The Capture of Megamouth 11


Out in the dark ocean, nothing was more comforting to the three fishermen than the pleasant weather. Their banca* was small and light, but the wind was gentle and the waves easy. Nothing odd about anything.

Then a shout, alarming, remote. They looked. There: A lone fisherman, barely visible from a distance of about 100 meters. He seemed busy retrieving his net. But he looked all right. His lamp was still on, just like the scattering of other lamps from boats far away.

They waited for another signal.


The three fishermen were hunters of five-inch fish called tamban and tabilos. They were Nelson, James, and Justiniano -- all residents of Puerto, Cagayan de Oro. Nelson was the owner of the small, motorized banca and James was his son. Justiniano's father Eufemio, now retired, owned the net.

That Friday, Feb. 20, 1998, they went off to sea around 6 p.m. -- their usual schedule . From the shore they proceeded Northwest and reached an area described by hook-and-line fishers as 300 meters deep. It was six kilometers away from Puerto, and already they could see the geometric forms of Cagayan de Oro International Port. Here in the middle of Macajalar Bay, they first observed the current to determine where to place their gill net. Then they carefully laid out their trap.

gill netThe entire width of the net was placed at right angle to the banca, so that together they formed a "T" if viewed below. Supported by three Styrofoam buoys, the net created an almost invisible underwater wall 45 meters across and 18 meters down. Attracted by the brilliance of the lamp, the schools of tamban and tabilos would then revolve around the banca. Each hole of the net accommodates only the head of a fish. When the fish tries to free itself, the net catches it by its gills, hence the name gill net.

Eufemio's net was a dependable tool -- four years old already but still tough. But at the end of that hunt, something big and unknown would cut a section of it apart. And Eufemio would have to spend P3,000 for its repair.


* Banca -- a native fishing boat with bamboo outriggers on both sides.



Several minutes after they heard the shout, one of the buoys popped out and started floating away, carried by the current. Curious, the three decided to haul in their net 30 minutes earlier than their usual schedule of 9 p.m. The net didn't resist, but a section of it was torn; the gash was about 12 meters across, they saw later in the morning.

As they drew the net further, it started to feel heavy, and James saw something underwater moving up, reflecting. And he pointed to it and remarked with amusement, "Cellophane!" The way he said it seemed to mean, "Is cellophane all we are going to get after all these hours?" Suddenly, an awesomely large, opened mouth surfaced in front of them, causing them to drop the rest of the net in fright. The mouth sank back in the dark water.  

It was a terrible apparition. They had expected small fish and discarded pieces of polluting cellophane, but this one, this incredible mouth only, was unbelievably massive. What kind of fish owned that mouth? A shark? A whale? A dolphin? Somewhat shaken, the three looked down again and saw that the huge animal was thoroughly enmeshed and hanging vertically head up, moving slightly, apparently exhausted. It seemed that after it had entangled itself in the net, it had rotated repeatedly in an attempt to escape.

At first, the three considered setting the animal free, because it could be a legally protected mammal. But the only way to do that was to destroy the net further or release it completely. Either way would be very costly. So they decided to bring the animal ashore.

They called in the lone fisherman for help. In a tone of surprise and alarm, he remarked that it was the kind of great fish that would suck people in. "This is the same pest that destroyed my net awhile ago!" he cursed. But he also admitted that his net was also quite old and fragile, so the fish had torn it without much effort. jellyfish

For a long while, the four discussed the difficulty of towing a vertically hanging giant fish. They had never caught one that size before so they didn't know what to do. Eventually, Nelson came up with the idea of making a lasso with two stones attached as weight. They placed it around the head and allowed it to sink towards the tail. Then they pulled the tail diagonally up, placing the fish parallel to the banca like a double-parking car.

Then they returned to Puerto, accompanied by the fourth fisherman. At the depth of two meters, they stopped. It took 11 men to roll the shark to the beach. And even with their number, they had to use a plank for leverage and had to count to synchronize their effort. Grounded, the massive beast opened its mouth slightly and burped.

Reactions varied. Some residents just stood by, the others touched it. One sketched a butterfly-like graffiti on its back. A drunk nearby approached the fish and tried to open its cavernous mouth. In a tone of mock desperation he pleaded, "Pasudla ko. Pasudla ko. (Let me in. Let me in.)" His equally drunk friends took slices of meat and ate them raw.


