There are few places in the world where you can see, let alone snorkel with the majestic giant of the ocean; the whale shark. And even less where you can do it for $20. Situated in the south eastern region of Luzon, the Philippines’ largest island is the small town of Donsol where from January to May the intrigued, and slightly adventurous traveler can snorkel alongside the butanding (Tagalog for whale sharks).
With time in the Philippines running short after spending the first 10 days of the trip both in Manila and amongst the rice terraces of north Luzon, I was in a rush. Now, being in a rush is not an ideal situation to be in, yet it invariably happens when there is are so many competing attractions. You may see and do things, but at the end of it you are left tired, irritable and without any sense of actually experiencing a place, and importantly, its people. I don’t advise it, unless you are only traveling to say you have ‘been there, done that’. At which point, I suggest you rethink your idea of traveling.
So, in a rush I hopped aboard an overnight bus from Manila to Legaspi (Cagsawa is very comfortable, for anyone doing research). I spent the day in the unsavory town wandering some sights and hiking up Lingnon Hill to get a good view of Mt Mayon – the acclaimed volcano of near perfect conical shape. Unfortunately, cloud cover was such that I couldn’t see a thing, but it is there. Promise.
Disappointed, I returned back to the city and went for dinner at a local market where I sampled, if I understood correctly, a pigs brain meatball. It was pretty good. Adding to my disappointment in the town was a 10pm curfew where by 8pm almost everything was closed, leaving me to retire early before catching a 6.30am minivan to Donsol, 1.5hrs south.
When you first get off the bus in Donsol it is clear that whale sharks have become the celebrated lifeblood of the town. Where once they were hunted, now they are admired with numerous murals and even an annual ‘butanding festival’ which, unbeknown to me was happening the week I was there. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t be in town long enough to see the events and instead went straight to the tourist center to register and join a boat for the morning. Within half an hour I had joined a group of eclectic nationalities, one member of which was going out for his 5th day running and at sea, anxiously anticipating the first sighting.
Each boat is teamed up with a number of spotters who in our case decided to simply head straight for the cluster of boats at the end of the bay which seemed to have found a shark. Quickly getting our gear on we all jump in the water after our guide who directs us over to where the shark was. I barely capture a glimpse of anything below as it was too deep and the visibility not good enough. However, when we get back to the boat I’m assured that there was something down there. Giving up on this one, the boat sails off with the spotters’ keen eyes searching for shadows in the water below for a full 30 minutes before we get a chance at a second sighting. Unfortunately, this sighting is much like the first and we all began to feel that a good sighting just wasn’t going to happen. Consensus was reached that it was nearly end of the season and the butanding were all convening somewhere to plot against the Japanese. That is, until after another long 30 minutes of sailing we get our third and final chance.
The experience was incredible. Within seconds of diving in all I could see was a huge white mouth coming towards me. The biggest thing I’d seen in the ocean before this was a grouper (this thing was 8m!), so, freaking out a little bit I let out a series of profanities through my snorkel that hopefully everyone was too busy with their heads underwater to hear. I quickly got out of its way and let it swim past me, and being no more than two meters from the surface it was so clear, and so captivating. The rays of the late morning sun illuminated its white spots while I swam to catch up and dive down to face the giant eye-to-eye, its gaze vanquishing all of the fear held only a minute ago. Even with a group of people swimming around, it seemed at peace, knowing that if it wanted to it could wave its massive tail and escape beyond our reach. But it didn’t. Instead, for 15 minutes it let us snorkel around in amazement at such majestic beauty that is barely understood; To this day, scientists don’t know where they go or what they do before ultimately finding their way to Taiwan.
In an unfortunate testament to Murphy’s Law, I have no photos of the sighting. I took my camera down with me for the first two non-sightings and, thinking the third sighting would be much the same left it on the boat. Nevertheless, it was a privilege to be able to share the water with such a creature, if only for such a brief space in time.