“When I first arrived in Donsol, the only way to get around was by Carabou!” Elmer Quizon, a whale shark interaction officer exclaimed with a laugh when I asked him if this small town on the southern coast of Luzon was benefiting from tourism.
“Now, thanks to the whale sharks, we have paved roads and they even built this information centre”, he says while gesturing at the Whale Shark Interaction Centre we were talking in.
“Some people in Donsol might say they don’t benefit from the whale sharks, but everyone does, just look around us!”
I was visiting Donsol, a sleepy fishing village in the Philippines, that thanks to the presence of whale sharks off the coast has boomed in the last decade. I wanted to see the world’s largest fish in the open ocean, but I also wanted, if I could, to see if tourism here was responsible.
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Whale Sharks in the Philippines
Donsol is the lesser known destination where it’s possible to swim with whale sharks in the Philippines. Oslob, in Cebu, is the most popular, but also the most infamous, with a record of dubious responsibility towards the whale sharks, and a well-documented practice of feeding them to entice them into the area.
Donsol claims to be more responsible than Oslob, but you’re not guaranteed to see a whale shark when you head out onto the water. Whereas I’d heard that Oslob was crowded, with hundreds of boats out on the water at any one time, here things were restricted, and despite Donsol having seen a huge increase in tourism, from almost nothing two decades ago, it was still very much a sleepy fishing village, with only a few other tourists when I visited, and a few resorts strung along the coast.
My first morning in Donsol, I woke early and walked along the paved road built by tourism dollars to join a boat at the Whale Shark Interaction Centre, to hopefully find these majestic creatures out in the bay.
The Butanding Interaction Officers
Sheila, who works at a dive shop across the street, rented out a pair of fins for me to take with me. “They saw whale sharks two days ago, but not here in the Donsol Bay, further out at a place called Manta Bowl. Because of the rains, they are staying further out at sea”.
The staff at the hotel I was staying at had said the same thing earlier to me at breakfast, adding that the week before, 9 whale sharks had been spotted in the bay, while Frial, a tricycle driver who’d picked me up the day before echoed the same sentiment.
Life in Donsol it seemed, revolved around sightings of the whale shark, or the Butanding, as it’s known in the local dialect. Without sightings, tourists wouldn’t visit, and without tourists, there was now little else to do here.
I walked over to the centre and after watching a short video explaining the rules of interaction when it comes to swimming with the whale sharks, I met my boat captain for the morning, a hulk of a man named Johnson.
We were the only boat heading out that day from the centre. This was just the beginning of the whale shark season, in late November, but in peak season – generally March and April – more boats and more tourists usually head out onto the waters, but there are likely to be more whale sharks here too.
The rules restrict boat numbers to 30 in the bay at any one time, with only 6 tourists allowed per boat, and a specified time limit per boat, of 3 hours. Swimmers follow a strict code too, that limits interaction times, and that the Whale Shark Interaction Officers – known simply as BIOs – keep checks on.
After wading out to our vessel, Johnson gave us a detailed briefing, before exclaiming excitedly, “Alright! Let’s do this! We only have 3 hours to find a whale!”
Our small outrigger boat heads out across Donsol Bay. Johnson, the designated BIO, is captaining from the back, while us tourists have our fins, masks and snorkels close to hand, ready to whip on at a moment’s notice.
There are 3 other crew, one standing atop a tall mast, acting as spotters, looking for tell tale signs of a Butanding. For the first hour, everyone is tense, on edge, and waiting to jump in when the shout comes.
For the second hour, things become more mellow and monotonous, before Johnson shouts out from the rear, “Get ready! This could be it!”. I pull on my mask and snorkel and rush over to the edge of the boat as we head towards visible ripples in the distance.
Soon enough though, the boat slows, and Johnson shouts out, “False alarm! False alarm! It’s just fish. Sorry guys!”.
With our 3 hour time slot drawing to a close, we have to return to Donsol. I wouldn’t swim with whale sharks today. We stop by a coral reef, so we can at least say we’ve been in the water that morning.
The water though is murky, and there’s little visibility. Although not too welcoming for snorkellers, it’s the murk that attracts the whale sharks to Donsol Bay. This is the rich plankton they feed off on the surface, and the reason that so many passing by stop here to begin with.
Disappointed, we arrive back at Donsol. As I return my fins to Sheila at the dive shop, she says that out at Manta Bowl they spotted whale sharks today. I quickly signed up for the next day’s dive.
