In search of the Donsol whale shark

And so our ten days in Boracay came to an end. Eager to fulfil my dream of seeing whale sharks in the wild, we were faced with two potential destinations well known for their whale shark, or butanding as they are known in Filipino, populations.

Oslob, on the island of Cebu, would take us back to where we had come from, and was well known for virtually guaranteed sightings of whale sharks. However, you don’t have to google for long before coming across reports of the sharks being lured by artificial feeding of krill to encourage them to visit, and remain in, the area. Stories also quickly emerged of visitors being permitted, if not positively encouraged, to swim closely with and even touch the sharks and of injuries to the sharks from boat propellors and careless swimmers.

Given we’ve had infinitely more satisfying encounters with wildlife when we’ve opted for more sustainable, respectful experiences such as the Elephant Nature Park in Thailand and the magical Gibbon Experience in Laos, we were keen to avoid contributing to a harmful tourist phenomenon if we possibly could. So we turned to a less accessible destination – Donsol, where the focus seemed very much on natural interactions with these magnificent gentle giants.

Donsol Whale Shark
A whale shark, or butanding. Photo © 2010 Marcel Ekkel

As with any journey across the scattered islands that make up the Philippines, it was was a day of numerous and varied transport methods – a 4:30am tricycle journey, a ferry, a walk, a flight, a wait, another flight, a minibus and another tricycle.

A mere twelve hours later, and we arrived at the Amor Farm Beach Resort – a selection of thatched cottages dotted amongst lush green gardens and bathed in the golden warmth of late afternoon sun.

Greeting us at the entrance was a fibreglass model of Donsol’s most famous resident, and I suddenly felt apprehensive. After illness in Cebu and let down in Boracay, the Philippines had not been a successful portion of our trip. Had I dragged Craig to a remote hamlet for yet more disappointment? Would the whale sharks be out to play? Reports have started to drift through of the decline of Donsol’s whale sharks – would this be just a wild butanding chase?

A model whale shark in Donsol
Would we meet the real Donsol whale shark?

At 7am sharp the next morning, we strolled down the road to the dive centre to register for a boat and were delighted to see the spotting calendar on the wall reporting small, but regular numbers, of shark sightings. We were six to a boat – us and two lovely couples from China and New Zealand. A fleet of twenty two boats headed out, each manned by a crew of two plus a spotter sitting at the top of the mast to scan the water for giant beasts.

After 40 minutes or so of drifting around the bay, the spotters called for us to grab our fins and snorkels and get in the water pronto. I dived in and looked around, confused among the noisy melee of people around us. Then I looked down and gasped, nearly choking on the water in my snorkel.

Drifting about three metres below me, moving slowly through the water, was the biggest creature I had ever seen. A fish wider than a small car, and so close I feared I might tread on it. Eventually I composed myself and began to swim, my legs thundering to keep pace with its effortless glide before – almost lazily – the whale shark shook off its crowd of followers and dived into the deep.

And so for the next couple of hours the same routine played out – a spotter would shout and the 132 excited passengers of the boats would leap into the water, either hoping to position themselves in the path of the oncoming shark or setting off in frantic pursuit. We were lucky enough to see five sharks over the course of about three hours – each time without any feeding or baiting.

Despite the success of the trip, I have mixed feelings about the experience. I will never, ever, forget that first breathtaking sight of white spots emerging out of the murky water, or being in a lucky spot where a brief free dive allowed me to marvel at all 11 metres of shark in profile as it coasted past me from a safe distance. I’m very thankful for the opportunity to see them naturally, and in a location where the people clearly are keen to preserve the sharks as the wild animals they should be rather than treating them as disposable cash cows. Each boat had an “interaction officers”, and – kudos to them – they did pull up people attempting to get too close to the sharks (there is a distance restriction of three metres). There was (as far as I saw) no touching or feeding of the sharks.

However, the whole experience had a feeling of frantic chaos about it. Although there clearly was some effort by the boats not to send all 132 or so passengers into the same area of the bay at the same time, the “6 person per shark” limit so heavily touted in the briefing video was blatantly ignored from the start, which makes a mockery of the “respectful interaction” we had been aiming for.

The one shark that appeared would inevitably be swarmed by crowds – weaker swimmers towed along in life vests by their interaction officer, who was keen to make sure they got the sighting they had paid for. There were so many people and so many boats in the water that Craig was nearly – and I really do mean by inches here – run over by our boat.

Inevitably – particularly with an unpredictable phenomenon such as wild animals – there is a limited window of opportunity for people to have the experience they are paying for and I totally understand the desire of the boat crews to ensure their customers get what they pay for.

I’m not sure there is an easy answer here, aside from the removal of the industry altogether. I certainly would have happily paid a little more for a lower number of passengers and boats in the bay, even if it meant booking ahead or waiting for a day or two for a boat space. However, given the relatively short whale shark season in Donsol – and few other opportunities to draw the tourist dollar during the rest of the year – this wish for a higher-quality experience is probably unrealistic. Whilst definitely less harmful than the practices purportedly taking place in Oslob, I didn’t come away feeling great about our swim with the whale sharks of Donsol, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed for another – more spontaneous – meeting in the future.

If you want to see Whale Sharks in Donsol
  • We paid ₱885 (about £13.50) each for our Whale Shark trip, plus ₱250 (about £4) each to hire fins and snorkels from our guest house (they can be hired from the DoT office too)
    We visited in April 2015, which is peak spotting season for the butanding in Donsol and saw 5 sharks (or one shark 5 times, who knows?)
  • To organise your trip, visit the Department of Tourism (DoT) office, which is located on the main road just down from most of the guest houses who will be able to direct you. It is supposed to be open until 5pm for registration, but we found it closed about 4:45pm and just came along early the next morning
  • Boats start leaving from 7am – try to arrive no later as the boats head out once they are full
  • It is easy to book your trip directly with the DoT – there is no need to pay a premium for the tours which appear in the first few Google search results (unless you want to!)
  • To get to Donsol, we flew to Legazpi from Manilla which took about an hour. From Legazpi we took a tricycle from the airport to the bus station and then took a minivan for an hour or so to Donsol, followed by another tricycle to the guest house. This cost ₱120 (about £1.60) each in total
  • We stayed at the Amor Beach Farm Resort – a short walk from the DoT office. It had comfortable private rooms, a pretty decent restaurant and wifi for about £15 per night

One Comment

  1. Amy said:

    It does sound a bit frantic and I can see why you had mixed feelings, I think it’s always going to be harder to find the kind of ethical trips in Asia that you’d find in other parts of the world. We recently went on a whale watching trip in New England and it was all really well managed and the animals were protected; I have also had experiences similar to the one you mentioned while travelling in Asia though. As you say, I don’t think there’s an easy answer to the problem.

    October 4, 2015

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