March 20, 2006

Donsol : Oh So Gentle Giants

Oh So Gentle Giants

Fuel for 13 hour(!) drive to Donsol : Php 1000
Woodland Resort Accomodation & Meals : Php 2,000
Swimming with the Whalesharks: PRICELESS!

What a weekend! It was filled with 'firsts'. The best of which were: first visit to Mayon Volcano, first Firefly river cruise, and best of all - first time to swim with the Whalesharks!

After a very, very long drive, we arrived at the Woodland Beach Resort in Donsol, a seaside town in the province of Sorsogon in the Bicol region, about 550 kms south of Manila. We arrived at 7 pm, just in time to have dinner with those in our group (we were 38 in all! - mostly foreigners working with the UN or ADB) who had either taken the bus or flown in. The rest of the gang is arriving the next morning, we are told.

Our casitas at the Woodland Resort
We got up bright and early the next morning, had our breakfast and proceeded to the Butanding (the local term for whale shark) Interaction Center for registration and our video-clip briefing. We find out that we had just missed GMA, President of the Philippines, who had her whaleshark encounter the previous day.

We were then divided into groups of 5-6 on bancas (outriggers) and off we went in search of those magnificent creatures.

Picture of a butanding taken by our guide with my camera.

Let me give you a little information about whale sharks: they are the largest shark and also the largest living fish, they are surface feeders and they feed on plankton and small fish, the greatest size recorded is about 40 feet but there have been some 50-60 ft. sightings.

In our banca, we were accompanied by Michael our BIO (Butanding Information Officer), the navigator and 2 spotters - one up front and the other perched high up on a pole. The spotters scan the sea for tell-tale signs, usually a large shadow beneath the surface of the water and less commonly a dorsal fin skimming the surface.
Our whaleshark spotter
Once they see a whale shark, they shout "Butanding!" and point to it's location. Michael then tells us to get ready and position ourselves on whatever side of the boat he tells us, at this point we gear up with our mask, snorkels and fins and wait for his cue to jump. Then Michael, with my underwater camera strapped to his wrist, shouts "Follow me!" and jumps into the water. Like obedient children, we jump in careful not to make a splash and swim after him.

The water is pretty murky because it is filled with plankton. So at first you don't see anything. Just green nothingness. And then all of a sudden there it is! Out of nowhere, it appears right below me! I am awe-struck. I am humbled. I am frozen on the spot. I see one eye, it's enormous flat head, I see how long his mouth is, the spots on its body.
I didn't realize I had grabbed hold of my friend's arm in shock. So I let her go and continued to stare at this beautiful peaceful shark. Just floating there lazily. He is so close, I could reach out and touch him but I remind myself that's not allowed.

I am worried I'd kick him with my fins, so I force my legs up higher behind me. I swim past it's dorsal fin towards its tail, thinking I could circle him to the other side. But just as I reach his backside, he disappears almost as quickly as he came.

The five of us surface and almost simultaneously we spit out our snorkels and let out a whoop! We're cheering and laughing, out of breath, our hearts are beating double time! Wow. WOW! It is then I start to panic a little because I feel I can't breathe. What with all the adrenaline pumping through my body , I felt exhausted.

We swim back to our banca and climb up. Our heads are spinning. We're all grinning from ear to ear, Antonio and Christina kiss like lovers on their honeymoon. They, like myself, are overjoyed. I tell Nico, "I can die happy now." :-)

Michael, the spotters, and the rest of the team are back at work, looking for the next whale shark. We do this for about 3 hours, and the group I am with sees a total of 6. It could have been more if we didn't have that much competition. There were so many outriggers out on the water at the same time. You have to back off when another group finds a whaleshark first because you don't wanna freak them out with so many people.
The 'Spanish Armada' one of our "Competition" :)

Good thing for them, no one is allowed to go scuba-diving in that cove. This is so the whalesharks, if they feel the slightest bit threatened, all they have to do is go deep and they can't be followed.

Whaleshark spotting needs lots of patience and luck and each encounter is unique. There is no guarantee of a sighting. But on clear days, and early in the morning, you can see as many as 1 whale shark every 10 minutes.

The length of each encounter varies as well. Some can be as short as 10 seconds or as long as 1 hour. The smaller the whaleshark, the faster they are. But on the average, they swim at a speed of 5 kph.

It was past noon when we headed back for shore, tried but happy. We didn't realize how hungry we were until the food came. As we ate, we happily shared our experiences with each other, and playfully boasted about who saw the most or the biggest. This will surely be a favorite dinner topic for many years to come. :)

Next: The Firefly River Cruise


Anonymous said...

I loved your stories...I hope your checking on these comments. Im planning to go to the Bicol Region this summer with my friends. I would love to have the itinerary that you had on your trip as well as contact infos most specially for Woodland Resort. Thanks a lot

Anonymous said...

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christine said...

Hi, I'm so excited that you're going to Bicol with friends!

Our itinerary was quite tough, we drove from Manila all the way, which took us about 14-15 hours, and then drove back. Though it was a pleasant drive with good roads and the occasional pretty scenery, we all swore never again.

It's worth taking a plan to Legaspi so you could spend more time there and not be so "bug-bog" when you arrive also because of the long car trip. PAL offers daily flights to and from Legaspi, then you can hire private and public vans to Donsol.

Check out this website for contact info (including woodland resort's and for budget purposes there are transportation costs as well:

Please try and do the firefly river cruise while you're there. It's an experience like no other! Hope this helps! :)

Anonymous said...

Donsol is indeed the whaleshark capital of the Phil., or even the whole world. I’m a tour guide here in Donsol..
97% of my guests, foreign and local have seen these gentle giants.. also, the firefly watching and the island hopping in the scattered islands of Masbate..
To all who wish to come and visit us…contact via mail or phone..… cp…09217435677

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indo said...

No question that our Butanding is the best animal encounter in Asia, not just by Time Magazine but from the chronicles the thousands that visited our town. We would like to thank the author of this BLOG. A big boost for our promotion in the web. Even for us locals, we are fascinated every time we swim with our Giants.
We have difficulty last year. The sightings are poor. So far today, the new administration put in place several restrictions not to scare our Butanding. Very hard for us to pinpoint the cause of its decline..
So far today we are optimistic, the sightings are pretty good compared last year. 70 to 80% of chance to see the Sharks.

For more info about our sightings and everything here in town..
mail me at
ring me 63-908-273-5747