Donsol, Sorsogon Province
My reunion with Johnny Weekend is delayed by some boneheaded bus-transfer decisions on the road from Naga to Legazpi. A two or three-hour trip is turned into a five-hour trip. I call John and tell him to proceed to Donsol, about 1hr from Legazpi by minivan, if he wants to catch the sunset. By the time I get to Donsol it's after 8pm and I'm tired. That's ok, though, because few places in the Philippines are deader than Donsol. By 9pm the whole town is asleep. We have a couple beers in the Woodland Resort's uninspiring restaurant (Donsol is crying out for a resort with the slightest hint of character if anybody's looking for a business idea) and chat briefly with a couple of Swiss guys. They are planning to stay here for three or four nights, swimming repeatedly with the whale sharks. One guy is on his 10th or 11th visit to the Philippines. The young Filipina on his arm suggests that whale sharks aren't the only reason for his visit.
"Well then, seeya tomorrow," I said as they made to leave.
"We don't want to see you, we want to see the shaaaark," he responded in a beautiful Swiss accent.
His utterance became our mantra, to be repeated over and over again over the next 24hrs:
"John, I'm going to check out a few resorts along the beach, meet you at X restaurant in about a half hour."
"I don't want to see you, I want to see the shaaaark", hehe, haha.
The action kicked off early the next day. This was John's third time swimming with the butanding
, as they are called in these parts. Believe it or not, it was my first. I'd covered Donsol twice before for Lonely Planet but each time I'd arrived in the off-season. The whale sharks tend to show up in December or January, but can arrive as early as November. They begin to peter out in late May and depart sometime in June. By all accounts, Donsol is the best place in the world to view whale sharks if you time it right. Better than Western Australia. Better than Mexico. Better than Thailand. Better than anywhere else. Not only are you basically guaranteed to see one whale shark, but you are pretty much guaranteed to see many whale sharks.
These silver-spotted behemoths are the world's largest fish. In stark contrast to most sharks, they are completely docile and feed mainly on plankton, krill and other microscopic organisms (hence the slightly schizophrenic moniker, "whale shark"). The whale shark is a poorly understood beast. Scientists apparently haven't a clue why they fancy Donsol. They have been coming here for years, but it was relatively recently - in the mid-1990s, I believe - when they were identified as a possible tourist attraction. Before that, they were fished for export or to be put in a local delicacy called kinunot
, which consists of shark or stingray meat cooked in coconut milk (I confess to having sampled this tasty dish). Given the swimming and social habits of these beasts - they swim slowly, close to the surface, and close to the shore, making them easy prey - it's a miracle they haven't been fished to extinction.
In the last 10 years, whale-shark spotting in Donsol has evolved into the Philippines' most successful ecotourism project - by far. Most local fishermen now work as butanding
guides, spotters or boatmen. Thousands of tourists flock to Donsol each year to "interact" with the whale sharks. Just four years ago, when I first visited as a non-interacter, the number of visitors was a fraction of what it is now. There is a worry that the crowds, if left unchecked, will scare the whale sharks away, but so far this hasn't been the case. Nonetheless, a few safeguards are in place to ensure that things don't get too out of control. No more than 25 boats (containing a maximum of 7 tourists) are meant to be on the water at any one time, and scuba-diving is strictly prohibited (snorkel and mask are the way forward).
For many visitors, snorkelling with the whale sharks is the Philippines' single most appealing attraction. And provided you get a full boat, a 3hr interaction only sets you back 800 pesos ($16). At 7.30am, we were ready, but it took about an hour for a full complement of 7 passengers to materialize. As luck would have it, we ended up with four middle-aged Filipina women who couldn't swim. This was a huge break, as they mainly just watched from the boat, allowing John, I and one other Filipino guy to jump in and go right after the sharks, rather than waiting for 7 people to get in the water. Thus unencumbered, we had a field day. We jumped in the water maybe 12 or 13 times and batted 1.000, spotting at least one shark each time and twice spotting a brace. It was absolutely incredible - all it was cracked up to be and more, although we could see it being considerably less appealing if 25 boats were on the water (we counted about a dozen on this day).
Unfortunately, our photos, taken with disposable waterproof cameras bought on-the-spot in Donsol, hardly do justice to the experience, but in a few you can make out a human form (that would be one of us) swimming near a silver-spotted sea creature (that would be the whale shark).
We didn't see our Swiss friends (unless one of them was going incognito in a whale-shark costume), but that's ok. We really didn't want to see them. We wanted to see the shaaaark.