Swimming with Whalesharks in Donsol
May 28, 2010
A friend from Germany visited the country for 21 days. I took it as an excuse to tour the countryside! ;)
Why 21 days? Because that’s the maximum number of days he’s legally allowed to stay in this country without getting a visa. What to do with 21 days? Easy. Meet up with friends and tour the country! hehe
1st stop: Donsol, Sorsogon
Mission: Swim with butandings! :D
Whalesharks are locally referred to as butandings. They are the world’s biggest fish and the funny thing about it is that they since they are filter-feeders they eat the smallest creature in the water, planktons, though that means they’d have to eat a lot! With five pair of gills, dorsal and pectoral fins, their blue-gray, spotted body reaching up to lengths of 40 feet, whalesharks are indeed a sight to behold. Despite their gigantic size though, they are gentle creatures so it’s possible to swim alongside them. It is because of them, whalesharks, that Donsol, used to be a level 5, is now a level 1 municipality which thrives on eco-tourism and and is famous worldwide as the whaleshark capital of the world. Butandings are sighted between the months of November and June with its peak from February to May.
To get there, we flew in to Legaspi, capital of Albay province. It was a one hour flight. I knew I was in Legaspi when I saw Mayon’s perfect volcano. They have a local saying that if you were able to see its perfect cone, then you’ll have a wonderful trip. I surely hope so! :)
From the airport, we rode a tricycle towards the city terminal from which there are buses, jeepneys, vans and tricycles that will take you to various destination in the province. We were the first two passengers of the van bound for the town of Donsol in Sorsogon. We had to wait for at least 30 minutes before at least half was occupied.Fare was 65php per person if your van seats 14. Since my friend and I were in a bit of a hurry to get going (we’re worried we won’t see any whalesharks), the two of us along with another tourist, an American named Jeff, agreed to shoulder the cost of the last 5 vacant seats, we each shelled out 175php. It was approximately an hour before we reach Donsol’s town proper.
To be able to swim with the whalesharks, we first had to register at the Visitor’s Center which is located in Barangay Dancalan. We got there by riding a tricycle (20php each) when we got off the van at the town proper. Registration fee for locals is 100php while it’s 300php for foreigners. From here, we had the choice to not wait for other tourists but then we’ll pay for the cost of the whole boat (3500php, with a maximum capacity of 6 pax) or wait so that we’d pay cheaper. We were sort of willing to wait but not for a long time. To keep us occupied, we went out to look for a place to stay at for the night.
Located just several meters away from the Visitor’s Center is Villa JoLee, a no frills inn that is not too hard on the pocket. We got an airconditioned room with two double bed for 1400php per night; 900 for one queen size bed. It wasn’t bad considering that others cost more than 1500php. Finding a room to settle in, we changed into our swimwear and headed back to the VC.
Unfortunately, there had been no other tourists who signed up to join us by the time we got back, we were out for probably only half an hour hehe. Too excited to wait longer, the three of us again agreed to share the whole cost. Having paid for the boat, a Butanding Interaction Officer (BIO) was assigned to us, Kuya Nognog (0918 4592646). We were made to enter a room wherein we watched a video presentation about the town of Donsol, its environment, whalesharks and how to interact with them. We were good to go after watching the vid! :D
As it was almost June, I was seriously hoping that we’d still be able to swim with whalesharks. It turns out that the boat before us had no sighting after around 3 hours at sea. *sigh* It was a hot, sunny day. Our BIO wouldn’t guarantee to us that we’ll find some whalesharks to swim with but he’s also not saying otherwise. I was clinging on that. hehehe It was a quiet first half hour, we were cruising away from Dancalan; I was enjoying the view, my two companions were chatting with each other, our guide was busy trying to spot a whaleshark.
When all of a sudden everything came into action. Our guide saw something, told our boatman to get in a specific direction and he got animated and began instructing us. One question from him, “who isn’t a good swimmer?” I tentatively raised my hand. Gotta suck it up. I so want to swim with the whalesharks even if it meant having to admit to my (lack of) swimming prowess! ;) He told us to put on our snorkel gears (and fins), sit by the edge of the boat and jump into the water as soon as he says so. Once he did, we all jumped. In the water, it’s quite a different story, as bright as it was above water, down below, the water was a murky. Visibility was only several meters. I was just getting my bearings underwater when our guide pointed to something. Initially, I couldn’t see anything. Slowly though, you’ll spot a shadow of a huge creature slowly moving towards you and as it gets nearer (it gets bigger too), you’ll see the gills, it’s spotted skin, its eyes looking at you. It was scary! But then you’ll get over your fear (attributed mostly coz of its size) and just be amaze at swimming with them! It then it swam beneath us and went on until we couldn’t see it. Wow!!!! We actually swam with a butanding! :D
Having swam with one whaleshark, everyone got into such a good mood (I was ecstatic)! We spotted and swam with 3 more! I was hoping for at least one that when we got four, I felt blessed. ;) While the other whalesharks gently swam past us, one kept coming back and was playing with my companions. It swam so close to them that my friend, afraid of getting crushed, hold out his hands to ward it off and got to touch it! A big no-no. He later told us that it was purely a defensive reaction! I was starting to give him a lecture that’s why hehe
More than satisfied with our mission, we headed back to our room. Changed into dry clothes and went downtown to find somewhere to eat at and to explore the place. There are few choices of places to eat at in Dancalan, most are resaurants of the various inns/ hotels there. We prefer to eat in eateries around Donsol town. Foods are definitely cheaper and I found them more flavorful. :)
Our BIO offered to take us on a firefly river tour (850php for the two of us with pick up from our room), with nothing much to do, we thought it’d be a good idea. People are brought to either Donsol or Ogod River. Donsol River is more popular but they say that there are more fireflies in Ogod River that’s why we chose to go to the latter. Around 6:30 in the evening, Kuya Nognog was by our door to fetch us with his tricycle. He drove us towards the river and guided us along the dark path. Another relative of his was waiting and all of us boarded a boat. They were to be our guides. The moon was very bright that night. I looked back a couple of times thinking there was a car behind us but it was just the moonlight shining past the trees and mangroves. It was a beautiful night but in terms of firefly watching, it was bad timing. We almost didn’t see any firefly. Good thing we came upon a tree that was well lit up by then, it looked like it had thousands of blinking lights. It was so pretty! I tried taking pictures but my camera’s settings wasn’t up to the task. After several more minutes, we went back to shore. Had dinner downtown with our guide and called it a night. It was a long but fun day! :D