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KS Cover no. 73 2006 June

JULY 2006 :: 074


Donsol, Philippines, home of he world’s largest fish: butanding, whale shark

A submarine comes to mind at your first encounter with the behemoth whale sharks in Donsol, Philippines.

“It’s huge!” the German tourist shouted after removing his mask and snorkel.
“Did you see it?” I said in amazement while floating on the surface of the sea.
As we swam back to the boat, he said, “Only the tail and it’s unbelievable!”

Early that February day, the end of the fish was only the beginning of the adventure.

Donsol is a small fishing and farming village located at the southern tip of Luzon Island. Lush green rice fields, bamboo thatched houses, tall coconut trees and pink bougainvillea dominate the landscape. Nobody knows why the whale sharks visit the waters of Donsol each year, but between December and May they are sighted near the beach. Donsol residents say you can see the triangular dorsal fin cutting through the water sometimes while standing on the shore.

Since 1998 the Philippine government has banned commercial fishing of the butanding and eco-tourism has blossomed; thus, changing the life of the local people. No longer are agriculture and fishing the only source of income for Donsol inhabitants. Hotels, restaurants, taxi drivers, boat owners, and guides benefit from the whale sharks’ presence.

By the time the German swimmer was back on the boat, the Filipino guide had spotted another shark. He lined the four of
us up with masks, fins and snorkels on the side of the boat.

After anxiously sitting there with our fin-clad feet barely touching the water, he said, “Go!” This time upon entering the cool open ocean we swam behind the guide, he pointed down in the water, and a dark shape began to grow until the outline of the shark’s enormous head appeared in front of us. Closer it came, bigger and sharper, until we saw the large oval mouth, small round eyes, white-spotted blue-grayish skin, and the dorsal fin. The tail was nowhere in sight! We continued kicking and paddling to keep up with it. As the shark dove to deeper water we finally saw the tail, the size of a surfboard, disappear leaving memories of a lifetime with us.

The visitor’s center in Donsol is responsible for arranging a boat, spotter, and Butanding Interaction Officer (BIO). The price of the boat is 2,500 pesos (46 pesos equals ¥100), and can be shared by six tourists, but is more comfortable with four people. Each tourist must sign the guest book and watch a short, 10 minute, video about interacting with the whale sharks. Lastly, 300 pesos is paid to the office for a permit, and you are ready to go.

“Look,” the spotter exclaimed while pointing to the sea. As the bright sun reflected off his mask under the blue sky, we saw the dorsal fin glide above the water and knew it was time to jump back in the ocean. Our third encounter was wonderful because we swam with the creature nearly 20 minutes. This time we noticed the black and white slender remoras clinging to the shark for cleaning as well as the large gills along the giant’s sides.

“Between 10 and 12 meters,” the BIO res-ponded to the question about the butanding’s size after getting back on the boat. According to the video, whale sharks can reach 18 meters in length and weigh up to 200 tons. The ones we saw that day averaged 11 meters.

“Can we swim with two together?” the German tourist asked the BIO on the boat between sightings. “No. Swimming with multiple butandings is discouraged,” he said. “Although no accidents have happened, a pair of whale sharks may stress out a swimmer and create a problem,” he continued. “Some tourists nearly walk on water to get back in the boat after their first interaction with a Butanding,” he joked with a smile.

Whale sharks are not predators. They feed on plankton. Swimmers are not in any danger of attack. However, the sheer size of the Butanding can elevate the heart rate a bit! Swimming with a whale shark is a thrill you are not likely to forget.

We encountered ‘Scruffy’ for our last interaction. The dorsal fin was hit by a boat propeller and frayed; thus, the nickname. Our swimming time with Scruffy was well over 10 minutes. While pulling myself up the small ladder to the boat, I asked the guide if we were finished. “It’s up to you,” he said. We left the beach around eight in the morning and it was now approximately 10am. According to the BIO, most people stay till noon, but we had had nine interactions already, two of them lasting more than 10 minutes, so we decided to head back to shore. Unanimously, we were all tired.

“How was your trip?” an official from the visitor’s center asked us upon our return. “Outstanding!” we proclaimed. After telling him about our experience, he said six tourists on one boat had 22 sightings, and 16 interactions the day before we arrived. “April is the best month,” he said. Up to 50 butanding interactions per day can be had in that peak season. We had no complaints with our outing that sunny Feb day.

The easiest way to Donsol is via Legazpi city. Philippine Airlines flies to Legazpi everyday from Manila. There are several long distance buses to Legazpi too. Philtranco runs a Gold Service A/C bus daily leaving Manila at 9am. It’s approximately 10 hours between the two cities.

Stay overnight in Legazpi and visit Mayon Volcano before heading to Donsol. Mount Mayon is perfectly symmetrical like Fuji Mountain in Japan. It last erupted in 2001 and is considered one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world. Cagsawa Park gives panoramic views of the cone surrounded by rice fields, palm trees, orchids, and water buffaloes.

Over the past 10 years while scuba diving, I have encountered various species of carnivorous sharks, rays, turtles, and barracudas. Although I cherish my memories with these sea creatures, swimming alongside a whale shark with a snorkel and mask in the warm tropical waters of Donsol will stay fresh in my mind for many years in the future.

Text & photos: Timothy L Willis

:: Online Articles


Film Exposure
International Film Festivals


Rodonsha: The Laborer
Or how to make a movie in your spare time


The New Tabehoudai Culture
Guide to all-you-can-eat & drink


Dansol, Philippines


Testing Times
Guide to the Japanese Proficiency Test

:: Kansai Listings


Up to date cinema listings guide so you always know what's on, where and when!

:: ART

Best exhibitions + Kansai art listings


Best events + Kansai event listings


Best gigs + Kansai live listings


Parties not to miss + Kansai club listings

:: Also in this month's mag


Spanish Bar Circo, Toyonaka


Sports Bar & Restaurant Cancun


Yuka: Elevated Riverside Dining
Kyotofs gracious dining experience


Nathen Fake


Best festivals + listings


New releases and top ten paperback books


Reel reviews of the silver screen


Domestic and international news

Philippine Practicalities

Visa: Most visitors get a 21 day visa upon arrival.

Safety: Carry your valuables in a money belt under your clothes. Rural areas are safe, but be cautious in big cities. Wear your daypack in front and keep track of your camera. Never leave your bag unattended.

Climate: The Philippines is always hot. However, long distance air conditioned buses can be quite cold. Bring a jacket or sweater to stay warm.

When to go: The best months are from Jan to May.

Water: Bottled water is sold everywhere! Drink it and refrain from ice in drinks. Water refill stations are common in cities. Use them and keep plastic waste to a minimum. Don’t drink tap water.
Money: Money changers in cities accept yen. Traveler’s checks are not so easy to change outside big cities. ATMs are found in most cities. Bring lots of pesos to the countryside because money changers will give a very low rate.

Bargaining: Don’t get into a taxi, minivan, or tricycle until you agree on the price or have the meter running.

Getting there: Thai Air flies to Manila daily through Kansai Airport. The flight is roughly 3½ hours. It is possible to book a domestic plane ticket over the Internet and fly to Legazpi the same day you arrive in Manila.