Home to the 'Butanding' aka whale shark - the initial attraction for us (not so much Amelia) to visit the Philippines. There are other places to see them around the Philippines. For example Oslob, Cebu. But in Oslob the local fishermen and tour operators feed the whale sharks, to attract and keep them there for longer than normal. Unfortunately these actions slowly take away the shark's ability to 'hunt' its own food (plankton). Not agreeing with these practices we opted to go to Donsol, even though the chances of seeing the Butanding are slightly lower.
We got to Donsol town by minibus from Legaspi. From Donsol town we were escorted to a 'huba-huba' (motorbike taxi) by a seemingly very friendly Filipino lady who was on our bus. Feeling a little wary, Amelia and I squeezed ourselves, plus bags, on to one huba huba! I was pretty much hanging off the back of this motorbike for the fifteen minute journey to 'Dancalan' - the primary area for tourists wanting to see the Butanding. We arrived at a place called 'Victoria's Guesthouse' along with the friendly Filipino lady - It transpired she was on her way back home after visiting family in Manila, and wanted to prevent us getting ripped off by the numerous tricycle drivers in the town. She even refused to let us pay her back the fifty pesos she paid for the journey! We are always very aware of scams, that something didn't seem or feel quite right. But it turned out she was genuinely a very friendly honest lady.
For once this first place we looked at was not only cheap, but in great condition, and had very friendly staff. The room hadn't even been cleaned yet, but still looked much better than some of the other places we've stayed in! We decided, whilst waiting for the room to be prepared, to go check in at the 'Donsol Visitor Centre'. They offered three sessions a day to go and 'interact' with the whale sharks. Hearing that the best time to see them is during the first session at 7:30am, we booked on for the following morning. After which we had to watch a video explaining all the do's and don'ts of the interaction. Some of the main rules were - no more than six people allowed to one shark, no touching, no swimming within 3m or 4m from the tail, and no obstructing its path. It was nice to see and use this responsible and professional organisation, not something you see often in SEA. But it hasn't always been like this. Up until quite recently, 1998, the worlds biggest fish was unprotected and hunted in the Philippines.
The guesthouse didn't have a restaurant as such, but were able to cater for our needs, as long as we asked beforehand. For dinner that night we had taro leaves in a coconut curry, fish cooked in vinegar and chilli, served with rice. For dessert a nice juicy mango.
Up early with excitement, we got ourselves ready before having a very sweet and stodgy native breakfast of glutinous rice cooked in coconut milk to dip in chocolate sauce. Plus a rice cake stuffed with shredded coconut and brown sugar. It was very tasty but I think it explains why many of the locals have rotten teeth!
We took a tricycle to reach the visitor centre just after 7am. After checking in, we had to wait outside for our names to be called. Once our names were called (along with four others) we were introduced to our guide, who took us to the 'banca' (wooden boat with outriggers). On the typical Filipino boat were a crew of two spotters and a captain. Along with the guide, none of them seemed very friendly or welcoming.
The whale sharks cruise around the bay of Donsol swallowing down large amounts of plankton to feed their ginormous bodies. Whale sharks, or as the locals call them Butanding, can reach lengths of 12m or more, and weigh more than 20 tonnes. We were joined by a Danish couple (Rudolf and Trine) and an American/Filipino couple (Tess and Joey). Some of us sat nervously (Amelia) waiting for some sort of signal from a spotter, or our mute guide. It didn't take long, but it looked like one boat had beaten us to it, so we waited for our turn. The guide pointed us to the side of the boat where we all sat expectantly, all of sudden the crew shouted "now!". Without so much as a hesitation I jumped in, bashing into fellow swimmers and the outrigger along the way! Once the cloud of bubbles dissipate all you can see in front of you is the deep blue sea. Visibility wasn't at its best, I presume because of the large amounts of microscopic plankton in the water, so we followed our guide. Being second on the scene (behind the guide) I caught a very faint glimpse of the iconic white spots below us. But we were too late, the others being slightly further away didn't see so much as a spot - it'd swam too deep.
