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Back in the days when I was an active journalist, I went to Southern Leyte on a tourism research study. And I stumbled on a treasure of stories beyond tourism that would deserve a National Geographic article. Call it serendipity, the ability to “accidentally” stumble on magical experiences and fantastic people and places. Serendipity is a precious psychic gift which defies logic.
Although this happened about 30 years ago, to respect the privacy of people, I will not reveal names and places. I met this mayor (let us call him Ricky) who was the object of my serendipity. He served me dried shark fins fried to a crisp with garlic fried rice for breakfast. The shark fins had this supreme taste beyond those I have tasted in my entire life. Mayor Ricky bought the dried shark fins from fishermen. I asked him to introduce me to a fisherman.
Thus, I met Mang Isko, a lean mean marine veteran in his 50s. He told me dolphins regularly passed through their fishing grounds, the strait between Southern Leyte and Limasawa, which was notorious for strong currents, squalls and sunken vessels. He told me about two fishermen on a pump-boat whose motor conked out, stranded for hours. A dolphin approached and towed them to shore. I said the story was hard to believe. He simply smiled and told me more stories of such rescues, and even dared me to talk to the fishermen themselves.
I had no time and resources to look for those fishermen, but after talking to fisher-folk along the shore, I got the same story. An old man said the stories were legends from their ancestors from the deep ancient past.
ESQUALINE – THE WONDER DRUG
The Esqualine story started from a visit by a Japanese, who hired a fisherman to look for the mini-shark, whose fins I had for breakfast. Somehow, he knew, from books perhaps, the shark thrived in the strait. After weeks of identifying where to fish, and weeks of trial and error, the fishermen developed a technique of low-tech deep-sea fishing for the elusive mini-shark. The Japanese bought only the liver of the shark, put it on ice, and gave away the entire shark to the fisherman, who was paid handsomely – 30,000 pesos, quite a fortune then. And so the Japanese came regularly to buy shark liver oil from the fishermen.
Mayor Ricky interviewed the Japanese and found out about the liver oil processed in Tokyo into Esqualine, the wonder drug for the Japanese. He had a plan to make and export the Esqualine himself. It was a certain rare species of a miniature shark, adult size about 4 feet, from which Esqualine was derived. Mayor Ricky, the adventurous entrepreneur, invested on the expensive shark fishing to obtain the fish oil. He developed a low-tech liver extraction process using slow heat from the sun and from ovens. He acquired gels from Manila for capsuling the oil. He succeeded to export his Esqualine, but after a while, the Japanese importers stopped buying. They said he had to remove the ‘fish smell’ in the capsule, which consumers did not like. Finally, Mayor Ricky gave up because extracting the smell out was a highly technical chemical process which involved rare expensive imported re-agents. Nice try, Mayor, but no go.
LOW-TECH DEEP-SEA FISHING FOR SHARK
The ingenious technique developed by the fishermen to fish for the mini-shark was a story in itself. They had a long line which took three hours to reach the bottom of the sea, even with a heavy sinker. The line branched into about 5 to 7 hooks. It would take the shark hours to take the bait. The fishermen would take them more than three hours to bring the heavy shark up. Catching a shark would take around 12 to 15 hours, if they were lucky to catch one. But it was all worth it for 30,000 pesos, which they could not earn from weeks of traditional fishing.
The Japanese I never met, Mayor Ricky, and Mang Isko were three real characters from real life that I stumbled on and never forgot. I write from memory, no notes, no photos, this story that happened about 30 years ago. One never forgets such magical stories drawn from serendipity.
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