When the Butanding Interaction Officer tells you to jump off the boat, you jump.
P and I went to Donsol a few days ago to swim with the whale sharks. The butanding, as it is known locally, have put the sleepy town of Sorsogon (about 500 km south of Manila) in the tourism map back in 1998 when a group of divers came into contact with these gentle giants that make their way to the plankton-rich waters off Donsol to feed from November to May.
With the push of environmental and conservation groups, the municipal government of Donsol passed into law the protection of the whale sharks (which used to be hunted and poached), turning the small town into a top ecotourism destination and the butanding as the main attraction. But so as not to impede the whale sharks in their natural habitat the local tourism office and World Wildlife Fund established very detailed whale shark interaction guidelines: you cannot touch the whale sharks; you cannot feed them; you have to keep a safe distance of 3 to 4 meters; there can only be six swimmers (or one boat) per shark, etc. Unfortunately, not all those rules get followed once there in the water.
Mid-February to mid-May is considered the best time to visit Donsol. March to May is the peak season and it’s also summer vacation time in the Philippines. We went to Donsol during Holy Week, probably the peak of peak season. (Relatives living in neighboring Albay inform me later on that February is the best time to go, less tourists and more chances of seeing the whale sharks.)
When we got to the Donsol Tourist Center at 7 am the day before Maundy Thursday (and the start of the long weekend), there was already a big crowd and no discernible line. I was suddenly relieved that we made reservations the day before as some people trying to get in the boats for the two trips that morning were already being told that they would have to take the afternoon trip (whale sharks typically feed during the morning) or the boats for the following day. Word of advice if you’re going during peak season, try to register at the tourist center the day before you want to go on your trip. (I heard from a tour driver that by Good Friday and Black Saturday, there was such an overflow of tourists, that they were already being told they would have to wait a few more days to get a slot in one of the boats. Some had to leave without even getting on a boat.)
During the peak season, two to three trips are made with a maximum of 30 outrigger boats in each trip going out to sea; each trip lasts for three hours. Since you’re out in the ocean and the whale sharks are not exactly trained to emerge whenever tourists come, there’s always a chance you won’t get to see them on that three-hour boat ride. Which was what we thought would happen to us.
The first time our whale shark spotter (there’s always one in every boat who’s tasked to look for the butanding’s dark shadow just right below the water’s surface) saw a whale shark after an hour of searching, the Butanding Interaction Officer (BIO) who’s primarily your guide when you get into the water, told us to quickly position ourselves on the side of the boat, get our snorkeling gear ready and to jump when he says jump. He said jump. For a second or two I hesitated. And it only took that moment of hesitation to miss the whale shark, which dived and disappeared before I even got my bearings in the water. Its tail the only thing one of the other swimmers in our boat saw. When we got back on the boat, the BIO repeated his instructions, this time more sternly. “Pag sinabi kong talon, talon.” (“When I say jump, jump.”) Yessir.
An hour and a half later, with only 30 minutes left in our time before we had to go back to shore, I felt like the chance of seeing a whale shark was no longer in our favor. I even started to think of what I would write in this blog if I didn’t get to see one. “What happens when you make your way to Donsol and not see a whale shark” or something along the lines of heartbreaking disappointment followed by a lengthy happy hour. Then our spotter saw one.
We frantically went to the side of the boat, jumped immediately once we were told to jump (yes, we learned our lesson), followed by frantic swimming, trying not to get hit on the head by the flippers of the other swimmers, and more frantic swimming.
The BIO pointed down at the water; at first it was just a dark blue of nothing and then, there it was. I saw its gray body with the distinct spots swimming right under me. I think I stopped breathing for a while. It was the biggest fish I’ve ever seen in the open sea, probably more than eight meters long. To be honest, it was a bit intimidating and for a very brief moment I wanted to swim back to the boat. Then adrenaline and euphoria kicked in and I started to swim after it, screaming happily into my snorkel (not the best thing to do).
Seeing and swimming with this gentle giant while it slowly glided under water was incredible. Though I never got to see the span of its entire body from head to tail, the sight from above its dorsal fin was still overwhelming. I tried to keep my gaze at it while we swam after it. I was in awe. So in awe that I didn’t notice quite a number of flippers brushing closely to my face. Whenever I would lift my head off the water, I could see the chaos. All the frenzied splashing and kicking. All the other swimmers trying to see the whale shark. The one boat/six swimmers per shark rule appears not to be strictly enforced. There were probably close to 10 boats and more than 30 swimmers kicking their way through the water to see that one whale shark.
A minute or two of swimming with the whale shark (the time felt longer though), I couldn’t anymore keep up with it. As I saw more people were jumping into the water, swimming after it, I decided to swim back to the boat while my legs could still manage some decent kicks. I got to see the whale shark. I got to swim right above it. And no matter how brief of an encounter it was, it just felt incredible.
When we reached the boat, P and I and the other passenger who swam as well were grinning at each other like idiots. Thrilled to bits and talking excitedly at the same time about what we just saw. The experience was exhilarating. No wonder people have been flocking to this part of the Philippines. Just remember to follow the Tourist Center guidelines… and your BIO when he tells you to jump.
(My apologies that I don’t have actual whale shark photos to post. I didn’t have an underwater camera, but the hubby did have a tiny underwater video cam with him. UPDATE: I couldn’t upload a video in WordPress just yet so I just uploaded P’s short video clip of the whale shark we saw in Donsol in YouTube. The quality is pretty blurry and he didn’t get a full shot of the whale shark. For some reason, it didn’t want to pose or stay still while we tried to get a better shot. You can clearly see though the sheer number of fellow swimmers who were all following it.)
Donsol Tourist Center is located at Dancalan, Donsol, Sorsogon; mobile +63 (919) 7070394, (927) 4836735
How to get there: Go to Legazpi City in Albay via an hour long flight from Manila (AirPhil Express, Cebu Pacific, Philippine Airlines, or Zest Air) or a 10-hour bus ride (take the reliable Cagsawa bus line from Araneta Center in Cubao, Quezon City). From Legazpi hire a van from the Legazpi City Terminal or a taxi by the airport to go to Donsol (Early Riser taxis can take you for P1,500)
Where to stay: We stayed at Dancalan Beach Resort, which is right next to the Tourist Center. The rooms are pretty basic (bed, bathroom, desk, and mirror), but they are clean and still relatively new (so everything still works–air-conditioning, hot & cold shower). But the best thing about it is that it’s cheaper compared to the other resorts next to the center. Vitton Beach Resort is also near the center; it’s more expensive, but it has a swimming pool.