Hey, hey, hey, dearest Seniors! Did you know where the first Catholic mass in Luzon was held?

Hmm, I bet Filipino Seniors would say, wait a minute, Tita S, I know the answer – my history teacher taught me that the first holy mass was held in Limasawa. Yes, that was the first mass ever held in the country, but that is in Southern Leyte, dearies, which is located in Eastern Visayas, not Luzon! Try again.

Oh, no, I hear protests! It seems that those from Butuan claim that the first mass in the country was held in Masau, Butuan, and those from Pangasinan claim that it was held in Bolinao Bay! Well, this controversy warrants a post soon.

Anyway, at this point, I anticipate most of you will say, I give up, this was not taught to us in Philippine history. All I remember is Limasawa. Where was it held, Tita S?

Well, the first Catholic mass in Luzon was held in the town of Magallanes, in the province of Sorsogon1, in a community then known as Hibal-ong, by an Augustinian missionary, Fray Alonso Jimenez, on October 19, 1569.2 And this year, 2019, marks its 450th anniversary!3

Fray Alonso Jimenez is a native of the City of Malaga in Southern Spain and was ordained priest in Mexico City on August 21, 1558, according to local historian Rogerio H. Escobal.2

He was then sent by Miguel Lopez de Legazpi4 to serve as missionary to the islands of Masbate, Leyte, Samar and Burias.3 (A light bulb moment, I know that particular Miguel, Tita S! For the rest of the Seniors who cannot recall, think one more time. Do you still have a senior moment? Then see my footnote below. Such senior moments happen to me too so my footnotes come in handy, right?).

It seems Miguel Lopez de Legazpi4, while in Cebu in 1567, wrote King Philip II to request for religious to be sent to the Philippines. The King then ordered the Provincial of the Order of St. Augustine in Mexico to dispatch missionaries to the Philippines to help propagate and spread the Christian faith.2

Well, guess what? It so happened that Fray Alonso Jimenez, O.S.A., was in Mexico at that time and voluntarily offered himself to such an apostolic mission, along with Fray Juan de Alva, O.S.A. They boarded the ship “San Juan”, under the command of Captain Juan Lopez de Aguirre, a reputable Viscayan noble and soldier, and arrived in Cebu in 1569.2

On the side, I know what your senior minds are thinking: How come it took 2 years for Fray Jimenez to finally reach the Philippines? How long was the galleon trip from Mexico to the Philippines? Well, based on my research, a Spanish galleon only made one annual round trip across the Pacific between Acapulco and the Philippines from 1565 – 1815.5 It also took at least 4 months to sail that route, one way, according to the Wikipedia page “Manila galleon”.6 So, go figure the length of time for the letter from the Philippines to reach Spain, then for the order from the Spanish king to get to the Augustinian leaders in Mexico, and then for an order for the religious in Mexico, plus the preparations of Fray Jimenez, and the once a year schedule of the galleons, (the total number of which I could not access), with some sinking in the oceans due to bad weather, etc. Gosh, we are so lucky to be born in this era.

Anyway, back to my story. Fray Jimenez and Fray Alva went to Oton, Panay, to meet Legazpi who then sent Fray Jimenez and Spanish Captain Luiz Enriquez de Guzman to explore, pacify and evangelize Southern Luzon. They sailed to Leyte, Samar, Masbate and Burias Island, and across Ticao Pass to Sorsogon Province1, reached Ginangra, a barangay7 of the present-day town of Magallanes, and finally landed at the ancient fishing village of Habal-ong, later called Ibalon (Gibalon). This has become the present day sitio of San Isidro, in Barangay Salvacion, situated at the mouth of the Ginangra River at the western coast of Sorsogon Province.2

The shore was not a forested area. The local fishing community was large, and people  converged in that area for barter trade. So, on this shore of Ibalon, now sitio San Isidro, a small bamboo-nipa chapel was built. This was where the first Catholic mass in Luzon was held. The natives were baptized, and Ibalon became the first Christian settlement in Luzon.2

The locals who attended this first mass were more accepting of Catholicism than those on the nearby island of Masbate, and there were accounts of Fray Jimenez using this town in Sorsogon as a base for spreading Christianity to the rest of Luzon,    according to historian and Professor Danilo Gerona.3  Moreover, a report from the 1570s showed a large population in this area, and provisions, including gold, were said to be abundant.2

Since then, there are yearly re-enactments of this important religious event at the Gibalon River, usually part of the celebration of Sorsogon’s Kasanggayahan Festival during the month of October.8 BeFunky-collage-reenact-okPhotos were taken from during the actual presentation and re-enactment on October 22, 2016 at Gibalon River in celebration of the 2016 Sorsogon’s Kasanggayahan Festival.