Back on the boat we waited and waited, two hours passed before we entered the water again. But this time we were first on the scene.
Again we perched with our mask, snorkel and fins on, hanging over the side of the boat, until the signal. Whilst hanging off the side of the boat you can't help but hear the iconic 'Jaws' music looping around in your head. Some of us were even humming it! As before, when we heard the signal, we dropped into the sea colliding into one another again, but unlike last time, when the bubbles cleared we saw a ginormous dark silhouette heading our way, my heart was really pumping out my chest! As it got closer the more we saw, from its gaping mouth and pulsating gills, to its huge fins and characteristic white spots. It was at least 8 metres long! We watched it gracefully swim by us, before following in its wake. The interaction was breathtaking and just utterly surreal! Unfortunately because sightings were low during our session, we weren't able to swim with it for long. Let's just say some boats weren't following the rules and the water was starting to become a little chaotic!
I was hugely glad and relieved to hear Amelia had enjoyed the experience just as much as I had! Even though she was absolutely petrified beforehand, she was desperate to see another! But unfortunately there were no more, the three hours allocated to us had come and gone.
Back on dry land, Amelia and I went back to the Donsol visitor centre to discuss a few options.
Due to our ever jam packed itinerary and difficulty travelling this region, we had to leave the following day. Our predicament was, could we squeeze in another interaction the following morning. With the interaction finishing at approximately 11am and the ferry leaving at midday (half an hour away by tricycle) it would be a bit of a gamble! But after some gratefully appreciated help from Tess and Joey (both speak Tagalog) we eventually sorted a contingency plan, it only took around ten phone calls and an entire afternoon! That's how difficult it can be island hopping in the Philippines.
Another experience in Donsol takes place just after sunset, firefly watching. We had attempted to see them the previous evening, but because there were no groups for us to join and being unwilling to pay for a private charter up the river, we didn't go.
Luckily that day, we bumped into the only other couple (a german couple who live in Hong Kong) staying at the guesthouse, who were also keen to see the fireflies. The tour takes you by boat down an estuary to a very quiet section of the river where you look out for fireflies. The male fireflies - the brighter ones, normally swarm in massive groups around certain areas looking for the less bright females to mate with. It was quite a spectacle, as our guide said "it looks like a Christmas tree". Sometimes the fireflies were even flashing in sync with each other. After about an hour of looking at different swarms, and almost falling asleep (it's very relaxing) we headed back.
We ate dinner with the German couple back at the guesthouse and had a fairly early night, for another early start and long day.
To give ourselves the best possible chance of getting the midday ferry we got to the visitor centre even before it opened (7am), hoping we would be first out. But no such luck, even though we were the first in to sign up and pay that morning, we still had to wait a good half hour to have ourselves assigned to a boat and guide, by which time two or three had already left. So much for 'first come, first serve' as the sign stipulated in the centre.
Our guide and crew the second day were like 'chalk and cheese' compared with the day before. The guide actually introduced himself and the crew helped us into the boat and prepared our gear. And unlike the guide from the day before this guy told us all (some first timers) what to expect, how to go about preparing yourself and getting into the water. During the next three hours we swam with five whale sharks! One was about 10m long and we swam with one for over five minutes! It was fairly exhausting keeping up, even with fins on, whilst the whale shark barely moves its tail. The interaction was just as exhilarating as the day before, and because the visibility was better I felt a little more comfortable, so I managed to dive down and swim at the same depth as a few of them, making sure not to get within the 3m perimeter of course. It was an action packed three hours!
Amelia and I are both in agreement that swimming with whale sharks is quite possibly the best thing we've ever done, and is even 'up there' with the likes of our experiences skydiving.
When we arrived back to the shore, we rushed back to the guesthouse packed our bags and jumped in a tricycle to head to the pier in Pillar...