by Michelle Dayrit- Soliven*
I had never known the joys of the ocean until I came across a man so at ease with the earth’s most awesome sea creatures. His persistence led me to a deeply moving encounter that gave me a richer appreciation of the gifts of God to Mother Nature. I arrived with a fearful heart and left with an electrified spirit, courtesy of our newfound family friend, a man named Omar.
God equips His children with specific talents and abilities in order to pursue their purpose in life. It is therefore no coincidence that Omar Nepomuceno was born in the seaside town of Donsol in Sorsogon, a blessed haven where the world’s largest concentration of butandings (whale sharks) abound.
A strong self-taught swimmer, Omar’s fondest childhood memory is that of his grandfather Isidoro taking two styrofoam ice chest covers used in his ice candy business. Using rope made of straw, he securely tied one onto his grandson’s back, the other onto his stomach. Then he would say to his apo: “O, sige na hijo, maligo ka na.”
His parents Rosalina and Isidoro Jr. watched over their fearless little son joyfully swimming around the river.
He describes himself as “taong dagat” because he adores, protects and
respects the ocean and everything in it. Omar completed a Marine Engineering course at Mariners Polytechnic Colleges Foundation in Legaspi City. When the Department of Tourism and the WWF conducted training for butanding interaction officers (BIOs) in Donsol, Omar emerged on top of his class. He loves butandings and he loves his job with a passion!
I felt this when I met Omar last month in Donsol. I had been hearing his name from my younger sea-loving sisters Yvonne and Christine who had gone several times before me. For a very safe and enjoyable experience, they highly recommend Omar as my guide. Indeed they were right, but I experienced much more than they prepared me for.
All butanding encounters are different and everyone has his or her own story to tell. Mine began on the morning of March 27.
Incidentally, we were in Sorsogon the day before to attend the first graduation rites of The Divine Healer Learning Center. This is a school that provides quality education for underprivileged but deserving students founded by Father Gerard.
It was a perfect day. Clear blue skies and glorious sunshine accompanied us on the scenic drive to Donsol. Upon our arrival on Vitton Beach, we received an enthusiastic welcome from a man named Omar, introduced as our BIO. He accompanied us to watch the orientation video in the registration office. “So it is you my sisters were talking about,” I told him as we walked into the boat and set off into the azure waters of the bay.
He asked if we had with us some snorkeling gear. My son and husband nodded and showed it to him. He checked on them and seemed satisfied. Then he looked at me. The moment I dreaded came and I felt I just had to tell him: “Omar, there is something you need to know. I have never ever in my life used a mask and snorkel. This will be my very first time.” Instinctively he probably felt the fear I had because he immediately assured me that it was very easy. “Kaya mo yan, ma’am. Don’t worry, I will teach you now,” he told me.
He put the mask over my face and adjusted it comfortably. Then he gently inserted the snorkel into my mouth and showed me how to breathe. “Now, remember, do not worry. When I say jump, just jump in and hold on to me when you get into the water,” he said. I nodded, trying to keep a brave front. Suddenly, I heard the boatman pointing and excitedly saying: “Ayan na! Nandyan na yung butanding.”
I froze in fear! So soon! My sisters told me that they had to wait an hour or two to find a whale shark. I thought I would have more time to get used to the use of a mask and snorkel. They stopped the boat. I watched in horror as my hubby and my son jumped in. Omar was looking at me. “Ma’am, it’s time to jump. Let’s go!” I panicked! My heart was pounding as I hoisted myself unsteadily onto the edge of the boat. I was shaking while the boat bobbed up and down. I fought to keep my balance. Like a rag doll I was awkwardly teetering back and forth, so afraid to hit the water and almost fell back into the boat instead. I was trying to open my mouth to say, “I’m backing out! I changed my mind! I cant do this!” Suddenly I felt Omar’s strong hand taking mine as he jumped in pulling me into the water with him.
I wanted to scream but the snorkel was in my mouth. I closed my eyes. Terror gripped me as we hit the water. But I heard Omar saying, “Ma’am relax ka lang. Just hold on to me and do not be afraid.” He readjusted my mask and snorkel and said, “Ready? Let’s go!” He held my hand firmly and swam away, not giving me time to think.