There is also a Gibalon Shrine in Barangay7 Siuton, Magallanes, Sorsogon1 which marks the historical area where this first mass was held. Tourists are most welcome to visit the site.8 BeFunky-collage-GibaldonPhotos were taken from

Finally, the present time: On October 19, 2019, a concelebrated mass was held, led by Apostolic Nuncio to the Philippines, Gabrielle Giordano Caccia, for the 450th anniversary of this significant event. Bishop Arturo M. Bastes, Catanduanes Bishop Manolo A. De los Santos, Masbate Bishop Jose Bantolo, and Fr. Andrew Rivera, assisted the Papal Nuncio.9 BeFunky-collagePhotos taken from

Ambassador of Spain to the Philippines, H.E. Jorge Moragas Sanchez, Governor Francis Joseph Escudero, Congresswoman Evelina Escudero, and the rest of the provincial and local government officials also joined the pilgrimage mass.9  73482607_10157414498805610_1444821642550181888_n-okPhoto taken from

The cover picture collage is a combination of pictures taken from and

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The following terms are defined for foreigners and interested readers, especially those with “Senior-Moments” and those too busy or lazy to Google such terms:

1Sorsogon is a province in the Philippines, located in Region V, the Bicol Region. It is the southernmost province in Luzon and is subdivided into 14 towns and one city, its capital, Sorsogon City. It is at the tip of the Bicol Peninsula, borders the province of Albay to the north, and faces the island of Samar to the southeast, across the San Bernardino Strait and Ticao Island to the southwest. The local people are called Sorsogueños. The information was obtained from the Wikipedia page “Sorsogon”.10

2 (A repost of an existing blog entry in

by author-historian Rogerio H. Escobal.)


4Miguel Lopez de Legazpi (1502 – 1572), also known as El Adelantado11 and El Viejo (The Elder), was a Spanish navigator and governor who established the first Spanish settlement in the East Indies12 when his expedition crossed the Pacific Ocean from the Viceroyalty of New Spain in modern-day Mexico, and arrived in Cebu, Philippines, in 1565. He was the first Governor-General of the Spanish East Indies which included the Philippines and other Pacific archipelagos, i.e., Guam and the Marianas Islands. He eventually made Cebu the capital of the Spanish East Indies in 1565, and later transferred to Manila in 1571. The information was obtained from the Wikipedia page “Miguel Lopez de Legaspi”.13


6“Manila galleon,” accessed October 22, 2019,

7A barangay is the smallest administrative division in the Philippines and is the native Filipino term for village or ward. It was formerly called a barrio. It is informally subdivided into smaller areas called purok (“zone”), barangay zones consisting of a cluster of houses, and sitios, which are (usually rural) territorial enclaves far from the barangay center. The information was obtained from the Wikipedia page “Barangay”.14



10“Sorsogon,” accessed October 22, 2019,

11Adelantado was a title held by Spanish nobles in service of their respective kings during the Middle Ages. It was later used as a military title held by some Spanish conquistadores of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. The information was obtained from the Wikipedia page “Adelantado”.15

12 The Spanish West Indies were the colonies of the Spanish Empire in Asia and Oceania from 1565 – 1901. At one time or another, it included: (a) Las Islas Filipinas (present day Philippines): Manila, Luzon, Visayas, Palawan, Northern Mindanao, Zamboanga, Basilan, Jolo, Balambangan Island, Palmas Islands, Spratly Islands; including isolated outposts in Keelung, Taiwan, and in the islands of Gilolo, Ternate and Tidore in the Maluku Islands and Manado in the northern part of Sulawesi (formerly Celebes); (b) Islas Carolinas (the Federated States of Micronesia); (c) Islas Marianas (Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and the US Territory of Guam); and, (d) Islas Palau (Republic of Palau). The information was obtained from the Wikipedia page “Spanish East Indies”.16

13“Miguel Lopez de Legaspi,” accessed October 22, 2019,

14“Barangay,” accessed November 2, 2018,

15“Adelantado,” accessed October 22, 2019,

16“Spanish East Indies,” accessed October 22, 2019,


Location: Barangay Dancalan, Town of Donsol, Province of Sorsogon, Region V – Bicol Region, Philippines

 At this stage in our lives, my husband and I look forward to ticking off our bucket list. I’m sure you do too, dear Seniors! A unique local excitement in our list is to see the butanding in Donsol, and we finally got our chance when a family member invited us to Sorsogon for Holy Week 2017.