Diving With the Donsol Whale Sharks
The next day I was up early again, and before long I was geared up and heading out across Donsol Bay again. Across from Donsol, is the island of Ticao, and it’s within this strait that whale sharks pass through.
After the storms in Donsol, these giant fish had retreated to the more sheltered confines of Ticao, and our divemaster Melvin was confident that we’d spot them today. Manta Bowl is a large underwater crater, that gets its name from the abundance of manta rays that feed here.
This rich feeding area also attracts the whale sharks, but it’s not an easy place to dive. The bowl is around 30 metres below the surface, meaning dive time here is limited, and the current is exceptionally fierce, making this a drift dive.
As soon as we descend we are swept across the bottom of the bowl, trying to keep together in the murky water. We’ve all been given hooks, and Melvin soon motions for us to hook onto whatever rocks or debris we can, so we aren’t taken by the current. Hooked to the bottom of Manta Bowl, we sit and wait for a whale shark to appear. There’s little we can do but wait.
A sea snake, with bright blue stripes contrasting against dark black stripes, slithers along the sand closeby, but there are no mantas and no whale sharks.
Before long, we are all running out air in our tanks, and we begin to rise slowly to the surface, stopping off for decompression stops on the ascent.
On this last stop, Melvin suddenly begins pointing into the dark blue and rapping on his tank with his metal hook to get attention.
Out of nowhere, the enormous form of the Butanding glides overhead, casting its long shadow over the divers. It’s there for moments, before effortlessly disappearing into the ocean again. Moments later, a smaller whale shark appears out of nowhere, following the route of the larger, before disappearing too.
I snap a few fleeting pictures on my Gopro and hope the magnificent creatures will return again, but that’s the last we will see of them on the dive.
Snorkelling with Whale Sharks
As we begin to return to Donsol, the whale sharks suddenly make another appearance, and everyone quickly rushes to find their masks and fins, before plunging into the water.
This time the two whale sharks are on the surface, and we have only moments alongside them before they plunge back into the deep blue sea below.
Back on the boat, I’m amazed to hear Melvin say that these were just small ones. “Last week, before the storms, we saw 9 Butanding in one dive. They were all bigger. The biggest I’ve ever seen was 18 metres long!”
Responsible Tourism in Donsol
In Donsol, invigorated by seeing the whale sharks on the dive, I arrange a meeting with Elmer Quizon, one of the veteran Butanding Interaction Officers in Donsol, to find out more about the history of tourism here.
Like many in Donsol, Elmer owes his livelihood to the whale sharks. Before he trained as a BIO in 2004, he worked for 10 years in construction in Manila. His wife was originally from Donsol, and they left the city to return here when demand for more whale shark interaction officers was growing. “Back then, they needed 40 or so officers, but they only had 20. I couldn’t even really swim at first, but I was trained, practiced a lot and have been working here ever since.
A lot has changed since whale sharks first began making an ‘appearance’ in Oslob. Elmer tells me that whale sharks have been recorded here since 1998, but in reality “the Butanding have always been here. The locals, they just didn’t know what to do with them. When they would get stuck in nets, the fishermen would just kill them, no one even knew if you could eat a whale shark”.
The killing of whale sharks was outlawed in 1998 as well. Elmer explains how an NGO helped Donsol to realise the potential of whale shark tourism and from there, things moved quickly, but not necessarily in the right direction.
“When I first started, they would send out up to 60 boats a day, and the rules weren’t as strict as they are now”. In 2006, whale sharks even washed up dead on the shore at Donsol. There were bullet holes in their heads. “The fishermen just killed them. There was no order back then!”
Since then, the rules have become much stricter, and realising the need to change things in Donsol to make this a long term, sustainable project, the officers here didn’t look to the practises in Oslob, but they turned to techniques being pioneered in Ningaloo, the Western Australian reef where whale sharks also appear in large numbers.
“We keep to these rules as much as we can, rules like staying at least 3 metres away, not touching the whale sharks, having only 5 minutes interaction time”.
Elmer is honest though, and says that sometimes there are accidents, despite the rules being enforced. “Sometimes there are collisions here with the boats, but it happens a lot more in Oslob I think. There can be accidents with the propellers, sometimes we find whale sharks without dorsal fins or pectoral fins”.
“Where we can, we help them out though”.
