Donsol and Swimming with Whale Sharks

A few days after I’d arrived in Legazpi I left the city and headed for Donsol, on the coast of Southeast Luzon. I took a minivan. These are similar to the ones used in Thailand, air-conditioned and reasonably comfortable, but they don’t operate on a specific schedule, they simply leave when full. When I arrived at the station there were only two or three other riders waiting, so I dropped my bag in the trunk and went to read in a sort of shelter-cum-waiting room. It’s during moments like this that I’m so glad I’m an avid reader: I don’t think anything of having to wait an hour or more, as long as I’ve got access to a book.

Eventually we were off, about fifteen of us crammed into a van meant to hold twelve, the one young guy nodding off on my shoulder, but it was comfortable enough and the views of Mt Mayon were spectacular. Moments after arriving in Donsol, just by chance, I spotted and recognized my homestay seconds before the minivan made a stop, so I jumped out and walked the few yards to the Aguluz Homestay.

Homestay is no misnomer: you’re staying in someone’s home, much like a bed and breakfast. I was greeted by Marilyn, the matriarch and head host, along with a smattering of grandchildren. One was about twelve, an always smiling but staid girl who did much of the work, serving food and cleaning dishes, as well as keeping guests informed. Another was no more than five and liked to hold your hand and ask you your name a half dozen times. Marilyn herself is a thin, clear-eyed woman in her sixties who moves about the room like a sparrow, flitting agilely from place to place. Her husband was a tall and quiet man that seemed very content to let his wife take charge. He spent most of his time raking rice that he’d spread out in the front yard to dry in the sun. “It’s my exercise,” he said of the raking. “It’s important because I’m already 68!”

The room was simple but comfortable, with a foam mattress, an ancient air-conditioner, and a rattling fan bolted to the wall next to the vacuum tube-era TV.

I went for a walk in Donsol shortly before sunset, looking for a bite to eat. It’s a small place but, despite its obvious convenience as a base to set up whale shark dives, it seems to have resisted the urge to become a tourist hub full of dive shops and tour operators. It remains a place where people live and work and feels as though, if you were to strip it of its whale sharks, it would survive—whether this is true or not, I don’t know. People waved at me and cried their hellos, just as they did in Manila and Legazpi, happy to see me and still excited by a foreign visitor. I found a small market and wandered around. One man nodded and said hello and, seeing as I hadn’t yet found a place to eat, I asked him where he would recommend I grab a meal. He gave me vague directions but, when it became clear that these would not be of much help to me, he told me to hop onto his tricycle, sitting behind him as a woman—presumably his wife—occupied the sidecar, and said he’d take me there. “For free,” he added. The place was crammed with university students—identifiable by their matching uniforms—but they made room for me. The food was good and cheap. Thus far I’ve rarely spent more than $4 for a meal.

After eating I walked to the small beach and watched the sunset. On the way back I saw people gathered outside the small chapel. I asked a man what was going on and he explained that it was the first day of a local fiesta, or festival. It would also have been tied in some way to the approaching Holy Week, which is a huge deal in the Philippines. I watched for awhile and then headed back to my homestay.

Top 3 Animal Encounters - Swimming with Whale Sharks in Donsol, the Philippines

The next morning, Marilyn and her granddaughter made me an excellent breakfast. Marilyn had set up a tour for another group, travelers from Switzerland. They would have had room for me but I had already booked a tour online. They left and I sat outside to await my pick-up. And then I waited. And waited. Then I waited some more. I sent a few emails but got no reply—noting that, in fact, I hadn’t received a single email from the tour operators since my payment had cleared. Hmmm.

Marilyn returned from dropping off the Swiss and saw that I was still there. She was shocked and told me she’d even seen the tour operator I dealt with there, that she hadn’t said anything. She suggested I head over there, to the dive center, and that after I register, they’ll find a group for me to join. She called a tricycle (the driver later told me that she was his mother’s cousin and that he called her Auntie) to take me over there after equipping me with flippers. On the way, the tricycle stopped so that I could rent a snorkel and mask. As I was registering, I mentioned to the front desk at the dive center that I had already booked a tour and that they may have already registered me but that they never showed up. He knew the company and ran off to find their representative. While I waited with two other people, I watched an informational video about the whale sharks and how the interactions are run.