Now, you might ask, how do I get to Donsol? Good question!

You can ride a Cebu Pacific or Philippine Airlines’ plane, just an hour’s flight from Manila to Legazpi City, in the province of Albay. Private vans can be hired from the airport to Donsol, costing PHP2,500-3,000.

You can also use a public tricycle, at PHP50, from the airport to the Legazpi Central Terminal, a centralized public transport terminal for all buses, jeepneys and vans to/from Legazpi and other Bicol areas located in the parking area at the back of Savemore Supermarket in the city proper. Tell the driver to bring you to the Donsol section.

You can then opt to take a PUV (van, 12-16 pax) from the Legazpi Central Terminal to Donsol for PHP98 (per person), but the van has to be filled up before departure.

You can also take a 12-hour airconditioned bus ride from Manila to Legaspi (costing PHP850) or a 13-hour bus ride from Manila to Donsol (PHP650 – non-airconditioned bus; PHP900 – airconditioned bus). For the former, refer to the previous paragraph how to get to Donsol from the Legazpi Central Terminal. Just surf the bus companies that can bring you to these destinations.

Of course, you can use a private vehicle and enjoy the road trip with your companions. You can use the Waze app to guide you all the way to Sorsogon. That is what we did: a relative of ours was kind enough to use his vehicle to drive/join us from Manila to Sorsogon. It was a great time to bond, and, boy, did we have endless conversations and lots of laughs for 11 hours! We also made several stops along the way to refresh ourselves, and to eat.

If you do not have relatives or friends in Sorsogon where you can stay, do not fear. There are resorts, inns, pension houses, and homestays, just surf or inquire from the Donsol Municipal Tourism office (cell phone number 0927-4023814). I suggest that if you will go with a big group, reserve accommodations ahead of time especially during the peak season (April and May). It is also advisable to arrive the day before your butanding adventure, to ensure an early morning boat ride – the best time for this activity.

Now, for foreigners, what is a butanding? It is the local term for whale shark.

Philippines, Luzon, Sorsogon Province, Donsol, whale shark (Rhincodon typus)BUTANDING: The Gentle Giant (Photo by WWF)

For more than a century, these gentle giants have been visiting Donsol’s waters between November and June, peaking between February and May. The residents initially feared these enormous creatures. It took a group of scuba divers in December 1997 to prove that the fish was docile, and their videos were spread till Donsol became an exciting destination. Thus, on March 1998, whale shark watching became an official attraction of Donsol, regulated both by the local DOT office and the observance of WWFguidelines.(see Wikipedia page, “Donsol”.2)

For the readers who have a biology background, bear with me but I need to describe it somehow. As explained in the Wikipedia page, “Whale shark”.The whale shark (Rhincodon typus) is 4 to 12 meters long, grey fish (with unique pale yellow spots and stripes), a white belly, 3 prominent ridges along its sides and 5 large pairs of gills. It can weigh up to 21 tons, has a wide and flat head with two small eyes at the front, has a very large (1.5 m or almost 5 feet wide) mouth (with 300-350 rows of tiny teeth and 10 filter pads which it uses to filter feed). Amazingly, this gentle giant only filter-feeds on the nutrient-rich plankton that flow into the sea from the Donsol River, among others, during the months I mentioned above.

The butanding has a lifespan of 70-100 years and only reaches sexual maturity at 30 years2 (oh, my dearest butanding, so sorry you have to wait that long!?). It is the largest living non-mammalian vertebrate, the largest known extant fish species, the largest non-cetacean animal in the world, the sole member of the genus Rhincodon, and the only extant member of the family Rhincodontodae. It has a pair of dorsal fins and pectoral fins and its spiracles are just behind its eyes. Juveniles’ tails have a larger upper fin than lower fin while the adult tail becomes semilunate.2 A juvenile butanding can eat more than 20 kg of plankton a day and they migrate to feed. Donsol is so blessed for it is strategically located in waters teeming with natural planktons that seem like a smorgasbord for these creatures. And we, Filipinos, are so lucky to have this phenomenon in Donsol!

Wait, my dear Seniors, at this point I know what is going on in your senior-minds … Are you scared of the water and these huge butandings? Don’t be! They are huge, yes! But they are so gentle and would not even bite nor hurt you! Remember, we are the ones visiting them in their feeding grounds in Donsol, or wherever you go to see them. Just imagine being about 3-4 meters away from a giant creature which is peacefully swimming along and happily eating unlimited plankton!

