Mariana Hill: SMILE!

Walking in the street by my home in Mexico I can be as lonely as in a misty forest. Things are different here in the Philippines; everyone says ‘hello’ or calls my name. When I first arrived in Donsol local people commented that I never smiled, that I was lulong (crazy). But I am shy! It’s not so easy for me to talk with people. However, I’ve never seen a group of guys trying so hard to make you feel happy. In Donsol people joke all the time and laughing is the rule. After I understood that there was no reason to be afraid, I found a place where every day is exciting, where I enjoy every day as if it was the last one.

Oh, how much I have changed! Even swimming is different. On my first day, I thought I was going to drown; my fitness was terrible and I could not duck dive half a meter. But that was long ago, now I barely remember how hard it was. Swimming with whale sharks is one of the best feelings ever, only jumping with a horse or skydiving might be comparable to this: the BIO (Butanding Interaction Officer) says ‘get ready’, put on your fins, adjust the straps of the camera to your right hand, put your snorkel mask on and sit on the edge of the boat. Wait for the word ‘Jump!´

Free-diving is part of my natural behavior (just a couple of meters deep, I do not compare myself with a professional free-diver). Since I touch the water everything is adrenaline. Follow the BIO, be careful to avoid the guests in the water and then duck dive. Everything is blurry but I go deeper and see the giant. I swim to the left side of the shark, just behind the gills, to get a shot of its spots. Then I come back to the surface and breathe. The race has taken all of my air.

There are some sharks that I can recognize. I see patterns in the spots and some of them are very pretty; for example one of two symmetrical lines surrounded by smaller spots. I personally, also find different personalities under the water. While some sharks are shy and disappear, others stay longer. One of the smallest sharks one day followed two tourists after a while of swimming in circles around them. The guests came back to the boat and the shark followed them and waited next to us. Maybe she wanted to play.

After my session, I can go back home and identify the sharks there. However, sometimes we work from the resorts in the afternoons while we do other daily tasks. I enjoy spending time down here because after we finish our work I might play basketball with local friends or, even better, go for a swim! At night we go back home and have dinner. I have a family of girls. We do things together and help each other. I am guessing if this would be like having a sister or like being in a college society of girls. They have done the amazing task of making me more like a girl. This is the first time that I interact for so long in an environment full of ladies without having troubles (seriously). On quiet evenings we watch Walking Dead or a movie such as Pitch Perfect; some nights, we get invited by our local friends to join them singing karaoke. Philippine people love karaoke and they are very good singers. But don’t be afraid, anyone can sing (even me), people are so enthusiastic that there is no way to be embarrassed here.

And this is how Donsol becomes part of my life. The happiness of every day may clean any scared soul. And I start to call this place my home. I love the sharks and the corals in the bay. I love this town and its people, my friends. And I love to laugh, I love you and to smile.

Mariana (bottom right) with from right to left, Susan, Jenny, Emma, Ody and Emer, this seasons all girl whale shark research team in Donsol, Sorsogon. (We do also work with boys!)

Mariana (bottom right) with from right to left, Susan, Jenny, Emma, Ody and Emer, this seasons all girl whale shark research team in Donsol, Sorsogon. (We do also work with boys!)

Mariana finished her Bachelor of Science at the University of Western Australia in December of 2015. She loves outdoor activities and wildlife, especially swimming with whale sharks! She will start a Master’s degree in oceanography soon. Where? She’ll tell you later. The best thing is to find what is still to come.

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