Swimming with whale sharks in Donsol

DONSOL is a quiet town in the province of Sorsogon. It is in this area where sightings of whale sharks are frequent, especially between the months of January and July. Yet, even with the influx of tourists because of the whale sharks, or butanding in our local language, Donsol has remained to be a laidback place where one can relax and enjoy nature.

It was in 1997 when word got out about their existence in Donsol. In 1999, an eco-tourism program was put in place by the WWF Philippines, training locals how to take care of the butandings and working with the local government in enforcing the guidelines on whale shark interaction.

In one of our trips to Donsol, our guide shared with us that he was once fishing and hunting these animals. But when he realized how this affects the biodiversity of the place, he became an advocate in helping protect these endangered species and was converted into a Butanding Interaction Officer. “They are better off alive than dead,” he said. Also, they should be allowed to be in their natural habitat, following their natural pattern; not hand-fed, as opposed to the one in Oslob, Cebu, to keep the balance in nature and in the whale shark’s physiological well-being.

Prior to getting into the deep, we had to attend an orientation at the tourism office. Guidelines had to be observed during the interaction with the butandings so as not to disturb them or scare them away. Here are the things we needed to follow while at sea:

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

Once you take note of the rules, get into your assigned boat, wear your life jacket, snorkeling gear, and flippers, and be ready to dive into the water once your guide shouts, “jump!”

During our first Donsol adventure in 2005, these guidelines were strictly enforced. But when we got back in 2012, we observed that some of them are often breached. The one boat or six swimmers per whale shark ratio is defied at times. It seemed that as tourist arrivals increase, violations become inevitable, especially that many of these visitors come from across the globe to see the whale sharks and would endeavor to have an encounter before they return to their homelands.

The feeling of seeing the huge gentle giants swimming in the deep, with their dotted exteriors visible under water, is quite magical. It is simply breathtaking. That is why everyone who makes their way to Donsol wants to have a piece of such experience. Though we hope to treasure this kind of life event, we still have to see the bigger picture and put safety, whether of the butandings or of the swimmers, at the helm of our priorities. More so, boundaries and limitations have to be respected for the betterment of our environment and the future of the whale shark species, our populace, and our planet.

Apart from the whale shark interaction, there is another magical experience with nature that can be enjoyed in Donsol. At night, tourists troop to Donsol River for some romantic moments with the fireflies. It was an enchanting occurrence, watching the fireflies twinkle on trees like flickering lights on a Christmas tree. What a joy looking at them. So, if you want to head to Donsol for these experiences, make it a journey with a mission – to help educate others about our ecology and to support the locals in this endeavor.


Claire Marie Algarme blogs at firsttimetravels.com. Follow her as @firsttimetravel on Twitter and Instagram.

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