“Now! Jump! Swim, swim! Look down!” OMG! I am swimming six feet above a 20’ long whale shark. Welcome to Donsol in the Philippines, where finding whale sharks is a gazillion times easier than finding an ATM!
Why were we there?
It may take two and half days to get to Donsol from Moalboal, but only two and half minutes to find the world’s biggest fish. Guaranteed! Almost…
Paul’s Swimming Challenge #3
I passed challenges #1 and #2 like a f#@kig champ. I swam with turtles in Apo Island. And, in Moalboal I swam over a deep dropoff (accompanied by millions of schooling sardines). If I pass challenge #3, Laura will open our splurge fund and let me do an Open Water PADI course. If I don’t, I will continue to suffer the lonely life of a dive widow.
This time, I have to drop off a boat into the deep blue sea. The supporting cast will include the world’s biggest fish, the whale shark, and numerous non-swimming and raucous tourists.
These goddamned big fish better turn up or we is going to be pissed! Instead of taking the extremely easy, but stupidly expensive option, to fly up to the Donsol area, we decided to take the cheap but brutally exhausting overland route. We were utterly shattered and emotionally raw when we finally arrived in Donsol. This happens sometimes when you are on the road and no amount of experience makes it any easier.
Thankfully, after multiple bus, ferry, jeepney, and tricycle rides we arrived at a little oasis of peace and calm: the Amor Farm Beach Resort in Donsol. It was on the beach, had lovely rooms, and a fab on-site restaurant. The restaurant sold fiery Bicolanese food, which was the finest local cuisine we had in the Philippines. The freezing cold 7% Red Horse Beer helped too. Unusually for the Philippines, the US$22 room was good value for money. The town was pleasantly hassle-free, which is a real bonus for a place that exists mainly to serve tourists.
Thanks for the update, BUT I WANT TO HEAR ABOUT THE F#@KING BIG FISH, MATE!
There are a few places where you are practically guaranteed to see whale sharks in the Philippines. It’s all very seasonal though, and one of the options is a tad obnoxious. The whale sharks in Padre Burgos off southern Leyte had arrived early and left town before we got to the Philippines. Probably irritated by annoying selfie stick wielding tour groups who can’t even goddamn swim! The easy but obnoxious option is to visit Oslob on Cebu Island. That would have saved us 60 hours of travel, but we do not like the fact that they feed the sharks there to keep them from migrating. We saw fellow backpackers heading there. Very, very uncool. It’s a whale shark for Chrissakes. You need to work hard to see them.
And, there is Donsol on the southeastern spur of Luzon. Where to be honest you don’t have to work that hard to see them but at least the townsfolk have some decent environmental practices to save the sharks from being harmed. Not perfect by any means and I will return to that theme later.
The Whale Shark Interaction Center in Donsol
The only way to see the sharks is to book a tour with the community run Whale Shark Interaction Center. They only allow snorkeling, so divers will have to lower themselves to dealing with the surface-only types. They only allow thirty boats out per day. Each boat carries six snorkelers, the guide, two spotters, and the boat captain. The boats are only allowed to interact with sharks for a maximum of 3 hours. There should only be one boat per shark. The snorkelers are only allowed ten minutes with each shark.
You have to watch an introductory video, which lays down the law for interacting with the sharks. No touching them. REPEAT. DON’T F@#KING TOUCH THE SHARKS. Stay at least 3m away from the body and 4m from the tail. Don’t swim in front of them.
You sign up to see the sharks the evening before your trip. The interaction costs 300 pesos for the marine park fee, and the cost of the boat (3500 pesos) is split between the snorkelers. The Center will group people together if there are less than 6 of you. On the first day we went in there were only 5 of us on the boat, but we were happy to split the cost to get going early.
Snorkel gear is available for additional pesos. We had our own gear so we took that along.
So, how did your day go?
