Don’t Go To Donsol To See Whale Sharks: The other side of the story (Part 1)

If you have never been to Donsol, or have never laid eyes on a real whale shark (locally called butanding) in the wild, then you have probably gone seaweed green with envy from the tales of your friends’ encounters; their happy and enthralled faces on photos parading on your news feed bear witness of the delight such experience brings. And you’re itching to be a part of it all. That was exactly how it had been for me.

“☐ Swim with whale sharks”, I had promptly written on my bucket list.

To many young adventurous Filipinos, whale shark interaction is quite popular on their list. The experience is extra-meaningful to me because I have been into the sport of skin diving for a while and it’s such a waste if I would not have a taste of the ultimate diving experience. My personal list is quite a lengthy one so when a long weekend graced my schedule with its presence (I work on weekends as a sports analyst), I made a covenant with myself to take a spontaneous trip to Donsol, Sorsogon, no matter what happened.

My three-day preparation was nothing more than mindless daydreaming while reading blog posts about Donsol’s whale sharks. “Amazing”, “Thrilling”, “Unforgettable” are the kind of words that are sprinkled all over what I’ve read.

One of the enticing posts I have read about is from Tricia of The Traveling Journo. She writes:

..it was such an adrenaline rush during the part where we were swimming after the whale shark, but the moment we laid eyes on the great fish, seeing it swim right below us felt like an out-of-body experience. It was active meditation, much like how I felt while trekking to and from Pinatubo’s crater. I was there in body and in spirit, but at the same time, I felt that I was looking at myself from a higher plane.”

My excitement was brimming but there were lots of challenges on the path to Donsol. Of course there is the budget to consider. And on such short notice (I’ve made the ‘covenant’ just two nights before departure!), it was close to impossible to find some awesome, adventurous and spontaneous friends go on such journey. To top it all off, I had no idea how to do it aside from the aid of our helpful Filipino travel bloggers. I was somehow reassured that a whale shark encounter in Donsol was almost a shoo-in. This post from Shark Diving Philippines sealed the deal for me:

Are the whale sharks guaranteed?

Whale sharks are wild animals so are never guaranteed, but Donsol is as guaranteed as you are going to get!
In Donsol during peak season, it is very, very rare not to see whale sharks. Most people will see at least 5. Your intrepid writer saw 15 when she was there one March and she barely even tried! On a good day you can see 20 and some people have even seen as many as FORTY FIVE WHALE SHARKS in one day. This is of course very rare and most people are exhausted way before they hit that many! But it is possible!

“…very, very, rare”

Mayon Volcano Trip

After a lot of rushed planning and a day of sweaty backpacking from Manila to Bicol, I found myself in Donsol, queuing in the chaotic Visitor Center with my friend, Natalie, who was as spontaneous as I was. Chaotic is actually quite an understatement. Let’s not go into detail, but let’s just say, we registered at 7:00 am and the officer told us we would have our turn at 10:00 am—and that even turned out to be a bigger underestimation.

There is a lot of room for improvement from the management’s side so I insist you pack a lot of patience when you make your own visit. A lot of scheduling mishaps were going on, as I’ve heard from the complaints around the queue. I should have heeded a friends advice to be in at the center as early as I could (6:00 am) as the difference between registering time and your actual boarding time increases exponentially the later you sign up. There were actually those who have registered the day before but still ended up in the afternoon batches of boats.

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Fees and Rules
(As of May 2013)

  • The maximum number of people that can occupy a boat is up to 7, although the standard number of people should be 6.
  • There is a ₱100 registration fee for Filipinos and ₱300 for foreigners. (Do you think that’s fair?) and a single boat requires a ₱3,500 fee that you have to divide amongst your group. So for a group of 6 people, that is ₱583.33 per person for the boat.
  • The snorkeling set and fins are available for rent at ₱300, but our guide, Kuya Jonathan, stopped us over at Villa Jolee where we had rented the fins at only ₱100 (I brought my own gear and Natalie borrowed her snorkel set from the inn).
  • Everyone who will go through the Whale Shark Interaction is required to watch a 15-minute video briefing about the rules of conduct and what to expect on your butanding experience. (Warning: You may experience tingling trepidation from the pits of your bowels in excitement while watching the video.)
  • The boat will take whale shark spotting in the waters of Donsol for only 3 hours.

