We shared the boat with two couples: a Filipino married duo who were in their late 30’s and an Indonesian-European pair who were in their mid-20’s. Our new foreigner friends made me realize what a big tourist attraction swimming with the whale sharks really is. They were only staying in the country for 4 days because they had some business in Manila, and out of all the wonderful places they could visit in the Philippines for their remaining days, they chose to visit Donsol.
The interracial couple have grown quite impatient, but with reason. They have already reserved their slot the day before, as they went on for an awesome scuba diving trip in at the Manta Bowl, the Manta Ray capital of the Philippines, in the neighboring Ticao Pass. Their account of the diving experience was so amazing that it is a definite must that I try that myself. But their holdup with the scheduling is really a red flag for everyone that even in reservations, there is no time assurance at all in Donsol.
Trying to be a good steward of Philippine tourism, I asked the couple if they went to see the famous Mt. Mayon in Albay. I even boasted that it is the world’s most perfect cone volcano. The European woman just shrugged it off and said, “Nah, that’s okay. We have a lot of cone volcanoes in Indonesia. I don’t feel like we’re missing too much.”
“I don’t feel like we’re missing too much” were the words echoing through my head as I felt a twitch in my eye and a sharp crick in my neck. I know she didn’t mean to be offensive in anyway, but somehow I was disheartened at her disinterest. I tried to defend our precious Mt. Mayon.
“Really? Are you sure? Like perfect cones?” I said as I mimicked the hand gesture in Lactum’s commercial ‘kapanatag’. She mimicked the hand gesture back and replied with a firm, “Yes, perfect cones.” My inner salesperson curled up into a tiny ball.
This made me realize that the Philippines has a lot in common with our Southeast Asian neighbors and that they are a big tourism competition. That is quite a blunt way of putting it, but it’s a point to ponder on for our Department of Tourism.
The quest for whale sharks
The boat crew comprises of 4 people: 2 boat men, the spotter and the guide.
The spotter is the one who stands on the boat beam to look for a big black blotch on the water, indicating a whale shark surfacing. I tried my hands at this whale shark spotting because I wanted to help ensure we see one. Let me tell you, it is not an easy feat! You have to balance yourself atop this bamboo beam while the boat is moving. You then have to endure being barbecued under the blazing afternoon sun. And good luck opening your eyes if you have no sunglasses on. All of these challenges in about three hours per trip!
The guide is the one who will, well, guide you when it’s diving time. He is basically the one you pester with all your questions and and who is responsible for everyone’s safety (after all the disclaimers ofcourse). To be a guide, one has to be a really good swimmer, hence the washboard abs.
We started sailing and conversations were sparking here and there because of excitement. After an hour of sailing without even a hint of whale shark sighting, the conversations started to turn in to nerves and anticipation. After almost two hours of sailing, it becomes an inner dialogue of whether I should keep my hopes up, or start the process of acceptance of the reality that we would see no sharks.
We were asked if we wanted to do some snorkeling for a while. We were torn: do we use the precious time to continue on searching or do we make the most of our trip by just taking a dip? In the name of the rented snorkeling gear that was paid for (and mine being dragged from Manila and all over Bicol), we decided to take the offer. Pampalubag loob. Consolation prize.
The corals in Donsol are quite okay but snorkeling isn’t that recommended because the water is very murky (atleast in the area we had visited). A word of caution, sea urchins litter the reef and the water current in quite strong in some spots.
After our short swim trip, we made our way back to the Visitor Center, still quite hopeful we’d see a butanding on our way. I have learned from our local boatmates that our guide had been very reluctant to report for duty because it is a little known fact in their community that it is uncommon for whale sharks to turn up during the afternoons. I got frustrated. If this was true, then they just shouldn’t allow whale shark interactions late into the afternoons because it would be like a rip off. But then our guide said, who were they to take that small chance away from the people? He had a point, but if there really is statistical evidence of the rarity of sightings in the afternoons, I really wish they would discontinue late trips.
The dying flame of our hopes vanished with a trail of smoke as the bottom of our boat hit the chocolate sands of Donsol. We were back at the Center and we did not see any whale sharks.