You have to go to the Center at 7am. For some reason, your chances of seeing the whale sharks are better early in the morning. We paid up, connected with our group, and met our guide. You get a quick debriefing on shore from the guide. He makes sure you understand the rules and regulations. We were lucky enough to have a marine biologist along for the ride too. She was studying the Donsol whale sharks and told us some interesting facts about them.
We headed over to the boats, met the crew, and were out on the water by 8am. The boat is a fairly big and sturdy bangka with souped up engine and outriggers. The guide gave us a final briefing. You watch the guide at all times. When he says get ready, you sit on the side of the boat masks, snorkels, and fins on. When he says ‘Jump’, you do not say ‘how high?’. You get your ass in the water pronto and, swim away down the length of the boat.
Follow the guide. And, more importantly, listen. Our guide said only two things in the water. ‘Follow me’. This means swim really f@#king fast. Or, ‘look down’. When you look down you will see a whale shark.
Got it? Great. So, how did it go?
Within a few minutes of being out on the ocean, the guide told us to get ready. We seemed barely to have left port and we were already in whale shark territory. I was expecting to be a long way shore before our first sighting.
We put on our masks and fins, sat on the edge of the boat, and within seconds the guide yelled, ‘Jump’. It all felt a bit chaotic. ‘Look down, look down’. I obeyed orders and screw me… there was a ginormous whale shark just below my skinny ass. This was a small shark but it was at least double my size. And, boy, do they move. One flick of the tail and it was off. We frantically swam after it. But, this one didn’t want to play and dove down into the deep dark recesses of the ocean. We dragged ourselves back in the boat. I figured that would be it. Very cool… even if it felt more ghostly presence that really there.
Our guide was unperturbed. Off we went in search of more. It took a little while to find beast number two but this proved to be the best experience of the day. We went through the same procedure and on looking down the most magnificent beast I have ever seen floated up just below me. This was more like it. Six meters of lean mean shark.
Whale sharks are truly beautiful. They are sleek, silvery blue and covered in white spots. The array of spots is unique to each animal and it is the primary means by which marine biologists identify them. Whale Sharks are extremely gentle beasts and mainly eat plankton. Mind you, their huge, huge mouths look like they could swallow a whole lot more. Shame they didn’t guzzle down a few of the utterly annoying snorkelers that leapt down off other boats to harass OUR whale shark.
This whale shark let us swim with it for ten minutes and more. You know you should only be with them for ten minutes but how do you keep track in the water? Obviously, your guide tells you but this is not as easy as it seems.
The problems of whale shark watching in Donsol
It is all very well having great rules and regulations but these are pretty much tossed out of the boat as soon as you hit the water. To be fair, our guide and boat tried to play ball. Sadly, other captains and guides do not.
The problem is that other boats know when you have a whale shark. It’s easy to see a bunch of folks frantically lurching around the ocean. Obviously, no captain wants to let down his clients so they head over. It would be fine if just one boat did this. But, six, seven, eight? Suddenly, you are in the water with 30 odd snorkelers. And, they all want to see. And, they don’t all play fair. You have idiots barging you out of the way. Slapping fins in your face. Cutting across you. We even had a boat cruise right through our group. Borderline dangerous. It becomes very difficult to keep track of your guide and boat under these conditions. You lose track of time. The shark suffers. And, no doubt, so do lots of snorkelers.
Worse, one dude dove down and grabbed the dorsal fin of the shark. No problem for the whaleshark. It dove. Suddenly, there were thirty pissed snorkelers and no whale shark. Whale sharks are not immune to the seemingly benign bacteria on our skin and they can be infected with nasty ailments. Grrr! Our guide reprimanded the dude and told him not to leave his boat again. Obviously, he did. How do you stop someone diving off a boat?
Back to the whale sharks
But, before the chaos ensued, our swim with the shark was bliss. It seemed not to be bothered by our presence at all. The tricky part is keeping up with them. Even if, you could spend more than 10 minutes in the water you would probably get pooped fast. Trying to avoid touching them is tricky too. You cannot really judge where they will rise up to or which way they will turn. We didn’t bump into one but they come very close at times. A slap from a whale shark tail would not be nice.
