Ode to the gentle sea-oaf

Original lyrics in Bikolano, as written by Carol Bello of Pinikpikan (now Kalayo):

dakula na isda

diin ka

gusto kitang mahiling

butanding, butanding

tahanan mo ang buong dagat

animo ika’y nakangiti

banayad

di makupad

dakula na isda

iye

umaawit ang puso ko

tuwing

makadaupang palad

mo ako

And my own meager translation in English:

O great fish

where are you

i seek you

butanding, butanding

the entire ocean is your home

there you are, smiling

gentle but not weak

oh great fish 

my soul sings

each time

you cross my path

So, more good stuff from Sorsogon, yes.

Butanding (Rhincodon typus) is the native name for the whale shark, which thrives in the waters of Donsol, Sorsogon.  The name, as affectionate and cajoling as it sounds, was born from a phrase of annoyance and exasperation. Buta, meaning blind in the native Bikol tongue, was the initial impression of local fisherfolk who would find their nets and fixtures ruined by the massive fish. To be specific, the expression would usually go like, “Butan-ding ini!”, which simply translates to, “This blind $%@! aargh!” And naturally, a massive fish (the largest recorded at 20 metres long) with a massive mouth (measuring up to 1.5 metres) with a seemingly destructive nature could only be perceived as deadly, carnivorous and as dangerous as JAWS. But, after more careful study by marine biologists and conservation groups, the verdict was that this giant sea-pest is in fact, a non-aggressive fish with a picky appetite only for microscopic sea organisms like krill and plankton. Like this guy:

Since then, efforts have been in progress to educate locals (and tourists) about the nature and proper treatment of this mild mannered oaf of a fish. It is, indeed, classified as fish and not a whale. With this, the quiet obscure town of Donsol turned into a tourist sensation overnight, offering seasonal whale shark tour events and packages and whatnot. The IUCN still includes it in its Red List of Threatened Species with a rating of Vulnerable.

Nonetheless, I can only imagine how overwhelming the experience of swimming close to this creature must be like. I missed a chance this last time I was in Sorsogon, as the roads to Donsol were simply un-passable and we had not the luxury of time. But, I do like to believe that there is a right time for everything and seriously hope to be ready when the time comes, if it comes. Various accounts of close encounters with the butanding have been honestly and seriously described as beyond overwhelming—to the point of existential and metaphysical. One of my superiors and mentors cites his experience of being underwater with the massive fish as the most humbling and overwhelming moment in his entire life (which has been a long and fruitful one), further describing that moment as immensely peaceful and calm, and if he were to die at that very moment he felt ready and knew he would happily.

The song above, by one of the more ingenious music bands in the Philippines, depicts this humbling feeling and existential experience. An excerpt from the artist’s description and story of the song:

“[…] A gentleness that goes beyond understanding seeps through every pore of my skin. Up the boat and I feel one with the wind. The sky so clear, I hear myself breathing. I can die at that moment and not know fear. One of nature, not apart or above. Natural high. Total meditative state. Each one content with life. Every time we perform this song, we relive the commune with the butanding.” 

And if that experience is not beautiful, I don’t know what is.

And, if you love scientific illustrations like I do, you can knock your socks off on this Tumblr blog. While I’m at it, here are all their whale shark illustrations. Enjoy.

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