If you are the uber-adventurous tourist who enjoys the chase and doesn’t mind the dent on your wallet, go to Donsol during the months of December and January and maybe spend at least two days (or three) searching for whale sharks. The kind of conversation that you share with other tourists always starts with “Did you see a whale shark today?” and you get the bragging rights on your third day to finally tell your story to newly-arrived travelers who are, just like you, after the chase as well. You become the center of attention as everybody gets excited about their foray into the waters of Donsol.
But if you hate the chase and you want to be safe, and be the tourist everybody talks about for swimming with eight whale sharks in one day, go to Donsol from February to May. You share tables with other tourists as you lead the conversation that starts with, “So, how many whale sharks did you see today?” During these months, at least five sightings of whale sharks are recorded per day. You would be very unlucky not to see a single whale shark at this time of the year.
Your best barometer though for an unforgettable time with the whale shark is still the weather. Remember that whale sharks live in tropical climates, so pray for a sunny day when you’re in Donsol.
HOW TO GET TO DONSOL:
- All major Philippine airlines fly from Manila to Legazpi everyday (about 45 minutes). Cebu Pacific also flies directly from Cebu to Legazpi. From the airport, take a tricycle to get to the Legazpi Terminal Station (the ride should not cost more than PhP50). Ride a van to Donsol (fare is PhP75). Or you can hire a taxi or van from the airport, or arrange a van transfer with your resort.
- Take the overnighter bus from Cubao or Pasay (travel time is 10 to 12 hours, fare is from PhP700 to 1,200). The bus will have its final stop at the Legazpi Terminal Station. Ride a van to Donsol.
- If you’re coming from Cebu, you can take the ferry to Masbate on a Monday, Wednesday, or Friday. Fare ranges from PhP600 to PhP1,800 and travel time is 12 to 14 hours. From Masbate, ride a fast craft to Pilar (it takes two hours, fare is between PhP150-200). From Pilar, it is still some 20 minutes to Donsol. Ride a jeepney for PhP20.
- If you’re coming from Samar or Leyte, take a Roro Bus and get off at the intersection in Putiao, in Sorsogon. Wait for jeepneys that ply the Legazpi-Donsol route (around PhP40, travel time is 45 minutes), although there’s a bigger chance jeepneys are fully-loaded already. Your best option is to stop in Daraga (forget Putiao) and ride a jeepney from there. Travel time is an hour and a half, fare is PhP60.
Now, the burden of these seemingly unending traveling is too little when you remind yourself that you are going to Donsol to swim with the biggest fish in the world. If you must, tell yourself this experience is deemed by Lonely Planet as the “quintessential Philippine adventure.”
THE REWARD: The humbling and liberating experience of swimming with a whale shark, the world’s largest fish.
Once in Donsol, ride a tricyle to take you to Dancalan, the jump-off point for the whale shark tour. It is also here where the Tourism Center and most of the resorts are located. Fare is PhP15 per head, travel time is 10 to 15 minutes.
All the resorts observe the 2pm check-in time, but you can leave your stuff at the resort if you wish to take the whale shark tour right away. If you’re lucky and your room is already available, most resorts allow early check-in. These resorts are just a 5 to 10 minute walk to the Tourism Center. Should you wish to take the tricycle, fare is PhP10.
The Tourism Center can get really crowded, and chaotic at times, so it pays to be patient. This is the crowd for the registration one February morning. Expect the crowd to get bigger when most Filipinos go on a holiday this summer.
REMEMBER: There are three batches of whale shark tours each day. The first batch leaves at 7am, the next batch at 10am, and the last one leaves at 2pm. Only 30 boats are allowed to go on the tour per batch, so you’d have to wait for the boats to come back before the next trips are dispatched.
WHY IT’S IMPORTANT TO BE MINDFUL OF THE TIME OF YOUR TRIP: Most tourists want to take the 7am tour since studies show that whale sharks are highly visible in Donsol early in the morning. Also, most of these tourists have to go back to Legazpi after lunch, in time for their trip back to Manila.