Code of Conduct (from the Donsol Brochure of the Department of Tourism)

  • Do not touch or ride the whale shark.
  • Do not restrict the movement of the shark or impede its natural path.
  • The recommended distance from the whale shark is 3 meters from the tail.
  • Do not undertake flash photography.
  • Do not use scuba, scooters, jet skis or any motorized underwater propulsion.
  • A maximum of six (6) swimmers per shark is required.
  • There must be only one boat per whale shark.

Souvenir shops line the entrance, where you can buy keychain, T-shirts and cute butanding stuff toys. As for food, I would advise you to bring your own snacks if you are not willing to shell out extra because the retail stores inside the center is quite pricey, although there is a burger/hotdog stand that sells at reasonable prices. There is also a restaurant nearby and a lot of vendors whipping in and out of the waiting area. After hours in the sweltering heat, a frosty 10-peso icedrop is a pleasant relief to the tongue.

And so we waited patiently for our names to be called. We watched the tourists and travelers go group by group, each leaving with this untethered thrill on their faces, but each one coming back to the shores of Donsol in a somber mood. The script of the conversations between those waiting and the those who just got back would go:

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Man 1: Oh ano nakakita kayo? (Did you see anything?)
Man2: *With a dismayed face.* Wala eh. (Nothing.)

It was quite alarming because there were stories going around that there have only been very few whale shark sightings in the past week. (It was the last week of April) There were stories going around that just the day before, there have been only 2 sightings of butanding in the area: Only two in 100 trips! The sighting supposedly happened around 11 am. It seems everybody I got to have a chat with is echoing this story of the lone two sightings, like a game of telephone.

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After hours of waiting—unfocused reading, making new friends, meditating, and musing about life—our names were finally called. Boat number 37 of Batch 2. So, at what time did we actually get to go on our whale shark spotting? Drum roll please. *Dun-dun-dun-dun* At 2:30 pm! It took us 7.5 hours from registration to our turn, and it was not looking good. Whale shark sightings, as they said, were more common in the mornings. And when we asked our guide about this fact, he didn’t deny it but he kept optimistic. “Malay mo. (You’ll never know)” He even cited some instances when they saw whale sharks in the late afternoon. He kept saying, “Nature ‘yan. Nature.” And so we sailed forth to begin our quest for whale sharks.

This is a 2-part story about my 1st trip to the Donsol.To Part 2

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About Audreynaline Rush

You made it to the end of my post! Hooray! So here’s my bio: My name is Audrey and I am a mathematician, sports analyst, radio show host, amateur skin-diver, and entrepreneur-wannabe. But I am just a real human being who wants to travel and get better at life. You can help me achieve this starting with giving a feedback in the comments down below. I will cherish every word you say (unless you’re being a plain meany).

  • Adrian Santoalla

    Whoa! I got to pack my bag and fly to Donsol asap!! I am thrilled by the thought of seeing a whale shark!

    I wanna know more about this exhilirating trip! Can’t wait for the sequel!

    • audreynalinerush

      Tara! Better go Feb-March, they say.

  • Marlo la O’

    Indeed they are wild animals and they cannot be predicted. Couldn’t agree with the post that you should be very early even 6am is not enough as much as possible to see and swim with one of the big and friendly sea creatures of the world. A local tricycle driver told me and my friends to be there on the site at least 5am or 5:30am because the whale harks usually pass by 6am in the morning, and that is the best time to see them and maybe the only time.

  • Seen

    I believe that it is fair that locals get a cheaper price (it’s not like p300 is a preposterous price to see a vulnerable species in the wild, c’mon). It encourages local tourism plus locals will be more motivated to take their foreigner friends there and make the travel easier and experience better.

    • audreynalinerush

      That’s a pretty good perspective. When I wrote this down about 4 years ago, I’ve never been anywhere else. Now I realize I have to pay extra a lot of times for being a foreigner. Not sure I like it for my own benefit 😛 haha

  • Adrenaline Romance

    I think it’s Mother Nature’s nature to be unpredictable. 🙂 We saw a whale shark in the wild—and unexpectedly—while diving in Panagsama, Moalboal. What a wonderful experience! And what made it really great is that it was not like in Oslob where the locals feed the whale sharks so the area could become a tourist attraction.