Donsol Stories and Tips

Swimming with the Gentle Giants of Donsol

whale shark encounter 01 Photo, Donsol, Philippines

I never imagined I will be able to swim with whale sharks (or locally known as butanding) in my lifetime. For one, I can't swim and second to that, I am scared of the open water. But when I was planning for our family trip to Bicol, I know The Hubby would love the adventure and he deserves the little reward for the 10-hour or more drive so I inserted the Donsol leg into our itinerary despite my hesitation.

It turned out I was the one who loved it more after I realized that not everyone in this planet will have the rare chance to swim with whale sharks I used to just watch in Discovery channel.

We arrived in Donsol a little before 7am, only after less than an hour drive from Legazpi City where we were staying with the kids and my mom. We thought we came early and can get a boat assigned to us immediately. We were wrong. It was Black Saturday and the peak of the peak season. We were number 93 on the boat queue and was advised we may be able to take the tour at 11am, fingers crossed.

The good side with having so many tourists on a peak season is that the likelihood of having other people join you in the boat (and split the cost) is almost certain. The boat fee of Php3500 (with maximum of 6 swimmers per boat) can be quite hefty. Since we'll be looking for the butanding in their natural habitat and considering the vastness of the ocean, there is no guarantee our quest will be successful so better keep the expenses to a minimum, if possible.

We waited for 4 hours before we finally were able to get a boat assignment. The rule is to have only 30 boats at a time out at sea, but due to the influx of tourists during the holiday, they have already sent 45 boats off that morning.

Another couple and 2 oldies from a group of 8 who can't fit into one boat joined us. The 2 oldies are not swimming which means only 4 of us will have to be guided by the BIO (Butanding Interaction Officer). All good.

The boat crew consists of a captain (to drive the boat), 2 spotters (with amazing eyes they can see the whale sharks beneath the water surface and meters away from the boat!) and a BIO (to guide us especially the weak swimmers toward the butanding).

These BIOs and boat crew used to be fishermen who hunted the butandings to sell their fins to Chinese restaurants. In 1998, catching, killing, and selling of whale sharks in the Philippines were officially banned. As an alternative source of income for the fishermen and to deter them from killing the whale sharks, the local government started using the butanding as part of their eco-tourism. It's a win - win situation for both the fishermen and the whale sharks.

When the BIO tells you to get off the boat, you have to do it fast as if your life depends on it. I had to scramble many times to drop myself into the water regardless if the boat is still moving or in slow mo (they wont stop completely, just slow down enough for you to get your butt off the boat without spilling blood into the sea).

I was glad I did jump off the boat. It's not everyday that an opportunity to marvel and swim with the world's largest fish comes my way. It was a rare, amazing and almost magical experience.

These gentle giants of the sea can grow up to 12 meters. Their massive size makes them slow swimmers and reported speed is only at around 3 kph. Despite their size, they only feed on plankton and generally are harmless to humans.

I don't have any formal 'bucket list', but had I made one before I went to this adventure, I would have crossed it off now.

Cost for swimming with the whale sharks:

Boat hire: Php3500 (6 persons max)
Registration: Php100 for locals, Php300 for foreigners
Rental of gears: Php300 per set

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