In addition, you can request your guide to be right beside you when you jump in the water in time to marvel at the sight of this wonderful creature, just like slightly scared but so excited “me”. Your snorkel or diving mask will enable you can stay as long as possible under water, or at least put your head in the water, just to witness the butanding peacefully feeding and swimming quietly before your eyes. Your safety vest will automatically make you float. You will not regret doing this adventure of a lifetime! Promise!

Anyway, if your group is less than six, either pay the whole amount for a “banca” (boat) or be prepared to share the banca with other tourists. If you want to just walk in, come early, around 7:30 am, at the Butanding Visitors Center.

We arrived in Sorsogon on April 11. Let me say that the roads in Sorsogon are so well paved, clean and well-maintained. I enjoyed my early jogging and bonding with my husband and appreciated the well-paved sidewalk, constructed for safety and convenience for all who need to walk around the province.

1-Butanding Visitors Center                                                            The Butanding Visitors Center                                                          (Photo courtesy of Desiree Abitria, Donsol Municipal Tourism Office)

The day for our great Butanding Adventure started with a full breakfast. We, Seniors, did all our morning “rituals”, joined the rest of the group, rode a van, and got to the Butanding Visitors Center early, around 8am, so eager to participate in this magical experience!

Now, Seniors, you might ask, what do we bring, Tita S? For the ladies, bring a sturdy and waterproof beach bag where you can keep the following: towel, cellphone, power bank, waterproof GoPro to video your butanding encounter (or you can rent an underwater camera on site), snacks, bottled water, medicine/s, sunblock, aloe vera gel (just in case you get sunburned), etc. If you have your own diving mask/snorkel set and fins, bring them too! If not, no worries, these can be rented on site as well. For the gentlemen, a waterproof bag (my husband uses a 20-kg Ocean Pack) with more or less the same contents and whatever personal things you need for almost half a day.

We paid the required fees and filled up the appropriate forms. Please check if the following rates still apply: (1) the boat rental package for about 3 hours, including the services of a Butanding Interaction Officer (BIO)/spotter/boatmen is 3,500 pesos per boat, strictly for a maximum of 6 persons (adult/child); (2) an environmental/registration fee of 100 pesos per Filipino visitor and 300 pesos per foreign visitor (This is indeed a good indication that the local government is overseeing and regulating this tourist activity so as not to exploit the gentle butanding!); and, (3) the rental for a diving mask/snorkel set and fins, if you did not bring any, is 300 pesos per set. As an option, you can rent an underwater camera to take pictures of this wonderful experience.

We were then ushered to a viewing room for the must-see instructional video presentation-orientation for whale watching. The safety regulations were (as far as my senior memory can recall): a maximum of 6 swimmers per whale shark; to stay 3 meters away from the head/body and 4 meters away from the tail; not to get in direct contact with the shark (touch or ride it) or restrict its movement; a maximum of 10 minute-swim per whale shark; and, flash photography is not allowed.

We were then given our snorkel with diving mask set, flippers, and life vest, after paying the rental fee. We did not forget to apply sunblock at least 15 minutes before we boarded the banca.

CjEkR1525191893Bancas waiting for your Butanding Adventure

Tips, dearest Seniors: 1. Be sure the rented swimming gears fit you so you will be comfortable in the water which is a bit dark and not so clear because of the rich plankton, the yummy food sought by the butanding; and, 2. If you have not used a snorkel for some time, try practicing how to place the diving mask tightly so the water will not enter when you plunge in the water. Place the snorkel in your mouth while in the boat and practice breathing with your mouth so you can stay longer to marvel at the butanding.

Philippines, Luzon, Sorsogon Province, Donsol, Butanding Interaction Officer (BIO) giving a briefing before whale shark interactionThe Butanding Interaction Officer’s briefing (Photo by WWF)

We were assigned to, and briefed by, a Butanding Interaction Officer (BIO) who was responsible for the safety of the persons in the boat. He also signaled us, with great accuracy/timing, to jump into the water to swim/snorkel alongside the butanding. We were also assigned a banca with a competent whale spotter (the man who stands on the boat beam to locate the majestic butanding) and two boatmen. Once in the banca, we all secured our life vests and were all excited.

9d1lo1525192073Our spotter and two boatmen

Note that the number of sightings depends on the season and since it was April– what can I say – it’s Butanding’s Peak Season. So I said: “Dearest Gentle Giants, don’t be shy, here we come!”

