A must-do in Donsol, Sorsogon is swimming with whale sharks or Butanding (as the locals call these gentle giants). Donsol, Sorsogon is our second destination during the #PTIPBicol2022 trip with the Tourism Promotions Board of the Philippines.
Donsol, Sorsogon and Butanding
Donsol, is a small town in Sorsogon, but its main tourist attraction is interaction with the world’s biggest fish. Whale Sharks are called “gentle giants” as they can grow up to the size of a bus (up to 18 meters!). They are gentle in the sense that they don’t hunt for food (they just open their mouth and eat whatever goes inside), and they seem to love interacting with people.
I recently learned that Donsol, Sorsogon is the Whale Shark Capital of the World. Donsol is abundant with plankton and krill, the main food source of Whale Sharks. This is one of the reasons why Whale Sharks come back and migrate.
Getting to Donsol, Sorsogon
You can fly from Manila to Legazpi via Philippine Airlines or Cebu Pacific. Alternatively, you can take a bus (air-conditioned with a working toilet) for a 12-hour journey to Legazpi. From Legazpi, you can take a van to Donsol Whale Shark Interactive Center.
In our case, we stayed in Your Brother Tribal House the night before and traveled 1.5 hours to Donsol. The Dancalan Beach Resort is just next to the interactive center, and may be a good accommodation too.
Sustainable Whale Shark Swimming
The Donsol Whale Shark Interactive Center ensures the safety and protection of whale sharks. It is located next to Dancalan Beach Resort in Donsol, Sorsogon.
My minimalist heart is so happy to know that this eco-tourism activity is highly maintained and controlled to ensure the safety and protection of visitors, and of course, the gentle giants. It means that they do not disturb the natural habitat of Whale Sharks – they let them swim, eat and migrate freely. They do not feed them to attract them and make them an attraction. 🦈
My Whale Shark Swimming Experience
Before our Whale Shark Swimming activity, we first attended the brief and watched a presentation for a more enriching interaction with the gentle giants.
photo by Sir Noel Armata
Here are some reminders:
- Do not touch the whale shark
- Do not restrict its swimming path
- Keep a distance of at least 3 meters from the head and body, and 4 meters from the tail
- No flash photography
- No motorized equipment underwater
- Maximum of 3 hours in the open sea.
To set the expectations, sightings of Butanding are not guaranteed. The BIOs (Butanding Interaction Officer) will try their best to spot a whale shark, however, they will not interfere with their natural ways and habitat.
Php 100 / head (local)
Php 300 / head (foreign)
Php 5,000 boat rental (maximum of 5 tourists in a boat)
Best time to visit:
From November to June. The best times for seeing them in Donsol is between April and May
(summer in the Philippines)
The 4 of us (my van-mates) were assigned to one boat with a BIO, boat caption spotters, and guide. I brought my own set of Snorkeling Gears, but you can also rent a Snorkeling and Fins set on site.
We sailed to the sea and waited for the BIO to instruct us to prepare and get ready to jump.
Truth be told, I was not able to really prepare for the activity. We had an early call time that morning (this tita needs 8 hours of sleep) 😀, and I didn’t get to do the usual morning rituals. I skipped breakfast and coffee so I would feel lighter. But, I was ready to jump and experience this interaction – I didn’t want to miss something that could be a once-in-a-lifetime moment.
Our BIO instructed us to sit at the edge of the boat (and for non-swimmers like me), to hold on to the torpedo buoy. Somehow, it felt like skydiving for me once again – but at least this time, I have a little warning – when our BIO pointed at something and got really excited – it would be the time to jump.
On several occasions, he would spot and point at something, but we didn’t go to the water. It is like a competition on the open sea. Once there is a group of swimmers on the water, they would no longer interfere.
I think this is also to make sure that we don’t disturb the natural ways and swimming paths of the Whale Sharks. I would say, they are really good at what they are doing, be it spotting a whale shark or finding a lost drone. 😀
with van-mates, ML and Ferdz!
We sat on the edge for quite some time, then suddenly it was time to jump. He pointed at a shadow and asked the boat driver to head in a certain direction. They must have a system, or formula, or a swimming language.
We snorkeled underwater and saw what looked like a big fish with white spots. It, however, swam deeper and we lost sight of it. When we settled on the boat, I thought, it was already a good experience. But our BIO was so passionate about looking for one. I was thinking, it is his Ikigai. 😀 He wanted to make sure that the visitors get the best experience in Donsol.
We sailed to the open sea and encountered more boats finding their luck at spotting the gentle giants.
I was all set to go back, but our BIO spotted one. We immediately prepared and jumped at his signal. We swam towards it, and when the BIO told us to look underwater, I saw a baby Butanding’s mouth, and it is swimming towards our direction. It was so close to me – I could touch it! It was a baby whale shark, and there were other fishes swimming with it.
I wish I have a photo to attach to this story at how exactly I have seen it. But here are some of shots from @ironwulf. You may also watch his videos recaps. Super nice documentation!
The local boatmen said that it appeared that the gentle giant even played with us!
I am so happy to have experienced something so natural and rare. 💗
It feels like talking about failing in love. Haha 😂
If you are like me who is not a certified “mermaid”, I still recommend this activity as it is safe and ethical for both visitors and whale sharks. It was my friend, ML’s first time snorkeling and she had an amazing time. Happy to have shared the experience with her. It is admirable to see locals taking care of the gentle giants and our environment.
We headed back to join the rest of the group and had lunch at Dancalan Beach Resort where everyone shared their “gentle giants” story. Most of them weren’t able to “swim” with Butanding but only spotted one from a distance.
Again, I felt so happy to have a close encounter with Butanding.
Wearing our #ItsMoreFunWithYou shirt!
Some Helpful Tips:
Before I end this blog entry, I am dropping some travel tips for you.
- I suggest you wear a rashguard/wetsuit. You would be spending time under the sun and you might want to protect your arms. I wore bikini (because I wanted an even tan), but the safety leg strap roughly brushed on my groin 😂. Better to wear rashguard shorts, unless you are a good swimmer and don’t need a life vest.
- Better to use reef-safe sunblock.
- Get enough sleep the night before. Jumping on the open sea and getting back to the boat take a lot of energy.
- Have a light breakfast (or if you do Intermittent Fasting like me, skip breakfast). But make sure that you keep yourself hydrated.
- Enjoy every moment!
Some cute souvenirs I am taking home together with this beautiful experience!
Thank you for reading and for indulging me. 💗
I hope you find this post helpful. Please add this experience to your travel bucket list! 🦈
To be continued…
Thank you to the Tourism Promotions Board of the Philippines for having me on this trip!
Thank you to the wonderful people I met – participants, tour guides, and local contacts!