“Talon! (Jump!)” our whale shark interaction officer shouted. Suddenly, there were splashes everywhere and we were in the water. It took a few seconds to find my orientation underwater and make out the direction of where I am looking. I saw our guide pointing to a direction but it was too late. I saw only a visage of a whale shark descending deeper. We’re already past 2 hours in our Donsol Whale Shark Watching activity and already had a few jumps into the water yet still no decent sighting. Will we be lucky enough to get really close and interact with a whale shark?
Donsol Whale Shark Watching
In the months of November to May, tourist flock Donsol, the Southeast Luzon municipality in the province of Sorsogon for a chance to see and possibly interact with the whale sharks. These gentle giants of the sea are locally called butanding. In Southern Leyte, they call them tiki-tiki. And what these school of whale sharks are drawn to are the abundant planktons and krill in the area. It was in 1998 when the locals started regulating the whale shark watching activity in the area and saw its potential for tourism.
Wild and Free Butanding
It was not the first time for me to interact with the whale sharks. My first was in Oslob, Cebu. I never wrote about it as I didn’t like the experience. The locals were feeding them so the butanding became dependent to the point they would inadvertently harm themselves by hitting the boat hull or outriggers. The snorkeling wasn’t also a pleasant experience with too many tourist flocking in the same area.
The Donsol Whale Shark Watching is better managed and a good example how things should be done. Feeding is not allowed so the butanding shows up on their own to feed. This means sighting is no guarantee and would be dependent on the planktons and krill available or the behavior of the whale sharks. There are Whale Shark Interaction Officers on board to help on the sighting and to tell us when to go into the water. Spotters are also at the high vantage point of the boat to spot butandings from afar.
Donsol Tourism Office
The Donsol Tourism Office handles all the registration and the tours. During peak season, which is usually February to April, it is best to book and reserve ahead. They may be reached at their Facebook Page /DonsolTourism.
- Registration Fee: Php 100 for locals, Php 300 for foreign tourist
- Boat Rental: Php 5,000 (good for 6)
The boat rental may seem exorbitant but it can be shared by up to six people. But if you are traveling solo, you have to shoulder all the cost. The boat also includes the whale shark interaction officer, spotter and other boatmen support.
Life vest and snorkeling gear are provided. You are also free to bring your own or buy from their shop.
The whale shark watching activity last up to 3 hours only. During those times, depending on luck or chance, you may interact with one or many or even none. After 3 hours, the boat would have to go back. If luck wasn’t on your side, you have to book the activity again and pay the fees.
There are three window schedules each day: 7:30 AM, 10:30 AM and 1:30 PM
Mornings are the best time as they are more active and chances of sighting are high. Afternoons are still possible but if there aren’t enough tourist, the activity may be cancelled.
Whale Shark Watching Guidelines
Before embarking on the activity, guest are required to watch a short video presentation at the tourism office covering some of the essential information about the whale sharks and guidelines for the activity. Here’s a rundown of some of the important guidelines
- Only one boat with a maximum of 6 person is allowed per whale shark interaction. While this is ideal, in the real world, whale sharks move around and can go to other groups but having that limited distance per boat is good enough not to crowd an area.
- Try to keep at least 3 meters distance from the whale sharks.
- No touching or riding the whale sharks.
- No blocking the whale shark path.
- No jet ski, scuba gear or underwater propulsion.
- No flash photography.
- No fish feeding.
Our Butanding Sighting
Two and a half hours already passed and we still have no close interaction. But our whale shark interaction officer refused to give up until the last minute. Driving our boat to several areas until he told us to get ready again. We hear “Jump”! and we’re in the water again. But this time a clear sighting!
Goosebumps seeing a butanding gracefully swimming near the surface. By the size of it, this butanding looks like a juvenile. Very playful as well. Making a few rounds swimming with us before it made it’s way down. It was exciting and exhilarating swimming with the whale shark even for a short time.
As we got back to our boat, we congratulated each and everyone of us for a successful sighting. I’m glad our officer didn’t give up on us and the water clarity was amazing. It felt good to interact with a whale shark in the wild. Everyone have smiles on their faces and good memories as we head back to shore.
Ferdz Decena is an award-winning travel photographer, writer and blogger. His works has found print in publications such as Singapore Airlines’s Silver Kris, Philippine Airlines’ Mabuhay, Cebu Pacific’s Smile and Seair InFlight. He has also lent his expertise to various organizations like the Oceana Philippines, Lopez Group Foundation, Save the Children and World Vision, contributing quality images for their marketing materials.