The night bus from Banaue back to Manila left at 6:30pm and arrived on schedule at 3:30am. Dazed, I took a taxi straight to the airport, marveling that the traffic remained heavy at such an early hour. My flight didn’t leave until the early afternoon and I’d resigned myself to a long wait. But I found a seat on an earlier flight, and at mid-day my plane touched down in Legazpi, the airport nearest Donsol.
Donsol always seems to be described as a sleepy fishing village. It’s also ground zero for the Philippine experience I was most fired up about: swimming with whale sharks. Whale sharks are the biggest fish in the world, sometimes reaching over 50 feet in length, but – despite their size and the word “shark” in their name – they’re harmless. Like manta rays, they mostly eat microscopic plankton.
Whale sharks (“butanding” to the locals) typically migrate to Donsol between December and June, so my timing was good. But encountering one of them is never a sure thing. I planned to stay in Donsol from Monday afternoon until Friday morning, figuring I’d have to be pretty unlucky to strike out three days in a row.
From the Legazpi airport I took a tricycle to the bus terminal and then caught a shared minivan to Donsol. After dropping my bags at my hotel I immediately went to the Tourism Office to book a whale shark trip for the next day. The boats they use have room for six tourists. You can rent a whole boat and pay the full price, or you can share with others and pay less. I requested a shared boat and was told to be back at 7am the next morning.
Compared to Banaue and Batad, my hotel room in Donsol was almost decadent. “A whole roll of toilet paper!” I thought when I saw the bathroom. I’d even sprung for air conditioning and hot water. The Donsol beach wasn’t very nice, but my room was just 20 feet from the water and the sunsets were beautiful.
That night I used the sink in my room to test out something new I’d bought for this trip, a clear waterproof bag that, theoretically, would let me take underwater videos with my iPhone. The quality of the images would be pretty low, and it was easy to imagine ways that dunking my iPhone in the ocean could end in disaster. But my underwater images always stink no matter what equipment I use, and at least this way I didn’t have to pack a separate camera.
The next morning I returned to the Tourism Office well before 7am, checked in, and had plenty of time to rent snorkeling equipment before being assigned to a boat. At 7:30am they grouped me with five other tourists and we hit the water.
I’m not exactly sure what I was expecting from a whale shark encounter, but the vague cinematic conception in my mind was definitely peaceful and free of crowds. The actual experience that morning was hectic and packed with people. There were about 20 boats patrolling the water, and as soon as one spotted a whale shark all the others rushed over. The official rules at the Tourism Office made it clear that there should never be more than six people around any whale shark, but in practice it was a free-for-all.
After an hour on the water a nearby boat found a whale shark and we were the third or fourth group to arrive. Over a dozen people were already in the water as we frantically geared up and dropped over the side.
Everything happened very quickly. The water was too murky to see more than about 20 feet. Fins and arms bumped against me. My attention splintered as I tried to simultaneously scan for the shark, keep an eye on our guide, avoid other people, and make sure my iPhone was recording. A large dark shape passed slowly below me, and only when the distinctive white dots became visible did I realize I was looking at the back of a whale shark. Whoa, I thought, that thing is MASSIVE, like some kind of sea monster. Almost immediately it faded out of sight.
I was grateful to have seen a whale shark but couldn’t help feeling let down. Was that it? Pouring salt in the wound, some of the people from the first boat to arrive couldn’t stop raving about their interaction. “Oh my God we got to swim with it for so long! That was the most incredible thing ever!”
“Did you see it?” our guide asked me.
“Only its back, just for a second,” I answered. Two of the people in our boat said they’d missed it entirely.
We resumed our search. At about 10am another boat spotted a whale shark and we rushed over. The experience was a little less chaotic this time, and I caught a longer look at its side and tail, but again I missed the head. Whale sharks are so huge it’s nearly impossible to see their entire length in water that murky. One end or the other dissolves into a green void.
“Did you see it?” our guide asked again.
“Most of it.”
“You must stay close to me,” he scolded. We searched unsuccessfully for another half hour and then it was time to return to shore.
On the bright side we’d seen two whale sharks, which was great. But I wanted a better look. Before leaving the Tourism Office I signed up to go again the next day. Price certainly wasn’t a disincentive – the trip that day had only cost about $20, which included a one-time environmental fee, and a second trip would be $12. Twelve dollars!
On my first night in Donsol I’d resisted pressure from my hotel to go on a Firefly Tour. “What’s a Firefly Tour?” I asked.
The woman pushing the tour looked shocked at my ignorance. “They are small insects that light up.”
On my second night I gave in and took the tour. It turned out to be a boat ride up a nearby river that left after sunset and stopped at some trees that attract swarms of fireflies. There was no way to get decent photos, but it was a cool thing to see. I hadn’t realized that fireflies in big groups partially synchronize their pulses, looking almost like Christmas lights.
At 7:30 the next morning I was back out on the water with a new group. Only 10 minutes passed before our guide spotted a fin above the water. We dropped in front of the whale shark’s path, but as soon as we hit the water it vanished. A half hour later the same scenario played out again. I was encouraged, though, that there were far fewer boats compared to the day before, and we were much more spread out.
Soon a nearby boat signaled a sighting. We hurried over. Our guide sent us into the water and I swam to where the whale shark seemed to be heading, slightly ahead of the rest of my group, expecting another false alarm.
But then a faint shape appeared in the green water and gradually became more distinct. A whale shark was swimming directly towards me. The gigantic ellipse of its open mouth almost filled my field of vision. Very slowly it glided underneath me, every detail visible, so close I had to dodge the tail fin as it passed.
Wow! I was awed. It felt almost unreal. For more than five minutes the whale shark let us swim with it, seemingly oblivious to our presence. There weren’t many people in the water and it didn’t feel crowded. The experience was completely different than it had been the day before. Finally the shark angled downwards and faded from view. (The long version of my video is here.)
What a rush. Most of us were just laughing in amazement as we climbed back on the boat. “How big was it?” I asked our guide.
“Maybe 8 or 9 meters,” he said. “Big one.”
An hour later we found another whale shark and had a similar encounter. They move so slowly it’s easy to swim alongside as they feed. The sharks didn’t seem to mind us, and I never saw anyone intentionally get too close or try to touch one.
Still, I worried about the impact of tourists on the sharks. It can’t be fun to have us splashing around in their space. But they can dive away anytime they want, and – more importantly – the tourism dollars mean that for the locals whale sharks are worth more alive than dead. The Philippines outlawed the killing of whale sharks in 1998, when tourism in Donsol started spiking.
While stepping off the boat into the surf I landed hard on some sharp rocks, slashing the bottom of my left foot in multiple places. As I limped back to my hotel the blood pooling in my sandal made a squishing sound with each step. Thankfully the cuts weren’t too deep and I had a full day to heal up before I flew back to Manila. I was glad I’d remembered to pack band-aids.
Swimming with whale sharks was a special experience. I really enjoyed my time in Donsol, and I’m happy to report that my iPhone survived its first underwater assignment.