“Look down,” Omar told me. “Just put your head down.” I obeyed… put my head down. And opened my eyes… and gasped! The sun’s rays penetrated the waters revealing a humongous blue gray figure with round white spots swimming gracefully beneath me. I was right smack on top of the butanding and the water was so clear I could see it breathing. Omar swam and supported my elbow lightly so that I could interact with this gentle being. As the silence enveloped me under water, a sudden peace pervaded my soul. I felt a deep spiritual connection between the whale shark and Omar as we all swam together side by side, basking in joyous tranquility.
It was a successful conspiracy. These two soul mates (Omar and the whale shark) sensed my fear of the sun and the ocean kept me with them for a blissful 30 minutes, emptying me of all my fears.
That was only the first of the six butandings I would encounter that day. We all emerged triumphant and invigorated. Omar was elated. BIO Florante Trinidad did such a good job with Lucy Lee’s new underwater camera that we each had a video of our interaction with these colossal yet amiable beings.
We then enjoyed a sumptuous lunch courtesy of Sorsogon’s very gracious Gov. Sally Lee. Over succulent seafood and the best ginataang langka, Omar shared his stories.
Very protective and caring in nature, Omar wants his visitors to make the most of the time and money they spend to come to Donsol. “I want everyone to be comfortable in the water and go home with wonderful stories to tell.”
His most unforgettable experience in the ocean was the day in 2001. He had some American guests who flew all the way from Pittsburg wishing to see a whale shark. They didn’t just see one but a whole school of them, about 50 on a feeding frenzy. They were ecstatic!
Another glorious moment was the day Omar and Florante successfully rescued a trapped butanding in Batangas. Asked how they did it, when several others before them failed, he humbly said, “I prayed for God’s assistance.”
He takes every opportunity to share his insights to protect the precious butandings. “If a group of six fishermen kill a butanding, six families may have enough to live on for six months. But in exchange the rest of the other families in the community will all go hungry for years to come. Why? Because this brutal act could scare the butanding population away. And what do you think will happen to the van drivers who pick up guests, resort owners and restaurant owners, their employees, souvenir stall owners, boatmen, BIOs? With their livelihood gone, their families will go hungry,” he said.
He prays often for the safety of his wife Yvette, a nurse in the Middle East, and is most grateful that his daughter Rayven graduated grade school at Aquinas School in Legaspi with honors. This nature lover feels God’s presence in the sunshine, the calmness of the sea, the magnificence of the gentle butandings. “I always ask God to please let my visitors see the butanding.” He is happiest when he sees his guests enjoying.
“I always want to spread the sunshine,” he says of his motto in life. “Whatever blessings and gifts I receive from God, I must share.”
To Omar, this means teaching others the skills he has mastered like swimming, being a good BIO, training others who want to be guides of other natural attractions, giving talks to the fishing community on the importance of not harming but preserving their environment, finding new activities and exciting destinations that guests to his beloved province of Sorsogon can enjoy and his fellowmen can benefit from. /
*Asking Michelle to publish her article in Bulan Observer, she replied :
“Sure Andres! ( Andres?- that’s me, jun!) That was one experience I will never ever forget. Omar is the best. I am so glad you did not drown (she’s referring to my story of almost drowning in the sea of Donsol when I was 8). You must have a mission in life to fulfill. I am sure it is something that will be most rewarding. Be blessed in all you do.” MICHELLE DAYRIT-SOLIVEN
Thank you Michelle!
Omar is my first cousin (mother’s side), he lives and works in Donsol. I have good memories of Donsol as I also partly spent my childhood there. The beautiful sceneries with Mt. Mayon against a lovely sunset, the quiet sea and the loving people and of course my dear grandparents Doro and “May” (mother) Nepomuceno with whom I used to go for a walk along the sea after dinner. I met Omar last April 2009- in Bulan!
————————HELP PROTECT THE WHALE SHARKS!————————–