It’s not everyday that an opportunity to swim with the whale sharks calls out to you. And when that happens, there’s no other way but to take the plunge and just do it!
The first time I’ve heard about swimming with the whale sharks was in the late 2000s when a friend of mine told me about doing it and it was still starting to get popular in the country. I was envious of her but didn’t really put much thought into it because I am not really a great swimmer.
Fast forward to 2016, I was in Legazpi having a very slow day with the Mayon Volcano in tow. For some reason, majority of the travelers that I’ve met at the hostel kept on raving about swimming with the whale sharks in Donsol – an hour or two away from Legazpi. I even met someone who worked for LAMAVE (a non-profit organization that helps conserve marine life/environment through research and education) that encouraged me to do so.
Early morning but a rather slow start.
Without over analyzing, some new friends and I decided to catch an early morning ride on the 25th of February for Donsol.
As luck would have it, we had a slow start. Of all the days in the year, there was a nationwide public transportation protest and it took us a while to get ourselves to the van terminal.
After almost 2 hours of travel from Legazpi, we finally arrived at the Donsol Tourism Center to get things started.
Donsol Tourism Center
Upon settling the boat rental and the environmental fee, we were asked to watch the video orientation and later on, briefed by our guide about the do’s and dont’s during the Butanding watching (Butanding is the local name of the whale shark).
Things to note:
1. The boat rental is good for 4 hours. That means, your boat will sail 4 hours in the sea with your designated boatman, a Butanding spotter, and a guide.
2. The boat is good for a maximum of 6 guests only. Your boatman, the Butanding spotter, and guide are not part of the count.
3. There is NO guarantee that within the 4 hour period, you’ll see the whale shark. Why?
Because the whale sharks are allowed to live their normal marine life and thus, can swim freely here and there.
And given that they are not “enclosed” within a certain area in the sea, they might be harder to spot even if they are nearby because of the weather conditions.
4. As whale sharks are considered as wild animals, being allowed to swim with them meant being responsible enough not to disturb their normal habitat. And that means NO touching even if they are very close that you just can’t handle it anymore!
5. When your guide tells you to “get ready”, that means GET READY TO JUMP! Don’t hesitate. Don’t ask questions. Just jump and look down!
6. If you can’t swim, be honest and tell your guide about it. Wear your life jacket and just follow your guide 😉
Into the blue, at Donsol, Sorsogon
The First Get Ready.
Within the first 30 minutes of being in the boat, we were taken into an area where a few boats had already settled in. It shouldn’t be a surprise as to why they’re all there, but we were still caught off guard when our guide told us to “Get Ready!”
We jumped and there it was.
I was in a state of shock as I didn’t know what to expect. I remember seeing just a fraction of it (a meter, perhaps) before it descended deeper. The only “marker” that it had finally left was when the guy with the DSLR swimming beside me left as well.
I think that left all of us a bit confused. I couldn’t even consider it a number 1, as it was only a fraction. And some of my friends weren’t even able to see it as well.
And then came the long wait. A very long one.
The clouds were dark and it was also raining for a bit.
We were all quite, just on the lookout.
I prayed. I think, we all did, one way or another.
I was thinking, “just one.”
“Please God. Just one.”
Whale shark tracking/spotting: The spotter stands at the top of the boat and looks for the shadow. On a bright and sunny day, they are easier to track even on a 50-meter distance. But it was a bit cloudy that day.
And then… The Most Memorable Butanding Encounter.
More than 2 hours and then we were told to GET READY.
No other boats were there except ours, so I felt a bit unsure. Again, we didn’t know what to expect. So we jumped when we were told and just looked down.
It didn’t even last a second when the Butanding appeared before my eyes… before OUR eyes.
I remember even saying Oh My God with the snorkel on, with hand gestures and all!
You see it in slow motion where the whale shark swims almost just a meter under you. The whale shark swims slowly and you see all of it vividly! You see it from start to finish. All 8 meters of it! That so-called teenager whale shark! You see it from its head. You swim and you’re afraid that you might actually hit it with your feet. You swim and you feel like you could almost touch it. You swim and there was no need for you to rush, no need for you to catch up because you know it won’t leave you.
You see its whole body in the slowest pace ever and it is AMAZING.
And the moment that it finally left, when all of it was over, it hits you. That almost indescribable feeling after that unbelievable, surreal experience leaves you in AWE to the point that you almost couldn’t handle it.
I feel so grateful, blessed, and even lucky!
Another memory to hold dearly in my heart.
Photo from Timucin
Photo from Timucin
Photo from Veli and Andrelia
Photo from Veli and Andrelia
Photo from Veli and Andrelia
During the last hour, our third whale shark wanted us to swim with him 3 times in a row.
In the last hour of our boat rental, our spotter was able to see the whale shark again before anybody else does. We had the best team and so, we were off to swim again!
And then it left…
Or so we thought!
In a matter of minutes, we spotted it again and the same opportunity came! This time, I let it pass and decided to take a break.
But then when we spotted it for the third time and for the last time, I took the plunge and swam before it finally decided to descend into the deep.
Thrice in a row?
It felt like this whale shark was showing off for us.
Boom! Boom! Boom!
It just wanted to appear over and over and over again.
Beyond the Bucketlist.
To say that swimming with the whale sharks is exhilarating is an understatement.
It doesn’t even exist in my so-called bucketlist, let alone in my wildest dreams because I can’t even imagine daring myself to actually do it!
It was beyond my vocabulary until that day.
However, it was fate telling me to do so. Being presented with the opportunity and getting lucky enough was another “When Love is True” moment for me.
All we had to do is to be one with what this world had to offer, follow the path and embrace the moment.
When a friend of ours, Andrelia, said that we would be able to see it 5 times, I didn’t really count on it. To see it once was enough for me. But to actually see a lot of it? Like, 5 times? That was EPIC.
How to get to Donsol from Legazpi
1. Ride a van from Tahao Terminal, Legazpi to Donsol
Fare: 75 pesos/pax
Duration: 1-1.5 hours
2. Ride a tricycle from Donsol to the Tourism Office
Fare: 20 pesos/pax
Duration: 10 minutes
Boat Rental (mandatory, because you would need a boat to sail. To be paid at the tourism office)
3500 pesos for the whole boat
Good for 4 hours
Accommodates 6 guests
Comes with a Guide, a Boatman, and a Butanding Spotter
Comes with a life jacket
*Whale shark spotting/sighting is not guaranteed within 4 hours so the guests better pray really hard 😉
Environmental Fee (mandatory, to be paid at the tourism office)
Rental (optional, available at the vicinity)
Snorkel Gear – 250/pax
Good to bring: Drinking water and food to replenish your body’s needs.
Good to know as to where NOT to do it:
Another place where you could (but should not) see the whale shark in the Philippines is in Oslob, Cebu. Although it helped boost the local tourism, the balance of sustaining a good marine life for the whale sharks was disrupted.
I personally discourage doing the whale shark watching in Oslob because it violates their natural marine life. How?
- They feed the whale sharks so that they won’t leave the area (imagine going to an open zoo and seeing them all at once in a specific space).
- Thus, they don’t swim as freely as they should because they are tempted to stay for the food.
- Thousands of tourists flock the area, perhaps a hundred per batch getting a 30-minute swimming opportunity at a time.
- They allow tourists to touch the whale sharks.
- And, they associate boat with food availability. With this, even if the tour boats don’t have propeller anymore, some whale sharks still manage to hurt themselves because they approach other propeller boats.
Unless I need to re-validate my facts or until the things mentioned above change, please let me know.