The sharks also have a bunch of attendant fish. It reminded me of Battlestar Galactica and its armada of ships. Various fish nibble at parasites on the shark. Fish get fed. Shark stays clean.
We went through the same drill a bunch of times over the three hours and swam with six sharks. An extraordinary day.
A couple of videos of our shark encounters:
The next day
Laura booked up to do a series of dives the next day. Her main aim was to see manta rays at the appropriately named Manta Bowl. More about that later.
I amazed Laura by suggesting I go back in with the whale sharks on my own while she was diving. I was back in with the same guide, which calmed me down a bit. I was weirdly worried since this would be my first deep water experience without Laura’s reassuring presence.
It took us a while to find our first shark but the day was fairly similar to day one. The day before, I had heard rumors that there was a 9m shark in the bay. This was my justification for going back in. I wanted to see Big Daddy. Or, was it Big Mama?
I didn’t have to wait long. On day two, I decided to do less frantic swimming around and more floating over. This was a good tactic for Big Boy! We jumped in, looked down,and there he was. I was right at the shark’s mouth as it passed right below me. The entire length of the beast glided 1m beneath me. Which was very concerning once I got to the tail end. The tail is huge and sticks up a long way from the torso. I took evasive action and then had to whizz round to catch it up. Tricky!
But, wow! What an incredible experience! Maybe, one of the top five of the whole trip.
It did get ridiculous at times. Guides are even paid to drag non-swimmers behind them. How does this make sense to anyone? You have to swim damn hard to keep up with sharks!
Laura’s Dive at the Manta Bowl (by Laura)
The plankton-rich waters around southeast Luzon don’t only attract whale sharks. At Ticao Pass, the channel between Luzon and Masbate Island, manta rays converge at a feeding and cleaning station called Manta Bowl. Whale sharks and even the occasional thresher shark make appearances. I still hadn’t seen a manta ray, so I signed up for a dive trip with the Bicol Dive Center.
The standard Manta Bowl day trip includes three dives including a check-up dive at a reef at San Miguel Island followed by two dives at Manta Bowl. It costs 4500 pesos, or just under $100, which is pretty reasonable for 3 dives.
Manta Bowl is known for strong currents and cold water, so I was happy that Bicol Dive Center was professional and safety-conscious bordering on the militaristic. With only 24 logged dives, I was in safe hands. All 5 divers on the boat had a similar level of experience and our divemasters took great care of us. Experienced divers considering this trip should note that the dive guides had the entire group ascend when the first person ran out of air, and an experienced diver with really low air consumption would have been frustrated to be a part of our group. After each dive, I was the one with the most air remaining, and that never happens to me!
The dive site is a long way from Donsol, making for a long day on the boat. My fellow divers were an American couple from Portland doing a six-month sabbatical, and a well-traveled Swiss couple on vacation before starting new jobs. It was a fun group, and we traded a lot of travel tips on the ride to the dive sites.
The first dive was a check-up so the guides could evaluate our skills and air consumption. The reef was nice enough but not too special compared to the Bandas or the Togean Islands. We continued to Manta Point during our decompression interval and the guide briefed us once again. The current was weaker than usual, which was good news from a safety standpoint but bad news because it meant the visibility would be worse than usual.
We descended through the murky water and found a place to kneel on the bottom. We were equipped with hooks but didn’t need them in the mild current. After a few minutes, the guide banged his tank. Like a silent ghost, a pale manta ray winged its way past us. It circled around for another look before vanishing into the darkness. A minute later, a parade of three mantas passed by.
The visibility was so poor that the manta sighting was more like a blurry dream than a Blue Planet documentary. Still, I was happy that I had finally seen mantas in the wild and they were as beautiful and mysterious as I expected.
