Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Swimming with Donsol's massive whale sharks

Whale sharks can grow to lengths up to 18m, weigh up to 40 tons and live up to 100 years.
Photo credit to Gutsy Tuazon. Check out Donsol Eco Tour here.

March 11, 2012
Donsol, Sorsogon

This I promised myself: not to patronize dolphin shows, not to attend rodeo or buffalo festivals, and not to promote zoo and ocean parks. It's not that I hate animals, it's just that I feel very strongly for these living creatures that are taken from their natural habitat, locked up in a cage and are being put to major harm and stress.

Whale sharks (Rhincodon Typus), known locally in Bicol as Butanding, is the world's largest fish. These massive and gentle animals appear in Donsol waters in considerable numbers between December and May each year. This is also the same time when tourists can have a chance to swim alongside these animals. 

When I learned about this whale shark interaction in Donsol, I thought of how tourism may affect the welfare of these gentle giants. I tried to weigh the pros and cons and asked myself how my presence as a tourist could affect these animals.  After giving it some thought, I was convinced to give it a try. The interactions happen in the shark's natural habitat, at least they are not thrown in some giant aquariums away from where they really should be. I also read the guidelines being enforced by the tourism officers in Donsol and realized that if followed religiously, these wild animals should be fine. 

So there, along with my friends Kidd and Janet, I caved in to curiosity and went to Donsol to swim with these gentle giants. 

Although we were warned by some friends and our guide Kuya Jerry that there is no guarantee for a sighting, we still kept our hopes up.  I prayed for at least one, just one and I'll be fine! 

After we were ferried to the part where the whale sharks could be seen, it took only a few minutes before our guide told us to prepare our snorkeling gears and dive into the waters. At that moment I was already consumed with excitement and fear! Seriously, these are wild animals I'm about to face! I was petrified (Debbie's words)! Then it happened. At Kuya Jerry's command, we jumped and had our first whale shark interaction.

Sam, Debbie, Kidd and Janet getting ready for another jump

Ok, so here's the summary of my magical swim with the five whale sharks I met in Donsol. I gave each shark their own virtuous names, for comparison's sake. As to gender, I just assumed they are all females.
  • Love - she is overwhelmingly huge! Everything about her is massive: her mouth, her fin and her body spots. I felt lucky to have Kuya Jerry guiding me through her because I got the chance to really see her full beauty. She's absolutely lovely!
  • Hope - she came just a few minutes after Love. But unlike Love, I didn't get to interact with her well because I had to share her with other tourists. The interaction was interrupted by the swarming swimmers, trying to get near and taking photos of Hope. 
  • Faith - we had to wait a little longer before she showed up. Unfortunately, I wasn't prepared when she came. Maybe because of too much excitement, I struggled with my snorkeling gear all throughout the interaction. It was quick, then poof, off she went, swerving slowly to her left, gone almost unnoticed. 
  • Trust- she's the smallest of the five butandings I saw.  I was following her lazy movement when I realized that someone was actually holding my hand and guiding me through. Underwater, I kept giving my guide a thumbs up and an OK sign, my way of saying thank you for helping me. It was only after Trust left and I already up in the water that I realized that the person holding my hand was not anyone from our boat. He was a guide from another boat and he was looking at me with the same who-are-you-look I was giving him! LOL. It seemed like he had mistaken me to be one of her clients. hahaha Oh well, thanks to him!
  • Chastity- my final, most intimate swim with a whale shark that day. She showed up exclusively for our group and we had the chance to really get near her (without actually touching her). She was massive just like Hope and her movement very slow just like Trust. By this time, all my worries about being devoured alive by this creature were gone. I was already comfortable following their pace and enjoying the whole experience!
After almost three hours out at the sea, kuya Jerry called it a day. We got more than what we asked for so we ended our Donsol experience with a big butanding-like smile. huge! :)

Group photo with Kuya Jerry (our guide), Debbie, Sam,  Kidd and Janet

Here's what I learned from the whale shark experience:
  • I thought that some of the guidelines were not followed. There was a point during the interaction when two to three boats had to share one whale shark. :(
  • Do NOT plan a trip to Donsol during full moon. Our guide advised us that there's a small chance of seeing a butanding during full moon. 
  • Bring your own snorkeling gears. It will cost P200-300 if you choose to rent your equipment there.
  • Be at the Visitor Center/Tourism Office before 7am. Especially on a weekend, getting boat reservations may be a challenge. Only 30 boats, with six people on each boat, are allowed at a time for the three hour interaction. 
  • It's ok not to bring underwater cam, me thinking. I just locked up the whole experience deep in my memory.haha! sour-graping!  Well, really it's up to you.hehe.

How to get to Donsol, Sorsogon
  • Via Legazpi City - an hour flight or a ten-hour bus ride from Manila. From Legazpi City, another hour by land trip to get to Donsol. Those commuting to Donsol can take the Legazpi-Donsol vans parked at Legazpi City Central Terminal. Van fare: legazpi to Donsol - P70
  • Via Sorsogon City - about 12 hours bus ride from Manila. Take a jeep or van for an hour drive going to Donsol.