Expect chaos at the Tourism Center from 7am, especially during peak days (Holy Week is painstaking, most weekends are a riot). Even when you arrive at the Center at 7am, there is a big possibility you can get on the boat by 2pm since slots are filled-up easily.
HERE’S WHAT YOU CAN DO: Spare a day before your intended whale shark tour and head to the Tourism Center to register, reserve a boat, and attend the briefing. You can also approach some guests who might have reserved a boat already and who are still looking for people to split expenses with. Or join the chaos on the day of your whale shark tour, like you would when you find yourself haggling in some shopping mecca (I highly suggest you do not).
PREPARE YOUR MOOLAH: The whale shark tour costs PhP3,500. The amount covers the boat rental, fee for your Butanding Interaction Officer (BIO), and your spotter (the person in charge for, well, spotting the whale sharks from afar). Remember that six tourists can share in one boat so tell the tourism receptionists that you’re willing to share the boat with other guests (this should leave you paying just PhP583).
There is also a registration fee of PhP100, if you’re a local guest, and PhP300, if you’re a foreigner.
Next, fill-out the registration form. And be honest. If you don’t know how to swim, indicate properly so your BIO can attend to you. You need not be a diver to swim with the whale sharks.
After paying for the tour and filling-out the registration form, you would be asked to attend the briefing. Now, this is very important. Everything there is to know about the whale sharks and the tour are laid out here. Rules such as no touching of whale sharks and explanations why you should not ever attempt are explained at this point.
However, when the Center is too busy and the crowd gets impatient and rude (it happens), there’s a tendency for the briefing to be skipped. And that’s disappointing. PLEASE INSIST THAT YOU ATTEND THE VIDEO BRIEFING. REMEMBER, YOU ARE AN ENVIRONMENTALLY-AWARE, WELL-INFORMED TRAVELER. YOU’RE A JUANDERKID! 🙂
WHAT YOU WILL NEED: Enthusiasm and lots of patience. 🙂
While life vests are provided in every boat, you need to have your own snorkel and mask. It’s a must if you’re really swimming with the whale sharks, forget about it if you don’t have the heart to jump into the water. Snorkeling sets (masks, snorkels, and flips) are for rent for PhP300. You can rent outside the Tourism Center but it gets crazy when it’s crowded so it’s best to rent from your resorts. If you are not used to swimming with flips, I suggest you do not take one. Snorkels and masks can be had for PhP150.
After the briefing, you will be introduced to your BIO (that’s your Butanding Interaction Officer). The BIO should be your best-kept arsenal during the tour. Know that these people are the most experienced when it comes to interacting with the whale sharks, so trust them. Pay close attention to what they are saying or doing.
TIP: If you don’t know how to swim, inform your BIO so he can assist you properly. Also, tell him how much you are dying to see the whale shark and he will do the best he can so you can swim closely with it.
You will then be assisted by your BIO to the docking station which is just a few steps from the Center. The boat captain and his crew are waiting for you there.
When the tour starts, you can change into swimming clothes and slather your sunblock (if you haven’t yet). The boats used for the whale shark tours are designed to meet the needs of the tourists. Believe it or not, each boat has its own comfort room.
While you get a feeling like you are on a slow day as the whale shark tour starts, don’t be fooled. It pays to be alert all the time. During one of my trips last year, my friends and I weren’t paying much attention at the start of the tour. We thought we will have a hard time searching for one since a typhoon had just left Donsol. Fifteen minutes into the tour, our spotter saw a whale shark and we weren’t really prepared to jump into the water yet. We scrambled to put our gears on and one of my friends, out of excitement perhaps, almost jumped into the water with his slippers on.
It turned out our boat was one of only two boats which were able to interact with a whale shark that day. Talking about luck. The opportunity to swim with a whale shark is always just around the corner, so always be prepared.