When a butanding is spotted, the boat would sail in its direction. We were excited, as we sat at the side of the banca with our snorkels and fins on. The BIO then signaled us to jump into the water and oh, what an awesome sight to see it peacefully feeding/swimming alongside while you marvel at its size and beauty!

NCegalerba-JSzwemberg_Donsol__91I7264Photo by WWF

For seniors, if you are “sigurista” (prudent) like me, I suggest you jump with the BOI, or with your trusted partner (husband, friend) so you will experience it together! You get to see the butanding for a short while as it swims alongside your spot, but I tell you, it’s like time stood still every time I snorkeled to see it. Then off you go, back to the banca, eagerly awaiting the next jump.

I must confess that I easily get scared and excited but since this is one major activity in my bucket list, I went for it! I tell you, the first time you see the butanding, you would be overwhelmed, thrilled, and amazed at just how big it is, and be awed by its majestic beauty. It’s like being in another planet! I was able to see its monstrous mouth open, with its huge gills moving, and just gently gliding and passing by in front of me! Such a fantastic feeling of exhilaration every time I saw it! I saw two butandings and I will always talk about this experience for years to come.

Philippines, Luzon, Sorsogon Province, Donsol, boats waiting for whale sharkSnorkeling to see the Gentle Giant @ Donsol (Photo by WWF)

I even mentally apologized for disturbing their eating time: “Walang personalan. Ang layo ng pinanggalingan ko. Silip lang ako while you eat, ok?” (“Nothing personal. I came from far away. Allow me to only watch you eat, ok?”) “I will just watch you as near as I am allowed.”

I assure you, dear Seniors, after the first encounter with this creature, you will be more comfortable using the diving mask and snorkel and can stay longer in the water, so you can appreciate it even better. You will keep on asking the BOI/spotter to be more vigilant in locating this fish so you can again and again plunge into the water and enjoy the whole morning!

We sailed for about 3 hours, sighted about 5 butandings, and finally returned to the Center in time for lunch. A kind boatman used a hose to remove the sand from our feet before we entered the cemented area of the Center.

Seniors, better be sure that all swimming gears rented are returned, and acknowledged as complete. I recommend that you give a tip to the boat crew: the BIO, spotters, and boatmen; they all work so hard for a living and this is just a sign of your gratitude for such an incredible and fantastic experience!

Then, we took a bath and off we went to a sumptuous seafood buffet lunch! Life is good, thank you, Lord! One big check off my bucket list!

Dear Seniors, if I can do it, you can do it too! Add this unforgettable, awesome and ultimate underwater experience in your bucket list and go to Donsol this May! To make it more memorable, make it a family experience; we did and so can you! Achieve!

Next time, and God willing, I will try Donsol’s two night tours: the firefly tour and the shrimp-catching tour, as well as other tourist attractions in Donsol, Sorsogon City, and other parts of Sorsogon. These would all be exciting too! Just call beforehand to confirm if such tours are offered when you plan to visit Donsol.

Please note that there is no guarantee of seeing a butanding and no refund is given if this happens. So be sure to go in the morning and during peak season (April and May).

We were told that Oslob, Cebu, also offers butanding watching. Its waters are shallower and clearer so one can get clearer pictures of this beautiful creature. However, the boatmen feed the butanding. The choice is up to you! A lot of tourists go to both Donsol and Oslob.

Special thanks to the Escudero family for their warm hospitality. Thanks to MS. DESIREE AVITRIA of the Donsol Municipal Tourism Office for the WWF pictures and directions how to get to Donsol. Dearest Seniors, if you have any inquiries, you can call the said office: 09274023814.

Did you find this post informative? Have you experienced whale shark watching in Donsol, Oslob, other parts of the country, or abroad? I would love to hear from you. Simply scroll to the upper right corner of this post and click “Leave a comment”. Thank you. Do not forget to follow me by clicking “Follow” on the lower right corner of your device.

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The following terms are defined for interested readers, especially non-Filipinos, those with “Senior-Moments”, and those too busy or lazy to Google such terms:

 1WWF stands for World Wide Fund for Nature, the world’s largest conservation organization. It is an international non-governmental organization for wilderness preservation and the reduction of human impact on the environment, according to the Wikipedia page, “World Wildlife Fund for Nature”. It was formerly called the World Wildlife Fund but the term is still used in North America.

2”Donsol,” accessed November 14, 2017,

3”Whale shark,” accessed November 14, 2017,

4“World Wide Fund for Nature,” accessed November 14, 2017,