Zip-lining Past Mt. Mayon

This picture was a serious stroke of luck! (You should try composing a shot while someone is flying past an 8000-ft volcano.) Actually, the photo would have been better if Mt. Mayon had been erupting in the background, which would have been the case if we had been here in January. Bummer, a few months too late.

Thomas Zip-Lines Past Mt. Mayon

Visitors to Legaspi, a mid-sized town in southern Luzon, should head straight for Lignon Hill, which is strangely absent from our guidebook. The view is out of this world and the inexpensive zip-line photo-op is a bargain at under $5 dollars a person. Even if zip-lining isn’t your thing, it’s a great place to sit and have a drink as you watch the clouds roll in from the Pacific and dance around what has been called the world’s most perfect volcanic cone.

Fireflies of Donsol River

After diving with the whale sharks, visitors to Donsol should check out the surreal firefly trees along the Donsol River. What makes the fireflies here unique is that they collect by the thousands into specific trees creating a pulsing, shifting bio-luminescent spectacle straight out of Avatar.

Our cameras were unable to pick up the trees in the darkness and apparently everyone else is having the same problem because I can’t find any good videos or photos on the web. So for now, you’ll have to create your own mental pictures of nature’s own Christmas trees with a thousand points of light dancing and morphing in the wind. Simply spectacular.

As if whale sharks and firefly trees weren’t enough, the river is also filled with bio-luminescent plankton which shimmers on moonless nights. Pandora is real!

The Whale Shark Encounter

Visiting the whale sharks in Donsol is easily one of the world’s most incredible wildlife adventures. Known as the “whale shark capital of the world,” for once the marketing appellation holds up. No place on the planet boasts such predictable whale shark encounters. Understandably, Donsol is the holy grail for sea life enthusiasts.

Tony with a Whale Shark

Indeed, Donsol is the entire reason we came to the Philippines. We studied whale shark sighting statistics online and scheduled our trip accordingly to coincide with the peak month of April. Diving with the dinosaur-sized sharks, the largest fish in the world, is a serious contender for the coolest thing I’ve ever done. For a wildlife freak like me, this was the ultimate pilgrimage.

Whale shark tourism is a mixed story for the sharks themselves. The power of tourist dollars has shut down Continue…

Whale Sharks of Donsol

Whale sharks are elusive creatures. You don’t just happen upon them. By 1986, there had only been 320 recorded sightings globally. With increasing research, including better tagging and counting methods, the numbers of sightings have steadily climbed, especially in the plankton-rich feeding grounds off Belize, Honduras, Western Australia and the Philippines. Today, the total number of whale sharks in the Philippines alone is estimated to be 327. Of these, 122 sharks have been identified off the coast of Donsol this season. And that’s where we spent the last week snorkeling in the bay. Unbelievable! Watch this video so you can share this amazing experience with us.

Although whale sharks ARE sharks, they don’t feed on humans but rather on plankton and small fish (which was very comforting to know). I can’t even imagine how much they must eat to get to their full size. The largest ever confirmed specimen was 12.65 metres (41.50 ft) long and weighed more than 21.5 tonnes (47,000 lb). But unconfirmed sightings of sharks up to 18 meters (59 ft) have also been reported. Well, maybe next time. By the way, the biggest whale shark we saw in Donsol was about 10 meters (32 ft) – it was like swimming next to a jumbo jet.

Manila Madness

Makati in Metro Manila

A hop, skip and a jump over the South China Sea, and suddenly, we’re in the Philippines burning up in Manila. First impressions of the city are not great. I would describe it as a tropical Los Angeles without the glam. It seems to be half sleazy bar district, half lifeless business center. Getting around the sprawling city is not as easy as in other Southeast Asian cities and I’m pretty sure the metro system shows up in urban planning text books in the chapter “Don’t let this happen to you.”

Perhaps the biggest problem is the budget accommodation situation. Prices are high and quality is seriously low. Even the Lonely Planet recommended hotel for a budget splurge had a bar on one side, a 24-hour construction site on the other and – drum roll – a serious bed bug problem. Calgon take me away! Oh wait, there’s no bathroom in my room… or air-conditioning… or cable television. Something tells me that I got a little too spoiled to mainland Southeast Asia.

On the plus side, there are plenty of air-conditioned malls to hide from the heat and even more inexpensive movie theaters to hide from the reality outside.

Am I being too tough on the city? Perhaps. I tend to love third-world mega-cities including Cairo, Mumbai, and Calcutta… I even kind of like Chongqing. Maybe my first impressions of Manila will prove to be wrong. We’ll just have to dig in a little deeper and explore the sprawl.