The managing organization in Donsol pride themselves on conducting tours and interactions ethically. The sharks are not attracted to the area artificially but pass through on their regular migratory routes—this is in contrast to their competition in Oslob, another area in the Philippines where guides feed the sharks so as to increase the number and length of interactions but thereby altering the animals’ natural behavior. There are strict limits on the number of people per boat (six) and the number of people allowed to interact with any single shark (also six). Interactions last a maximum of five minutes and there is no touching the sharks or getting in their way. You swim along them, at their side or above, always keeping your distance—for their sake, not yours. You’re also always accompanied by what is called a BIO, a guide who monitors the entire interaction. He is the one to tell you when to jump in and also when to return to the boat. It’s an excellent source of employment for locals who see the whale sharks as part of the community since the animals have been coming through the area before the land was settled.

Anyway, just as the video ended, a woman rushed over and told me she was the one I’d been exchanging emails with. Her explanation as to why she wasn’t there to pick me up wasn’t exactly clear but she apologized and everything went smoothly from there, so no harm and no foul. As mentioned, it’s typically six people to a boat, but the couple who watched the video with me were willing to go as a trio, and it made no difference to me as I paid a flat fee of $50, including the flippers, mask, registration and boat. The couple were a nice husband and wife from northeastern California. This was their first international trip outside of North America, the wife’s 50th birthday present.

Okay, so here’s how it works. You get on a white boat made of wood and featuring the classic Filipino outriggers. In addition to the three of us and are BIO, a brown-skinned and tattooed man who looked like a shaved bear, the crew included another four men. These were the navigators and shark-spotters. One of them stood at the top of a mast, scanning the waters at all time for a telltale shadow cruising just beneath the surface, a patch of purple among the aquamarine.

When a shark is spotted, the spotter signals the BIO and he tells us to get ready. We sit on the edge of the boat, inside the portside outrigger, our flippered feet dangling, and we strap on our masks. The BIO counts one-two-three and “Go!” at which point we drop into the water and swim away from the boat. The BIO scans the area immediately around us and, when he says, “Down, now, now, now.” you duck under water and look around. The water is a deep blue but not perfectly clear. It’s quite silty and cloudy with salt. For this reason, you don’t actually see the shark until your face is underwater, at which point it might loom out at you. On more than one occasion, the thing seemed to materialize from nothing and nowhere, an animal the size of a school bus drifting just a few feet away. When you see it, you swim hard to keep up with it. They look so damn casual, leisurely, but they are deceptively fast, their massive tails propelling them forward with slow, languid strokes.

Biologically-speaking, these are sharks, not whales. They are called whale sharks only due to their size. However, like many whales, they are completely harmless and incredibly docile creatures. I would see the thing loom out of the depths at me and, yeah, the first reaction is shock, simply due to its sheer size, which is surreal, but it simply swims by as though you weren’t there at all, and you kick to keep up, swimming above or alongside it. At times I felt I was close enough to touch it if I’d wanted to. The patterns on its skin were clearly visible, as were its gills on occasion. The fin would drift by, fully the length of my forearm, and the tail would swish to and fro as it vanished once again.

After a few minutes or once the shark had gone, the BIO would call to us to return to the boat. We’d climb back on and wait for the call of “Get ready!” for the next drop. In all, we dropped in eleven times and saw a shark every time (though it could have been the same shark on a couple occasions). And, like I said, this isn’t like whale watching, with the animal some thirty to a hundred yards away; they were mere feet away.

Oddly, I still don’t quite feel as though I’ve actually swum with these creatures. They are so big, the experience so surreal, that they feel almost like a special effect. The murky quality of the water and the fact that they fill your field of vision entirely, never allowing you to see them fully, just in moving sections, only adds to that effect. It’s a pretty spectacular experience. And all for fifty dollars.

I couldn’t take pictures, obviously, as my camera isn’t waterproof, but the couple I was with did take some video and they took my email address and said they’d try to send me what they’d captured. I hope they do; it would be something to see again and share with you.

After that, I returned to my homestay for a quick shower and another excellent meal, this time lunch, then headed for the minivans and the return trip to Legazpi.