Our second dive at the Manta Bowl didn’t produce any manta sightings. At the end of the day, I could technically check “see manta rays” off my bucket list, but I felt that today’s sighting wasn’t enough. I had spent a lot of money and many hours on the boat to see mantas for a combined total of about 2 minutes. So, I needed to find a place to see manta rays properly!
So Paul, you sailed through challenge #3, right?
I did just fine. When everyone is leaping off the boat, you don’t have much time to think. I went with the flow and felt great. I had a few newbie heebie-jeebies, but mainly when I was just floating around waiting for a whale shark to surface. I was OK whizzing around but being still in water just brought to mind that terrifying film, Open Water!
So, Laura is opening the splurge wallet? Ha! Well, maybe. Having only seen Mantas at a distance at Manta Bowl, she is determined to have a closer encounter. We have to pass through Bali and it seems a trip to Manta Point near Nusa Penida is on the cards. It’s a snorkel trip. This time my challenge will be much rougher conditions and a drift snorkel in strong currents. Scary!
Bonus visit to Mt. Mayon
The perfect cone of the active volcano, Mt. Mayon, loomed over the horizon from the boat in Donsol. Its graceful cone reminded us of Glacier Peak, the beauty queen of the Washington Volcanoes. With an afternoon to spare before our flight from Legazpi to Manila, we decided to check it out up close.
The best place to get a look at Mt. Mayon is from the ruins of Cagsawa church on the outskirts of Legazpi. We visited on a Sunday afternoon, and the ruins were swarmed with local visitors snapping selfies. We took refuge by following a track to the left just before the bridge and entrance to the ruins. The track is used by ATV tours, but we walked in the opposite direction from the rowdy riders to get some peace and quiet. The volcanic soil is incredibly fertile and farmers work in the area despite the occasional eruptions. The sun slowly sank, turning the green fields gold and the volcano a deep blue. Our Philippines adventures had been mainly underwater up to this point, so this was a lovely reminder that the Philippines has great scenery above the surface.
- The whale sharks. Nature watching at its best, despite the poor application of regulations designed to protect the animals.
- The fiery Bicolanese food.
- Amor Farm Beach Resort (good value beach bungalows) and the on-site Kwankita Restaurant
- Laura saw manta rays for the first time
- Walking through the rice fields at the base of Mt. Mayon in Legazpi
- Occasional lapse in regulations around the sharks
- Inconsiderate snorkelers
- Poor visibility and brevity of Laura’s manta encounter
When we were there
April 7-8, 2016. The weather was good and the sea was calm.
Getting there and away
We traveled over land and sea from Moalboal. We took the Ceres Liner Bus from Moalboal to Cebu City. We took a taxi from Cebu bus terminal to Ferry Pier #1. We took the Ocean Jet fast boat to Ormoc on Leyte. The boat left late and was a little expensive (600 pesos pp). The ferry terminal has similar check-in procedures to an airport. There is food at the terminal but it ain’t great! The ferry took three hours. We overnighted at David’s Inn in Ormoc. It was a decent enough place with an OK restaurant.
Next day, we arose early and took a Manila bound bus to Sorsogon in South Luzon. We had to pay the full fare through to Manila despite only going half way. 1400 pesos each. The journey took over thirteen hours and included a RORO ferry crossing from Samar Island to Luzon. The bus ride across rural, green Samar Island was beautiful. We overnighted at Fernando’s Hotel in Sorsogon. They stung us for 1440 pesos for a room that wasn’t worth more than 1000. Again, accommodation in the Philippines is poor value!
Next day we took a UV Express Bus to the junction at Putiao. They charged us 90 pesos per person and 90 for the backpacks! That took 45 minutes. A jeepney took us on to Donsol. Finally, a tricycle dropped us at the hotel. Dog tired!
Ignore what Lonely Planet says. There is an ATM in Donsol. You won’t find it in the bank, though. You need to go to the Municipal Building. Tricycle drivers know the location.