Elmer is more worried about the guests, and it’s the tourists he has to monitor more than the locals these days. “Some will try to touch the whale sharks, and when this happens, I bring them back to the boat and make them sit out the rest of the trip. Other BIOs might turn the whole boat back if this happens, but I don’t want everyone to suffer because of one person”.
The locals then, realise the need for responsible interactions with the whale sharks, because they need them to keep returning year after year. Numbers though, have been decreasing, and each year since Elmar started here in 2004, there have been less whale sharks counted each season.
Being mysterious creatures, little is known about their habits, and it’s not clear what causes the drop in numbers, if they are there but feeding below the surface, if they are going elsewhere or if they are being killed out to sea.
“When we don’t see the whale sharks it’s our loss, not the guests. The guests just lose their money, but we can lose our jobs”.
It’s this fear that led whale shark guides in Oslob to begin feeding the large fish, to keep the tourism money coming in, but Elmer says this won’t happen here. “They are wild, so let them live in a wild way!”
The Ethics of Whale Shark Tourism
Donsol then, puts its faith in the wild whale shark. The Butanding Interaction Officers aren’t looking to tame these fish, because they have seen what has happened in Oslob, but they are also at the mercy of the very wild nature they are looking to preserve.
On my last day in Donsol I’m invited to a cock fight, and I’m reminded that the Philippines is a place of contradictions.
In this self styled eco friendly town, the age old but brutal tradition of cock fighting is still big business, and while the whale sharks are saved, the true motives behind it could be questioned, are the animals being saved for themselves, or for the money?
Donsol Philippines Travel Guide
While the ethics behind any animal interactions will always be blurred and controversial, Donsol has created a nurturing environment for whale shark interactions in the Philippines, as far as that is possible.
If you want to swim with whale sharks in the Philippines, then head here, but just remember, they are wild, and there’s no guarantee of seeing them, even in the peak feeding season. It’s still somewhat off the beaten track – at least compared to Oslob – and to help you to decide if this somewhere you would like to visit, here’s my practical travel guide to visiting Donsol.
How to Travel to Donsol
Donsol Philippines is a small municipality in Sorsogon, in the southern region of Luzon. If you want to travel here to swim with whale sharks, then you will need to first make your way to city of Legazpi, in Bicol.
Legazpi is just an hour away by minibus, and transport leaves regularly from the terminal across the road from the SM City Legazpi mall, which is easy to find. You’ll see the minibuses lined, up waiting for passengers, their route clearly marked on the side. They leave when full, and the cost per person is 98 PHP. Travel time depends on traffic, but you can expect it to take an hour to an hour and a half.
The vans drop you in the centre of Donsol, but most of the accommodation and the Whale Shark Interaction Centre, is located around 5 kilometres out of town along the coast. You can jump in a tricycle, which will cost around 40 PHP if it’s just you.
Legazpi has frequent flights from Manila and Cebu City, and the airport is close to the minivan terminal, so you can fly in, jump in a tricycle at arrivals and reach your onward transport within 15 minutes. A tricycle should only cost 50 PHP from the airport to the bus terminal in Legazpi.
When you are leaving Donsol, you can either head back the same way to Legazpi, or you can head to the ferry port of Pilar, where you can take ferries across to Masbate City or to Ticao Island, which are both fairly unknown destinations with a lot to offer. A tricycle from the hotel area in Donsol to Pilar will cost 300 PHP. There are cheaper Jeepneys, but they are much slower of course.
Ferries leave from Pilar to Masbate City at 8am, 12pm and 3.30pm, taking 2 hours and costing 540 PHP plus a 15 PHP terminal fee. If you coming the other way, fast boats leave Masbate City for Pilar at 4.30am, 8am and 12pm. From Masbate City you can take a ferry and bus combo (RORO) to Cebu City.
When to Travel to Donsol
The whale sharks are only in Donsol Bay for a few months each year, before they move on again. The first thing to note is that the ‘Whale Shark Season’ is just a rough approximation, and there are many different factors at play such as the weather and more, that will determine if you actually see one.
My best advice is to hang around for a few days at least, during the right season of course, to maximise your chances and to give you the opportunity to travel out multiple times if needs be.
It’s a pleasant place to relax anyway.
Whale Sharks can be seen in Donsol Bay from November through to May. I travelled here in December and was lucky to see two. Their numbers are limited in at the start and end of the season though, but Donsol is very quiet this time of year compared to ‘peak season’, and if you have time to take it slow, I’d recommend visiting when there are less tourists around, even if there are less whale sharks.
