Donsol, Philippines

We weren’t to keen on the idea of spending more than a day in Manila but competing with the hundreds of thousands of Filipinos escaping to anywhere within 12 hour of the city for Holy Week was even less appealing. So we waited. Our days in Manila were spent in no less than twelve shopping malls, each seemingly larger than the last. After four days we boarded a bus and rode as long as we could bear.

We ended up in Donsol, a little fishing village turned tourist mecca. Donsol is about one thing, whalesharks. These giants are not only what brought us to this place, they are what brought us to the Philippines. March and April bring the highest concentrations of whalesharks to calm waters of Donsol Bay. According to everything we had researched we were virtually guaranteed to see them.

Our first day was a learning experience. We were welcomed at the Whaleshark Interaction Center with a scene of chaos. Boats cost a fixed 3,500 pesos and take up to six passengers. You would think the staff at the center would pair people up, but it’s left to the tourists. This gets raucous and cutthroat, but despite a few angry outburst and tears it’s actually very efficient. We managed to get into one of the first boats.

On board we strategically laid out our gear, thinking that at any moment we’d be frantically putting it on and jumping off the boat. The crew gave us a safety briefing and took up their positions, keeping watch on the water. There were no waves but the surface of the water was rippled by the slight breeze. Despite what seemed like almost perfect conditions I found it very difficult to see anything in the water. As it turned out so did the spotters. Our 3 hour journey was fruitless and when we got back to shore we found out, the entire day before no one had seen a whaleshark either.

Rather discouraged we boarded a tricycle home. Thinking of experience with manta rays, also filter feeders, it occurred to me that a change in the tide might bring better luck so we decided to try the afternoon session. Again the water was rippled and we were skunked, as were all the other boats.

“Peak season” wasn’t looking good and all around town we met dejected tourists leaving without having seen anything. There’s little else to do around Donsol, except firefly watching and we’d had our fill of night lights after Manila. Luckily we were at the beginning of our trip and could devote another day day, but we decided but if it hadn’t happened by then we would move on.

We boarded our third boat. 2 hours passed and the mood on board was one of frustration and sadness. It seemed as though all the tourists were thinking the same thing “Whaleshark capital of the world huh?”

Then we saw a concentration of boats heading for the same spot. Our boat bolted after in pursuit and then it happened. The crew opened up with a flurry of yelling and we scrambled to get our gear on. “3, 2, 1 GO!” and we were in the water. “Look down, look down!” screamed our guide and there, out of the murky green, came the biggest head I’ve ever seen. For a moment it was sublime, and I could barely believe what I was seeing, then reality hit and I started swimming.

The WWF, who sponsors and oversees whaleshark tourism in Donsol clearly states, “One whaleshark one boat.” It’s posted everywhere, including on the boats, but after two days of seeing nothing the boat drivers weren’t about to risk a third. Every vessel on the water descended on this one whaleshark. This was a large specimen, about 12 meters (38 feet) long, so at least there was a fair bit of room around it. The shark casually moved its tale back and forth, seemingly unbothered by the growing number of snorkelers. At its size these slight movements create massive propulsion and my legs were burning after 4 or 5 minutes. The people in front of me also began to tire and stop and since it was near impossible to swim around them my arms began to tire from pushing them out of the way.

Soon the fish descended and our experience was over. We may have broken most of the regulations, but it was pretty magical. On our two subsequent interactions with a different smaller shark, it actually did seem to be bothered and descended quickly.

Overall it was an amazing experience, but we did feel bad for the sharks. We’d come here for the promise to see them, and we did, but it wasn’t the idyllic eco-friendly experience we’d hoped for. I think the ultimate experience with the animals is far from this “guaranteed” experience, but I knew that going in. I pray for the day we are scuba diving in clear water, looking at something else, when suddenly we feel a rush of water behind us… and the Philippines at large still offers the best chance of that.  Until then I will vividly remember my few seconds of wonder with these spectacular animals in Donsol.

Recommendations for travellers: There are new accommodations springing up all the time in Donsol. If you’re looking for lodging on the budget end of the spectrum forget what’s in the book, including listed homestays, and go hunting around in the village. Tricycles to the Interaction center cost p25 for one person or P20 pax when sharing. There’s no need to go to the interaction center unless you want to go for that session, any paperwork you do in “advance” will simply have to be redone when you actually go. If the sea isn’t perfectly flat you may not have much luck, the whalesharks are around but it’s next to impossible to see them. A pair lightly tinted but well polarized sunglasses would be an absolute godsend for the spotters and will substantially raise your chances of an interaction, consider investing in a pair and lending them to your spotter.

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Scott Dusek is a writer and photography originally from Seattle, Washingon.

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