Art/Style/Travel Diaries

Surprise race with a butanding in Batangas

How an open-water swimmer's encounter with the gentle giant turned into an experience of the divine

Mass start of the 2024 VIP Lobo Swim Junkie Challenge

“Oh my, is that a shark?” my wife Elaine exclaimed to herself as she swam the 2.5-km race course along the pristine coastline of Lobo, Batangas. The object of her alarm appeared to be unmindful of her presence as it swam several feet below her. Looking at the creature more closely, she almost ruined her stroke rate when she realized what it was.

A butanding!  (A whale shark!)

What luck! Just the day before, Swim Junkie Challenge founder “Coach Betsy” Medalla posted on FB that when she inspected the swim course, which started and ended at Punta Malabrigo, she chanced upon a whale shark.  During the briefing in the afternoon, however, she managed the expectations of the 300 or so registered swimmers and their supporters by saying that a similar sighting during the actual race was not likely because the swimmers would probably scare it away.

So you can imagine Elaine’s surprise when she actually saw one while traversing the first 500 m of the swim course! As she gazed at the humongous sea creature, she remembered how she once had been overwhelmed by the sheer size of these gentle sea giants the first time she encountered them in Oslob, Cebu. Fortunately, her initial reaction later gave way to a sense of awe and then joy for the chance to be able to swim with these fascinating filter feeders.

“I really felt the presence of the divine at that point in the race,” she shared an insight. It was as if God was telling her, hey, this is no different from your happy experience in Oslob. Given the ideal weather conditions during the race, it was not that hard to sense Divine Providence in what was otherwise just another annual event for swimming enthusiasts.

Not surprisingly, while out there in the open sea, Elaine ended up reciting a litany of thanks for being able to pursue what used to be just a “crazy” idea to celebrate her 50th birth year. For winning that generous cash prize last December, which she used to fund her swim training, thank you, Lord. For having children who are all grown up and are fond of the beach, thank you, Lord. For—ahem—being married to a devoted husband who regularly drove her to swim class, thank you, Lord. Yup, the open water can be a place for prayer and worship, too.

And just when she thought the butanding sighting would be the sole highlight of her open water debut, the “treats” promised by the VIP Lobo Swim Challenge organizers actually showed up as if on cue. At first, there was a sprinkling of silver-colored fish to her left, and then to her right.  Moments later, she came across a school of blue, black, and yellow aquarium-type of fish hovering above the corals. A few strokes after, she trailed a couple of what she was certain were an Emperor Angelfish and a Moorish Idol.

The timing of these wondrous experiences could not have been perfect. That’s because even if Elaine trained for this big day for the past four months—often sacrificing her only chance to catch up on sleep during weekends just so she could make it to her 6:30 am class at the Swim Academy—to a first-timer, the experience of actually swimming a 2.5-km course in the open sea can be nerve-wracking! In fact, she would learn later that one of her classmates, whom she looked up to for being a more skilled swimmer, threw in the towel after only the first buoy because he found the current too strong. Good thing one of their coaches was on hand to prod him to steel his nerves and forge ahead. Happily, he went back to the water to eventually complete the race.

Elaine herself also struggled with self-doubt. While she often smiled at the compliment that, among us who tried to learn to swim at our age, it was she who had effectively solved the breathing part—by far the most difficult aspect of swim training for age groupers—she also knew she was the slowest in her batch. True enough, when she checked her watch at the halfway mark, she almost felt like giving up when she realized it took her 1 hour 30 minutes to get that far. Factoring in the currents and her average speed, she figured she probably won’t make it to the three-hour cut-off.

But perhaps emboldened by her grace-filled close encounter with the butanding, “I decided to just enjoy the rest of the swim,” she said. “I told myself that whether or not I make it to the cut-off, I would just swim one stroke at a time, and finish what I started.”  And that was exactly what she did as she took on the remainder of the VIP Lobo swim course, an eco-tourist destination, which, lest I forget to mention here, is not just your average open water swim location.

Thanks to the eye-opening talk given by the husband-and-wife team of Chips Guevara and Olympic veteran Akiko Thomson-Guevara during the race brief, we learned that Lobo is part of the Verde Island Passage (VIP) which “skirts the provinces of Batangas, Oriental and Occidental Mindoro, Romblon, and Marinduque.” In 2005, this passage was declared as the world center of marine shore fish biodiversity by the California Academy of Science. The Center for Energy, Ecology and Development asserts that the VIP “houses roughly 1,736 marine fish species, which is nearly 60 percent of the world’s shore fish species.”

Alas, given the clear and present dangers that threaten its existence—from petroleum manufacturing to plastic factories and even mining—there is a need to protect and preserve the VIP.

It is in this context that those who participate in the VIP Lobo Swim Junkie Challenge are encouraged to become “ambassadors” who could invite their family and friends to come and visit the VIP Lobo.

And so, on behalf of my grateful wife and BFF Elaine, I enjoin you, dear reader, to come to the VIP Lobo to appreciate first-hand its pebbly shoreline. Yes, it’s not your typical white sand beach variety, but it has its charm. Come see for yourself  the urgency of protecting its still clear waters and sustaining the eco-tourism livelihood of its people. And yes, come to have fun with your loved ones.

Elaine at the finish line

Coach Betsy Medalla during the race briefing

Olympic veteran Akiko Thomson-Guevara with husband and fellow VIP Lobo eco-tourism advocate Chips

Interestingly, having fun was front and center of Coach Betsy’s kudos to Elaine as she emerged from the sea to claim her finisher medal after two-and-a-half hours of freestyle swimming. “Congratulations! Did you have fun?” asked Coach Betsy.  Elaine happily replied, “Oh yes, I did!”

Looking back, she might as well have asked my open water heroine, “Did you find more than what you were looking for? Elaine’s reply would have still been spot on.

“How many are your works, Lord! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number—living things both large and small.” (Psalm 104:24-25)

About author


Von Katindoy is a graduate student and a learning and development professional.

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