Peak Season is February to May, which is also when Donsol is running into its summer season, when it’s hot and dry. Things get busy on the weekends and during holidays, so you might want to book accommodation in advance depending on your schedule and travel dates, as hotels are limited.
Where to Stay in Donsol
The majority of accommodation is found just outside of Donsol, in Dancalan Barangay, which is easily reachable by tricycle. This is also where the dive shops and the Whale Shark Interaction Centre is.
You will find a selection of accommodation ranging in price, but be warned it’s not as cheap as other locations in the Philippines, considering infrastructure is basic. Hot water is a luxury and wifi is nonexistent, so make sure you get hold of a local sim card for internet.
Donsol is still very much developing as a tourist destination, so don’t expect too much from the hotels here yet. Unless you head into town, you’ll have to eat at your hotel, or one of the other hotels along the coast.
In town you can find local markets, a few eateries and shops, and there is an ATM now at the Town Hall, which apparently is a new introduction to Donsol. Still, take cash with you from Legazpi, as you never know if it will run out of notes! Nowhere really accepts credit cards and money changers are few and far between, so be prepared, or it’s a long ride back to Legazpi for more funds!
Joining a Whale Shark Tour
To join a whale shark tour, you simply head to the Whale Shark Interaction Centre. Tours leave throughout the day in peak season, but at the start of the season, there may only be enough people for one boat trip.
Get there early for the best chances to see whale sharks anyway. Check in the day before if you can to check times and numbers, but I was told to arrive at 7.30am.
The cost is charged per boat, with a maximum of 6 tourists per boat. Don’t worry if you are on your own, they join you up with people at the centre, but if there are only 4 people for instance, you will pay more for the boat per person.
The total cost for the boat is 3500 PHP, split between the number of passengers. So if there are 6 tourists, you each pay around 580 PHP each.
You also pay a 300 PHP conservation fee, per person.
You don’t get your money back if there’s no whale sharks!
You’ll need a mask, snorkel and fins which can rent at the dive shop opposite. Take lots of water and sun cream, and some snacks too, because you’ll be out for 3 hours at least.
Swimming with Whale Sharks in Donsol
The Whale Shark Interaction Centre set down the ground rules when you arrive, and you’ll watch a short video explaining the rules and regulations in place. These are not just the rules for swimming with whale sharks as a tourist, but the rules that all operators, captains and tour companies should be following too. The idea is that if you see any of these rules being broken, you should inform the centre.
1. Don’t touch or ride the whale sharks
2. Don’t get in the way of the whale shark’s movements
3. No flash photography
4. No jet skies or scuba gear allowed in the Donsol Bay
5. One boat per whale shark
6. A maximum of 6 swimmers per whale shark
7. Whale shark interactions are restricted to 5 minutes
Diving with Whale Sharks in Donsol
From the rules above you’ll note that no scuba gear is allowed in Donsol Bay. This is the area that the whale sharks generally stick to when they come to feed, but outside of the bay, you’re allowed to dive.
When there were no whale sharks in the bay, I joined a scuba diving trip to nearby Ticao Island, around an hour and half away on the outrigger boats. The first dive was a wall dive off the coral reef, followed by two dives in Manta Bowl, where on the last outing we ran into two whale sharks.
The diving around Ticao Island is immense, and there’s so much more than just the whale sharks to see. It’s also cheap.
3 dives, including all the gear and a hefty lunch and plenty of water cost me 5500 PHP, which works out to be about 100 USD, or just over 30 USD per dive. Compared to other parts of the world, this is a good deal, especially when there are whale sharks involved.
Manta Bowl is the best site, but just remember this is a deep dive, at 30 metres. I went with the dive shop opposite the Whale Shark Interaction Centre, named Bicol Dive Centre. The staff were friendly and knowledgeable about the whale sharks and the local area.
Other Things to do in Donsol Philippines
Aside from swimming or diving with whale sharks, then Donsol is a great place for relaxing on the beach or around a swimming pool before your next trip out onto the water.
If you want something a little more adventurous though, then you can organise a tricycle tour to the nearby waterfalls.
The river is also famed for the huge numbers of fireflies that make an appearance at night. You can arrange a boat ride along the water in the evening, for roughly 1000 PHP per boat, but this depends on your bargaining and how busy things are. It’s well worth it for this strange experience.
All Words and Photographs by Richard Collett