Chasing “Lumbalumba” (Dolphin Watch)
Photos by Jojie Alcantara (article for SunStar Davao, June 2011)
In 2003, I wrote an article with a similar title. Today I am not rehashing the story but rather waxing nostalgic over an old amusing incident in my beautiful birthplace of Mati, Davao Oriental.
“Lumbalumba” was a term I learned in Indonesia when I worked with and marine biologists and environmentalists in 1995. During this period in my life, I stayed near a beach front in Manado, North Sulawesi, famous for its spectacular underwater sanctuary in Bunaken. I’ve seen these lovely creatures cavorting in the waters, in and around boats, while fishermen ignored them. “Lumbalumba” was how dolphins were called in Filipino, Indonesian and Malay dialect.
My fascination began when I got a book, “A Field Guide to Whales and Dolphins in the Philippines” by Jose Ma. Lorenzo Tan of WWF Philippines (I got to meet this cool guy too). I started painting dolphins and aquatic creatures on shirts. This was how I got familiar with their shapes and characteristics. According to Lory Tan, whales and dolphins have been known in Philippine waters for a very long time.
In the classic tale Moby Dick, Captain Ahab and his crew sail through the Philippine Islands in search of the great white whale. Whales and dolphins are seen regularly in deep waters around Visayas and Mindanao, Sulu Sea, Northern Palawan, and Balintang and Bashi Channels in Batanes. Often found in very deep waters, the chances of seeing a whale or dolphin are best when the seas are flat and calm. Whale and dolphin sightings have been recorded around Davao Gulf, near Samal, Mati and General Santos, and were documented in Tan’s illustrative book (how I wish I can join him in an expedition someday).
Flashback in 2003, Mayor Francisco Rabat’s chief of staff Richard Villacorte excitedly texted me about “riding in the open sea off Tambak when a school of thirty dolphins danced and played in the waters for twelve minutes!” So engrossed were they that they just clapped and laughed at the wonderful sight, forgetting to use cameras.
So I joined the next trip with the ABS-CBN Davao crew for a documentation on the “Tarsier trek and Dolphin watch in Mati” for then popular telemagazine Mindanow. Riding a small boat and moving towards deep Philippine waters, my team was composed of Mayor Rabat’s staff, Tourism and DENR officers, the TV crew, and Rhonson Ng, DOT XI’s chief photographer. How we managed to fit in a small banca I have no idea. We were packed like sardines in a diminutive boat, tied to a “katig” floating in the middle of the deep blue, keeping watch while we grilled fish, drank Tanduay, and a few snored to sleep (like me).
At noontime, skies darkened and waves grew choppier, tossing our boat around impatiently. Agitated seas and high winds caused foamy white waves from afar, and we decided to take cover near the coast. We tucked our cameras safely in plastic bags. High winds tore at us as we clutched at the railings. Everyone was wet, but remained surprisingly calm. Except for the boatman, who was shrieking, “Don’t panic! Don’t panic!” all by himself, as our sail was suddenly ripped off by strong winds. We were bobbing up and down the seas without a sail for an hour or so, resigned that we may capsize anytime.
At that time, the infamous Typhoon Harurot was in Manila, its residue swept across Mindanao, and rendered Mati in a flood. That ended our dolphin chase. In my next trip, I was able to witness a pod frolicking around Pujada Bay, but my camera wasn’t with me.
According to a survey of marine mammals in March 2004 by a technical team of the Department of Agriculture-Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (DA/BFAR Region 11), Save Davao Gulf Foundation, and WWF-Philippines, reports confirmed the presence of at least ten whale and dolphin species in the Davao Gulf: sperm whale, dwarf sperm whale, Fraser’s dolphin, Risso’s dolphin, short-finned pilot whale, killer whale, long-snouted spinner dolphin, Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin, Cuvier’s beaked whale, and the least known of all marine mammals, the Indo-Pacific beaked whale (Indopacetus pacificus). The article announced that the 650,000-hectare marine area is one of the country’s top diversity sites for whales and dolphins, as well as known habitat for dugongs, sea turtles, and sharks. The findings recognized the importance of the seas around Davao provinces (including mangroves, coral reefs and sea grass) as a significant area for biodiversity conservation, livelihood and sanctuary.
Fast forward today, after eight years. It is of no coincidence that Richard, now City Administrator to Mayor Michelle Rabat, thought of going dolphin watching with me in a smaller boat, because he now has gained an insight from fisherfolks of the routes these mammals take daily. Feeding time was off the coast of Mayo, before the pod would swim around and towards open waters. So we charted their course, and hoped to witness at least a few. Jun Plaza, the Amihan Boys’ mentor and active campaigner for the turtles, accompanied us.
Preliminary dolphin expeditions initiated by the LGU produced irregular reports of sightings: a couple would show up, other times by an overwhelming number, and sometimes none at all. The idea of a package tour is conceivable once the routes are familiarized, so plans are still underway for this potential tourist attraction.
At early 5am, we sailed off into Dahican waters in a tiny banca before sunrise. About an hour or so, the first dolphin showed up, then another. The boat’s engine was shut off so we stayed silently bobbing for a while. Not a fin showed up again. Soon a bigger boat came to fetch us with the captain announcing he just passed by a large number cavorting nearby a few minutes ago. The chase continued.
It was a remarkable day for us. We ended up coming across different species, ones I have to look up on my field guide book again. Normally, the long-snouted Spinner and bottlenose dolphins were the most familiar ones the locals would see, but for them the new pod was unfamiliar, shiny black or dark gray in color, bigger and slower than the usual spirited and bouncy ones. They were around us, fins protruding, and disappearing underneath our boats (my wild guess is that they are short finned pilot whales, but judging from the varied fin shapes there could be a mixed pod of sorts). I gave Richard my other small camera to use, and he inadvertently filmed the dolphins while the lens cap was still on (later, I would be listening to an audio of jubilant shouts and laughter with the monitor in pitch black).
It was exhilarating to be riding across huge waves where the undulating rise and fall of a coaster ride lull you more to sleep rather than shake you roughly. Still after sunrise, the sea was calmer. We were now heading off towards the tip of the Dahican peninsula, as suggested by Richard on the off chance that a resident whale will show up.
We passed by beautiful rock formations along Bobon and a portion of Lawigan, awed at twin black rocks where a profusion of wild pygmy trees are thriving and rendering the whole panorama as surreal as I wanted to capture them. Jutting cliffs marked the end of our trip where a lighthouse stood prominently on a lush precipice, while fishing boats scattered around. We turned back to Dahican beach where breakfast awaited. Three hours, several pods, one exciting boat trip, and a video filmed with a lens cover -- not bad at all.
This special trip coincided with the culmination of the 8th Pujada Bay Festival, created to intensify awareness of Pujada Bay’s significance in the progress and recognition of Mati, which is proudly celebrating its 4th cityhood day at the same time.
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