Around 7 a.m. the next day, Joebert Pamisa of DXIF Bombo Radyo aired the interesting news, consequently drawing more people to the beach. Pamisa described the mouth of the unknown fish as similar to that of pantat, a freshwater fish resembling an eel. He also said it would be very easy for the fish to swallow a man whole. "We are also waiting for representatives from the Bureau of Fisheries because no one here can identify this fish," he said.

megamouth 11

Photo contributed by Reyna Pioquinto, Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources.

Meanwhile, some women, apparently teased by the men, exchanged jokes about the large pair of claspers. An experimental resident inserted a 1.5-inch thick "Islander" slipper between the teeth, closed the mouth, and then yanked the rubber slipper out. The jagged markings resembled like those made by a saw. Still another person, a new neighbor originally from the Visayas, disturbed the fishermen with her declaration that the fish was an evil omen.

Later, several men rolled the shark repeatedly over to expose its left, right and bottom side for documentation by several photographers and a video cameraman from a local TV station. A policeman requested the crowd to stand back, but the crowd refused, apparently reluctant to be excluded from this historical opportunity.

Relief came with the arrival of representatives from the Mindanao Marine Wildlife Watch (MMWW), the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR), and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). Now they could identify the fish.

But this didn't happen. Although the woman from MMWW described the catch as "one of the two species of whale sharks", her photos of whale sharks didn't match with the appearance of the fish. The other government officials repeatedly flipped the pages of a book, but they still couldn't say what the animal was. So they just took pictures and measurements: 18 feet from tip of mouth to tail, and 7 feet around the ventral section. Nelson estimated the fish to weigh 1,500 kilos.

Not knowing the identity of the fish, the fishermen expressed their need to know 1) if it was a mammal and, 2) if it was edible. They had to know so they and the community could decide what to do with the carcass. The BFAR personnel assured them it was a fish and that it was edible. Justiniano and Nelson claimed the BFAR gave approval for them "to strike (banati)" the fish and "to make use (puslan)" of it. With this pronouncement, the hacking began.


It was generally a free-for-all activity. Neighbors took what they could get, leaving only the entrails. But a fish trader did purchase the fins, tail, and head for sale in Bukidnon province. Several people also came to peer at the stomach, expecting an unfortunate human being or a large fish of some sort inside, but many were disappointed to see that the stomach was only "about the size of a man's thigh" and contained only a colony of minuscule reddish uyap (krill).

The fish was excessively awash in crystal clear odorless oil, especially the liver. A person from De Oro Bayanihan -- a store that sells dried fish and fishing equipment -- called up Eufemio and promised to buy the liver. Eufemio waited until 5 p.m., but he never came, so Eufemio told Justiniano to bury the entrails, including the cartilage, to avoid offending the neighbors when they would smell. Justiniano placed the internal organs inside a sack made of ramie, and then dropped it in a sandpit four feet deep, about five meters from his house.

The pieces of meat were left to dry by the neighborhood for three days, during which they reduced in size by about 50 percent. They were then fried and eaten. "Delicious," the fishers said, "like squid." Some had also roasted the fresh meat, but Justiniano said this process wasspear impractical because the meat seemed to melt away.

A curious phenomenon about the drying was that the flies didn't feed on the pieces. Even the cats and the dogs avoided them. Justiniano held a fragment near the mouth of a cat, but the cat politely refused. The joke was that none of the pets expressed interest because they didn't want to take the risk of eating exotic food they were not familiar with.

Another interesting detail about the fish was the presence of a scar near the tail. When the scar was poked, it broke at once and blood oozed out of it. Nelson said the scar was possibly two weeks old. Its shape was primarily a circle about 3 cm. in diameter. But it had two "horns" opposite each other -- the unmistakable mark of a spear.


Megamouth catchers: Nelson Tagaloguin, 39, James Tagaloguin, 15, and Justiniano Oraiz, 31. Photo by Elson T. Elizaga.


The information in this webpage is made possible primarily with the cooperation and friendship of the three fishermen who caught megamouth 11. Thanks also to Lina Sagaral Reyes of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Reyna Pioquinto of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, Marilyn Baldo of the Department of Tourism-Region 10, and Clara Marie Asuncion Q. Gonzales. The author also acknowledges the invaluable help of biologists worldwide who provided information about megamouths: Ben S. Roesch, Marie Levine, John F. Morrissey, Leonard J.V. Compagno, Kazuhiro Nakaya, George H. Burgess, and Eugenie Clark.

Articles and photos of other megamouths would be most welcome and would help guide further research on the subject. First issue: May 29, 1998. Updated August 15, 2000. Minor text corrections on September 17, 2002. All rights reserved. © Elson T. Elizaga. 

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