Six things to do on a road trip down Southern Cebu

When we made the recent trip to the island province of Cebu for the Sinulog festival (one of the Philippine’s biggest fiestas–read: street party–and annual religious festival in honor of the Santo Nino or Child Jesus), my husband and I and a couple of our friends also made a three-hour trip out of the city to the southern town of Oslob and made some other stops on the way back for some good lechon (roast pig) and chicharon (pork cracklings). Because why wouldn’t you stop for lechon and chicharon?

1. Swim with the whale sharks. Like the sleepy Sorsogon town of Donsol, Oslob turned into a tourist destination, primarily because of the whale sharks that frequented its waters to feed. But unlike in Donsol where you have to search for them, the fishermen in Tan-Awan in Oslob hand-feed the gentle giants and lead them close to shore for the tourists to have an easier access to them. And there are three ways to see them, dive (P600), snorkel (P500), or just stay in the boat, (P300) because the whale sharks tend to stay close to the surface as the feeder throws uyap (shrimp) to feed them.

Photo courtesy of Mike Aquino

One of the whale sharks in Oslob. This and the other one we saw were relatively smaller (but still amazing to behold) than the ones in Donsol (Photo courtesy of Mike Aquino)

Personally, I prefer the practice of whale shark interaction in Donsol. There’s no guarantee that you’ll see a whale shark and capture that Instagram-worthy shot there–because they are after all supposed to be still in the wild–but it seems there’s less impact on their migratory nature (the whale sharks in Oslob, we’re told, are there year-round). Our friend who writes for About.com and was with us during the trip has a different take on it here (and a more helpful guide). Continue reading

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Searching for whale sharks

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.

slouching somewhere

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.)

slouching somewhere

How to swim with the whale sharks in Donsol: Register at the Donsol Tourist Center, pay P100 as registration fee and P3,500 for the boat (for 6 people), watch the video, get assigned your boat and BIO, get on the boat, listen to your BIO’s instructions, and go out to sea

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.

Continue reading