Upon arrival in Donsol:
  • Register and log at the Visitor Center- it's better to register as soon as you arrive to ensure that you get to the first batch of boats going to the butanding site at around 7am. It's best to be early because there's a high probability of Butanding sighting early in the morning around 7-10 am. 
  • Pay required fees- P3500/6pax/boat and registration fee P100 for Filipinos, P300 for foreigners.
  • Watch a briefing - Everyone is required to watch a 15-minute video detailing the guidelines during the interaction. 
  • Wait for boat assignments and wait for boats- each boat is assigned with a Butanding Interaction Officer (BIO), a spotter and a boat crew. 
  • Check your things - snorkeling gear, sun protection, food and water, research form, underwater camera.

Guidelines during the Interaction:

To ensure your safe and enjoyable experience and to prevent the animals from being disturbed, please make sure to stricty follow these code of conducts when interacting with the whale sharks. It is important to remember that we are just visitors to the whale sharks' natural habitat. Their well-being must be our priority. 
  • Do not touch or ride the whale shark.
  • Do not restrict the movement of the shark or impede its natural path.
  • The recommended distance from the whale shark is 3 meters from the tail.
  • Do not undertake flash photography.
  • Do not use scuba, scooters, jet skis or any motorized underwater propulsion.
  • A maximum of six (6) swimmers per shark is required.
  • There must be only one boat per whale shark.

Other activities in Donsol:
  • Firefly watching- a favorite side trip in Donsol where visitors get to see thousands of fireflies show off an amazing display of light along Donsol River.
  • Visit the Grotto - about 15 minutes away from Donsol tow proper, this Grotto Chapel can be reached climbing a pathway with about 300 steps.   
  • Island hopping service is also offered at the tourism office. 

Where to stay in Donsol:

Shoreline Beach Resort and Resto 
Dancalan, Donsol
Contact #: 0919-420-8237
c/o Lizel Idjao

Amor Beach Resort
Dancalan, Donsol
Contact #: 0921-245-4028
c/o Razyl Amor

Giddy's Place Dive Resort Hotel
Clemente St. PWWD, Donsol
Contact #: 0917-848-8881

Vitton Beach Resort
Dancalan, Donsol
Contact #: 0927-912-6313
c/o Nora Morales

Woodland Beach Resort
Pangpang, Donsol
Contact #: 0921-969-9544
c/o Maricho Bigayan

Dancalan, Donsol
Contact #: 0906-309-9372
c/o Jun-Jun Belmonte

Elysia Beach Resort
Pangpang, Donsol
Contact #: 0926-475-9762
c/o Janice Lolo

For backpackers, DOT-accredited home-stays are available in Donsol. For booking and reservations, pls contact Erna Jimenez: 0906-762-5955.

Contact for whaleshark booking and reservation
Municipal Tourism Office
Contact #s: 0919-707-0394 and 0921-969-9544
Website: www.ecotourdonsol.com

*Some information used in this blog are from the municipal tourism office of Donsol. 


  1. Nice! BTW,how sure are you na iba-iba sila?
    Curious lang.hehe

    1. hahaha! yes bek, i think iba iba sinda. may kanya-kanyang personality. :)

  2. additional info: they can actually register night before their whale shark encounter para una sila sa pila ng banka the following day. sa mga nagpa-pre-register, make sure to be there at 7am . =)

  3. Che! One great experience! Thank you at sinama nyo ako. Thanks to Kidd too at pumayag sya! =D

    1. no, thank you at sumama ka!haha alang katapusang thank you!! :)

  4. I like this post Che. Very insightful. :)
    Actually Cha, 3 whale sharks lang talaga yun, the first 3 we spotted is Keiko, the fourth one is Mocchi (which I didn't see) and the last one is really Chastity. I know because I recognized the dot pattern, and you have to believe me Cha because I have more forensic background. Heheheh.
    Janet, I am forever thankful na nandon ka at di mo ko iniiwan everytime nahihiwalay ako sa group :D
    Till our next adventure! Sana next time, yung totoong whales naman...

    1. Kidd, Japanese names pa rin yung mga butandings except for chastity?! HAHA I think tama ka Kidd, may nadobleng bilang dito..HAHAHA I trust your photographic memory. :))

    2. totoong whales? sige na nga. wag lang sa totong sharks! hihi! hihi! =D

    3. kidd, aim high, go for beluga whales!! tama si ja, oks lang whales wag lang sharkeeeeyyy!! :I

      bdwy, ang count ng butanding dun is per sighting!haha.

    4. che! yan din sabi ko kay cha! hahaha!!! =D

  5. Advice Lang Kung gusto mag scuba diving wag magpapabook sa dive shop( fundiveasia) (donsolecotour) at baka matulad sa mga nawawalang turista na Hindi nakukuha sa sites. Many times na nangyayari . Ang pinaka nahuling nangyari ay sa mag asawang Australian na nawala. Nakuha kinaumagahan na. Wow..

  6. I’ve been searching for some decent stuff on the subject and haven't had any luck up until this point, You just got a new biggest fan!.. Aufstellbecken


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