The three pairs of people in our boat represents the…
3 kinds of disappointed whale shark watchers in Donsol:
1. The Angry Tourist
– as represented by the foreigner couple. These are the people, who, in the last half-hour of the trip, will have their eyebrows move an inch closer to each other and the color of their faces will have a slight tomato red tint. They will become unmotivated for any more conversation. Their personal belongings will transform into wrecking balls, randomly slamming and banging on everything in their path. Usually these are the people who have gone through a lot of trouble and hassle to see whale sharks and chooses to express their disappointment in an upfront manner.
2. The Ridiculously Happy Sport
– as represented by our native friends. These are the people who will have words of appeasement such as “ganun talaga” (that’s just how it is,) “it’s nature”, “there’s still next time” flow from their mouths. They will smile unrelentlessly and would be the only ones left doing the talking in the group. If you are an angry tourist, you would probably want to chuck your wrecking ball stuff down the throat of the ridiculously happy sport for still being just too darn happy.
3. The Pained Emotera
– as represented by us, yours truly! These are the people who are just simply waiting to get back to their lodging and lock themselves up in the bathroom to cry their poor little hearts out! Their lips will form into the letter C turned 90 degrees clockwise. They will start pondering the cruelty of fate and wonder what they ever did to deserve such karma. Their battle cry: “WHHHHHHHY???”
Yes, I was the pained emotera. I was so excited to have finally ticked off the ‘swim with the whale sharks’ item in my bucket list that I was so disappointed that it didn’t turn to fruition. Plus, I have already announce it to the world (a.k.a. my facebook) that I was going to swim with whale sharks and my friends were all rooting for me. Ahh, the pressures of social media.
I couldn’t believe that that “very, very rare” disappointment would happen to me. It was the middle of the summer, why wouldn’t there be any whale sharks?
Back at the shore, Kuya Jonathan, our tour guide said there were rumors that there had been a one sighting, around 9 in the morning. I couldn’t believe it! Where did that story suddenly come from? We were there all afternoon and none of the people coming and going vouched for that claim. And believe me, if there was a word about even a single sighting, everyone would have probably known because of the drought of hope around the area. And if there had been even a single sighting, there would definitely be more than one boat flocking over the butanding, ergo more witnesses. So where did this 9 am story suddenly come from? Was it possible they were injecting a little hope for those coming in for the next day? It made me wonder, was the previous day’s two claims of sighting even true? I hope so.
Around 100 boat trips have sailed forth that day. With 6 people on each boat, around 600 people, Filipinos and foreigners, had their hearts crushed. If the rumors of the whale shark ‘drought’ during that whole week was true, then the hearts crushed would add up to thousands!
I really don’t know how it is like in Donsol on good days when everybody is happy and ecstatic with their experience with these great creatures. I am NOT saying that the wonderful stories I’ve read online are a whole bunch of lies and the account that “In Donsol during peak season, it is very, very rare not to see whale sharks.” might actually be true. My intention is to let it be known how very possible it is to not see butandings in Donsol.
It was almost a shock for me that I didn’t see any shark. I guess there was a point where I became unreasonably mad that I felt like I wasn’t warned enough. The uncertainty had always been mentioned in the posts that I’ve read, but only in passing. Maybe there lies the reason why I did not see of them. Maybe I was meant to make this in-your-face warning to add to the balance of the perfect and the unlucky testimonies on the web.
Let it be known that I am in no way discouraging you from whisking away to Donsol in hopes of seeing a butanding. By any means, do so! Who am I to say you if you would have better luck than I had? My message is NOT about avoiding Donsol. My message is more of “Don’t go to Donsol just for the sole purpose of seeing whale sharks because there is a FAIR possibility you won’t”. (Fooled you, didn’t I?) Instead, go to Donsol with an open mind and a great appreciation of whale sharks. Appreciate the fact that whale sharks are now protected from being killed. Go to Donsol and be happy that the money you spent helped the livelihood of their locals, who now have more incentive to be tour guides than to be poachers. Go to Donsol to see the firefly attraction. Go to Donsol with a big group of friends, hang out by the beach, bond, and have a great time. Go to Donsol to meet new people and get to know the locals. Go to Donsol with a heart of a real adventurer. And maybe, if you don’t see any whale sharks, you could walk away and be classified as a ridiculously happy sport.
May the odds be forever in your favor.
This is a 2-part story about my 1st trip to the Donsol.