Here, the spotter trains his bionic eyes to spot a whale shark. When he raises his hand to signal the sighting of a whale shark, the mood of everyone on the boat changes.
When you hear a sound of excitement and urgency from everyone, put on your gears and follow your BIO’s instructions. After probably searching the water for thirty minutes, the excitement builds up as the boat captain puts the motor on neutral and your BIO asks you to position yourselves on one side of the boat as he has previously explained.
Some tourists panic at this point. There’s no need to feel such although the energy around can surely take your adrenaline rush to a different level. Again, the key is to be alert. Stay collected and follow your BIO’s words. When he asks you to jump into the water, jump. Never hesitate. The whale shark is not going to wait for you. Next thing you know, you’re gaping at the sight of the world’s largest fish.
The BIO and every member of the boat crew have mastered the skills of interacting with the whale shark. Every move has been possibly calculated. When the situation allows (meaning, the boats around the whale sharks are not too many, because, WARNING: they can get really, really overcrowded), the boat captain can actually position the boat in such a manner that when you jump into the water, you are approaching the whale shark, with its big mouth some few meters away from you. It can be shocking but thrilling!
When there are too many people out swimming with the whale shark, the best thing to do is to do the chase. You need to be a good swimmer to be able to glide along the whale shark, but then again, trust your BIO to help you out during this agitating moment.
Now, don’t look too far when you are swimming. Most tourists think that the whale sharks are in front of them, when in fact the whale sharks are actually down there. It’s okay to be surprised and be amazed. 😀
The length and quality of your interaction with the whale shark depend on various conditions. Smaller whale sharks (5 meters or so) swim faster than the bigger ones (8 to 12 meters). Water’s visibility and the weather, are of course, detrimental to the entire experience.
If you fail to see the whale shark on your first dive, there’s always another chance to swim with them. If it’s just the tail, or the dorsal fin, or its spotted body that appears in front of you, be thankful. Some people travel halfway around the world just to see one, and sometimes, they aren’t very lucky. I tell you, it took me thirteen years before I finally got to swim with a whale shark as big as a bus. I am not kidding. That whale shark must have been 14 meters long and if the BIOs are to be believed, this is one of the oldest and friendliest whale sharks in Donsol.
People’s reactions after swimming with the whale sharks vary: from those who weren’t able to catch up with the chase, to those who were mesmerized by another swimmer’s unforgettable experience, to those who were just way too happy to have finally seen a whale shark after months of just watching them on Youtube.
TIP: Once you are back at the Tourism Center, ask for a Certificate of Interaction. They normally do not offer this anymore and I don’t think they ever inform their guests about this, but it’s part of what you paid for. Insist, if you must.
PLEASE DO: The World Wildlife Fund or WWF is in Donsol to help monitor the whale sharks and assist the Local Government Unit of Donsol in sustaining the Whale Shark Interaction Tour. WWF provides the resorts with feedback questionnaires to gather insights from guests and assess the performance of everyone on the tour. Please ask for a copy from your resort’s receptionists and do have the time to fill them out. Your feedback will surely help the town improve it’s ecotourism activity.
So, what are you waiting for? Pack your bags and bring your more environmentally-aware self to Donsol. Whether you like the chase or not, there’s something to be experienced here.
I kid you not, it’s juanderkid! Love and light, everyone. Go, juanderlust! 🙂
- WIN AN OVERNIGHT ACCOMMODATION (WITH FREE BREAKFAST) AT THE AMOR FARM BEACH RESORT IN DONSOL FOR YOU AND TWO OF YOUR FRIENDS THIS MAY! Just answer this question: What’s the danger of traveling that excites you? Email your answer until 12midnight of March 13. The winner will be notified via email on March 15. Thank you! 😀
- Except for the underwater photos, all photographs were taken on February 2012 with a Canon 550d. Underwater photographs were courtesy of D. Whitehead.