It was freezing cold. The bridge swayed in the icy…
I had a bit of a meltdown in December while I was trying to plan the last two months of my time in South East Asia. I had heard so many things about so many places from so many people by that point that my brain was in turmoil. Then, in a moment of clarity, it occurred to me to look at my bucket list and make plans that would tick a few items off. Duh. Not sure why I didn’t think of it sooner. Top of the list was whale sharks. I have wanted to swim with one for a long time. I once even looked into going to Ningaloo Reef back home. But when I found out that it costs something like $400 per person and the chances of actually seeing one are quite slim I gave up on the idea. On my travels through South East Asia I had heard people talking about diving with whale sharks so I figured it wouldn’t hurt to look into places nearby. I soon found out that I was only a short plane ride from one of the world’s best, and cheapest, places for seeing whale sharks. The Philippines. Without hesitation I booked my flights.
I decided to wait until the end of my time in the Philippines to attempt it. The best time for seeing them is between March and May, though they arrive in the bay as early as November and stay as late as June. Since I arrived at the end of January I thought it would be best to wait a couple of weeks for the season to pick up. It seemed to be a smart move because by the time I arrived in Donsol boats had been seeing at least one butanding (local name for whale sharks) every day. There are other places to see them in the Philippines but Donsol sounded like the best spot for it. It also turned out to be the prettiest place I’ve been to.
A whale shark spotting day begins bright and early. Registration opens at 7am and it’s advisable to get there early if you’re on your own. I was staying at Woodland Beach Resort which is only a two minute walk from the Whale Shark Interaction Centre. I was the first one to register for the day. Each boat only takes 6 passengers, once the office has put together a group of 5 or 6 then you each pay your share of the the 3500 pesos cost to hire the boat. You need to hire your snorkel kit beforehand. I got mine for 250 pesos from my hotel. The boats begin to head out at 8am. Earlier is better. You have a better chance of finding the sharks in the morning. That being said, there is never a guarantee. I would budget yourself enough time and money to do it at least a second trip if you don’t get to see them on your first try. One of the girls I met in my dorm took three tries before she saw any.
Looking for the butanding isn’t easy. Each boat has two or three spotters precariously perched on the roof over the seats and at the ends of the boat. We headed north to start with. At first everyone was buzzing with anticipation. It didn’t take long for it to fizzle out. We did see a needle-fish propel itself across the water surface which was pretty cool. But we had no luck finding anything bigger. It was so calm. The water looked like glass before the boat cut through it. But even the beauty of the bay didn’t keep our spirits up as we reached our second hour of searching. Each boat is only meant to have 3 hours on the water. We had all given up hope. But then I saw our guide signal one of the spotters. He was discreet and didn’t make a big thing of it, but could it be? We had turned towards the southern end of the bay about half an hour before and there was a cluster of boats ahead of us. When our guide started pulling his flippers out of his bag the tension on the boat became palpable. This was it. They’d definitely spotted one. We collected our gear so that we would be ready to go once the call came. A few minutes passed, all of us furtively searching the water. And then we saw it. A fin breaching the surface about 20 metres away.
“Get ready! Get ready!” our guide shouted. We scrambled to get our fins and masks on and eagerly sat along the edge of the boat. We sat there. Waiting to be told to swim. Minutes passed. And then the words we didn’t want to hear. Get back in the boat. The shark has dived. None of us wanted to believe that we had missed our chance. We kept our gear on and hoped. Then suddenly. “Go! Go!” and we all clambered over the side of the boat into the water as quick as we could. We swam. We swam hard. My snorkel wasn’t working properly. I pulled my head out of the water to clear it and when I put my face back into the water I pulled up short. I was maybe a metre from the head of a whale shark! I was stunned. How could anything be that big?!
I watched in amazement as the tail disappeared past me. As suddenly as it appeared it was lost again in the cloudy water. It was a real shame about the visibility. I could only see maybe three metres. Heart racing and out of breath I swam back towards the boat. The time with the shark maybe totalled about 20 seconds. It was a far cry from the idyllic scene I had in my head of gracefully swimming beside the behemoth for hours on end. To be completely honest the whole thing felt like a bit of a circus. We managed to have about 4 or 5 interactions [video] with the shark but it was so rushed and there were just too many people in the water. Before you leave the interaction centre you’ll notice a few signs detailing the rules of swimming with the sharks. They seem to be just for show. No one really adheres to them. Except for equipment and the touching rules. So I guess that’s something.
I had chosen Donsol because it seemed like the more ethical place for this and there were really strict rules in place. You want to cause as little stress or disruption to the animals as possible. I had ruled out Oslob because there they feed the sharks to draw them in and I don’t agree with that. In Donsol they don’t feed them. The animals are there because there is an abundant natural food source and they’d be there whether humans went looking for them or not. I wish that the other restrictions were enforced though. It is meant to be one boat per shark which means no more than 6 swimmers at a time. There were 6 boats and up to 30 people in the water at a time when I went. I would hate to see what it’s like in peak season. But, if they were enforced I would not have seen the sharks. It’s a catch 22. I would have hated missing out on seeing the shark. But I don’t like how it was done.
Because of all that I left Donsol with mixed feelings about swimming with whale sharks. It was amazing and I don’t regret having seen these magnificent animals up close. But, I don’t think that this is necessarily good for the sharks. It is too disruptive. I always weigh up the ethics of participating in animal tourism and this was a particularly difficult one for me. You are shown a video before you go on the boat about how to interact with the animals and about the history of the practice. It used to be legal to kill the butanding. Now it’s not. The reason for this is summed up in one line in that video. “They are worth more to us alive than dead”. That’s because of tourism. If it weren’t for tourists then these already endangered animals may have been driven to extinction by now. Still the experience left me uneasy. I would like to try the whale shark interaction in Australia to compare someday. I’m willing to pay the higher price if it’s a better experience.
Have you been swimming with Whale Sharks? What was your take on it?