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After a nonstop 36 hour trip through the Ifugao Rice Terraces of Batad and Banau, we were immediately back at the Manila airport for a flight to Donsol, Philippines.

Why Donsol you may ask?

Well, having heard about the opportunity to see and even swim with the enormous Whale Sharks, we did our homework and made it a reality. As we began reading of laws banning the fishing, selling, importing, and exporting of whale sharks for commercial purposes in in 1998, we learned how the lovely people of the Philippines came up with a new idea. The fishing villages slowly came together to develop two areas, both well known as destinations for the migrating sharks, for tourists to see and swim with these giant animals.

One is Oslob where rows of small boats line up and slowly move through the shallow bay while the crew continuously feeds the whale sharks bringing them closer and closer to the crowds. Tourists armed with their GoPros, cameras and selfie sticks can then snap away, while the whale sharks munch on the free food. Digging a little deeper, we began to see how the practice of feeding them is eroding the living patterns of the whale sharks and seems to be disrupting the migrating and mating patterns, which will certainly have consequences down the road.

On the other side, there is a second option which of course we chose. In our eyes it was the more ecofriendly opportunity in the small fishing town of Donsol. This tiny town, with the support of the World Wildlife Fund, has committed to protecting these animals and providing sustainable ecofriendly excursions for tourists. As described online, both of these communities have come together to protect the whale sharks; however, the people of Donsol are championing the sightseeing of whale sharks in their natural habitat without feeding them.

So enough with the background. How did we make this a reality?

Leaving Manila, we turned down another long bus ride and paid just a little more for a very short flight from Manila to Legazpi City, a small city at the foot of the picture perfect Mayon Volcano.

We understand that many people stay in Legazpi City and simply make day trips to Donsol. However, we were there for only one reason and opted to stay just up the beach from the visitor center where the whale shark viewing tours depart. Once we landed, we caught a tricycle just outside the airport gates to the local bus station for the 1.5hr ride out to Donsol. It was a bit curvy so be prepared if you’re one to get motion sickness.

We checked into Woodland Beach Resort that evening, had dinner at the hotel restaurant and headed to bed early hoping to catch up from the last couple days. We were up early, had a quick breakfast poolside then walked down the beach to the visitor center to figure out how the whole process worked.

First, there are either AM or PM excursions. Next, each boat takes 6 passengers for 3000 pesos. Finally, each individual must pay 300 pesos for the registration fee. So, basically its 800 pesos ($15USD) per person on a full boat (I just explain it this way because sometimes there’s not enough tourists to fill the last boat so you could pay extra rather than waiting for anyone else to arrive). It took a few minutes to figure out how it works, but basically you pay for your seat on one of the boats and then wait for the remaining seats to fill up.

When we finally figured it all out, we filled out the standard forms and waiver, paid our fees and waited to be assigned a captain and crew. Always remember everything runs on island time so don’t be in any hurry.

Once assigned, we walked out into the water, boarded our boat, and sped off toward the area best known to find the whale sharks. Each boat had a Captain steering the boat, a Butanding Interaction Officer (Butanding is the local name for the Whale Sharks) to guide each of us especially when in the water, and finally a “spotter” that sometimes stood on the top canopy of the boat looking out in all directions to spot the elusive fins piercing the surface of the water. The entire adventure lasts about 3-4hours and whether we saw a whale shark or not, we were cruising the calm waters of the northern Philippines with the sun high in the sky.

 

Eventually though our spotter called out pointing in the direction of the first whale shark of the day. Our captain “floored” it to get our crew closer to the animal. We pulled our goggles over or faces put on our fins and sat at the edge waiting to go. Then as we neared the area, the boat slowed down as our guide signaled us to leap off the edge of the boat and swim as fast as we could to see the enormous fish. We caught only a glimpse of this first one as it dove deep into the ocean. Then we all surfaced, gathered together, and climbed back aboard our boat.

Again we circled around looking for another elusive fin. This time it was spotted much closer. With the signal given, our crew of 6 slipped into the water and swam as fast as we could alongside the largest animal I’ve ever seen in person. Wearing long fins and racing with incredible excitement, I was able to swim beside this school bus sized Whale Shark. I kept up as long as I could then turned toward the surface. It was not until that moment of looking up at the surface that I realized I had actually been slowly descending as we swam along. It felt like so much more than a moment of fear, but thankfully with the fins I was able to get back to the surface before it was too late.

Once back on board the boat, we circled around for a little longer hoping to see another one before calling it a day. The rest of the day we relaxed by the pool of our resort, did a little blogging, and really just took it easy.

Having had a great experience with on our first trip, we decided to try a second time and got up early for another morning “butanding” excursion. This time though we weren’t quite as lucky. The weather was perfect and the water nice and calm, but there were not any sightings. We simply cruised around for a few hours aboard the boat, which wasn’t a bad way to spend te first part of the day at all.

In the end, if seeing these enormous Whale Sharks in their natural habitat is on your bucket list, then this is the place to go. Even though it’s not far from Legazpi, only about 55-60km, I’d still plan to stay at one of the nearby resorts or guest houses and take the time to relax when you’re not out on the water. Keep in mind the “butanding experiences” are not always reliable so it’s good to give time for at least a couple opportunities to go on one of the tours.

After spending only 2 nights in Donsol, we had Moalboal in our sights and caught an afternoon tricycle/bus back to Legazpi airport for the next adventure.

 

-Jeremy

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