks, no sunscreen on our skin to keep the water pollutant-free and no flash photography. After boarding an outrigger boat, I thought it would be a long ride, but the boat stopped at only about 45.72 m (150 ft) from the shore. Suddenly, I saw several of these magnificent creatures swimming languidly in the water.
Wearing a mask and snorkel, we jumped into the water and got instantly transported into the quiet, spellbinding world of these gentle giants. They may weigh tons, but they swim gracefully or keep still at a 45-degree angle for a minute or two. It was hypnotic just admiring these humongous grey fishes with white bellies.
The popularity of the whale shark tours has stirred controversy about the daily expeditions’ environmental impact and how feeding the giant beasts (they are fed thawed shrimp) makes them dependent on these handouts.
Cebu Provincial Tourism officer Joselito “Boboi” Costas took the initial steps toward addressing these issues.
“The Oslob Whale Shark Tourism Technical Working Group created by the Cebu Provincial Government has recommended to reduce the daily number of visitors to 800,” he said. “The decision is grounded on the principles of sustainable tourism where every stakeholder benefits from tourism. Our decision is science-based.”
You can’t top that unforgettable swim with the giant beasts that have been around for 60 million years and survived from the last days of the dinosaurs. But a visit to Tumalog Falls, just a few minutes’ drive away, was a nice way to wind down.
We hiked down, instead of riding on motorbikes. Our reward after the steep descent is the majestic sight of clear water cascading from a cliff and a gentle mist that cooled us off. We walked into the shallow basin at the foot of the falls and looked up at the cool water that seems to flow from the sky, made more breathtaking by the trees all around us. Lunch in a hut that sits over a brook where water from the falls gently spills was the perfect way to cap our trip to Oslob.
We spent the night at Marco Polo Plaza Cebu, our home away from home whenever we are in the Queen City of the South.
Earlier in our annual trek to Cebu, we would have been perfectly content to de-stress and laze around all day at Kandaya Resort, a luxurious haven in Daanbantayan. The van ride from Mactan Cebu International Airport started in the urban bustle, then eventually led to rolling hills of farms and forests that was relaxing by itself, a precursor to the chill vibe that awaited us at Kandaya.
A golf cart took us to a beautiful beach villa, one of several that face the Visayan sea, and which comes with its own pool and a garden facing the bathroom.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner found us at Kandaya’s Kusina restaurant, a culinary haven with its outsize fishing baskets cocooning diners. Some of the fruits, vegetables and herbs used in the dishes come from the garden right beside Kusina. One lovely afternoon featured a program of native dances by members of the resort staff.
In addition to the villas dotting this luxury resort, there are rooms, including ocean-view suites that face the main pool. We are usually on a harried schedule. So for once, we subscribed to the growing popularity of idleness as a virtue. There’s such a book, “On Doing Nothing,” which touts “idleness as a technique for increasing output.”
Lovely Palawan island
As part of our, um, research on the benefits of “doing nothing” in improving our creativity, we flew to Palawan. Director Dante Nico Garcia, a proud son of the equally lovely island, met us. With Dante’s adopted brother Rhoping Agnas on the wheel, we finally got to visit San Vicente, which has always attracted our curiosity because it is often touted as having the “longest white sand beach in the Philippines.”
True enough, San Vicente has miles and miles (almost nine) of pristine beach. It reminded me of our first visit to Boracay in the early 1980s before crazy development took over.
Waking up one morning, I strolled on the beach and enjoyed my solitude. There was not a single soul to be seen for miles. Until “traffic” came: the carabao-drawn cart of a farmer who plucked coconuts from a tree. I was definitely not on the 101 (Hollywood Freeway), I thought with a smile.
We stayed at Club Agutaya, a resort where the chorus of frogs in the garden was relaxing, part of San Vicente’s unspoiled, rustic charm. We swam in the rain—there was child-like joy in that.
There’s a master plan supposedly in place to make sure San Vicente strikes a balance between development and respect for nature. Dante shared that a planned village, Kota San Vicente, intends to do just that—a haven for artists atop a hill that overlooks breathtaking Long Beach.
This future home of the Palawan International Film Festival (held annually in April) served as a gorgeous setting for a scene with Sylvia Sanchez and Nonie Buencamino in Jeffrey Jeturian’s TV drama series, “Ningning.”
On our Air Juan flight out of San Vicente’s spanking new airport, we were the only passengers in the turboprop aircraft, so we felt like adventurers on a chartered plane as we marveled at Palawan’s stunning islands and beaches. All our other flights around the Philippines were via Cebu Pacific Air whose friendly yellow and blue-uniformed crew always made us feel truly home.
This columnist who was born and raised in Pangasinan has one confession to make—I never went to the province’s most famous attraction, the Hundred Islands. So on this trip, I made sure to finally visit the Philippines’ first national park, which actually has 123 islands and islets; One-hundred twenty-four when it is low tide, the residents of Alaminos City like to say.
With our own tour guide on a rented boat, we toured the islands at our pace. A swim, then a leisurely lunch at Quezon Island before we explored the other major islands made for a perfect day in my home province. We spent our long dinners at the Maxine By the Sea restaurant on the Lucap Wharf.
Fr. Robert “Bobby” Casaclang recommended a comfortable place to stay in, the Sea Urchin Hotel.
Feeling recharged from “doing nothing,” we headed back to the jungles of Metro Manila where our sanctuary is Discovery Primea Makati, which can compare with some of the best hotels we’ve stayed in around the world.
Of course, what made these trips extra special are the old friends we see again and the new ones we make along the way. These folks—and all the lovely places we visited—make us anticipate with excitement our next homecomings.
Back in Los Angeles, I find myself looking, every now and then, at photos of this year’s Philippine trip on my iPhone. The Kandaya Resort pictures make me fantasize that someday, I will go back there and write my memoirs of swimming with Hollywood sharks—both the benevolent and savage kind.