June 25, 2009

Swimming with sharks

Ever wondered how it felt like to swim with dolfins?! Well I can't tell you. But I can describe the overwhelming, out of this world experience of swimming with whales! Yes, whales! As in whale sharks. Hmm wait, so technically I swam with sharks... Anyhow, the whale shark can grow as long as 12m long and is the largest fish species. Luckily it only likes plankton and microscopic organisms, so there’s not much risk it would accidently swallow you.

Donsol in the Sorsogon province of the Philippines is an eco-miracle. It's unique in the world, as that there's a yearly swarm of whalesharks feeding on plakton in that one particular little bay. During the peak season from February to May, one can get lucky and interact with as many as 10 whale sharks.

It's best to arrange for the tour ahead of time and register at the Donsol Tourism Office for the introduction video, which serves as an interaction briefing a day before, so that you can get on one of the first boats out the following day. Whale sharks are most likely to be spotted in the early morning. After a wakeup call at 5am, a quick breakfast, we got our snorkeling gear together and headed for the beachfront, where our guide and the boatcrew were already waiting for us on an outrigger boat. Out in the sea, the guide explained that once a whale shark, or butanding as they are called here, was sighted, we had to get our gear up quickly and jump into the water at the guide's signal. We all were nervously anticipating the signal and when he shouted "Now!" we hastily put on fins and goggles on and sat on the edge of the boat. "Jump!" and so we did. The boat positions itself so that the whale shark swims toward us and we swim toward it. Once we cross path, we turn around and swim parallel to it.

Through all the commotion and the fins flapping through the water, I could barely distinguish left and right, let alone the position of the whale shark. And then suddenly, out of the murky water, there it was. We all screamed through our scuba!! This huge creature was within an arm’s reach (or so it felt) away from us. It was grey with plenty of white spots and swam calmly in slow motion next to us while we were desperately trying to keep up with it. And then it suddenly dove into the depths of the ocean. We climbed back onto the boat, awestruck, knees shaking, shouting ecstatically “Did you see it? Did you see it?”.

Barely a few minutes past to calm down, did the guide shout “Get ready!”. I hesitated, not sure if I could handle another such intense moment but I convinced myself that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Who knew if the whale sharks would return next year, maybe discouraged by the raising number of tourists disturbing their natural environment. So here we were jumping back into the water, swimming alongside another gentle giant about 7m long. All in all we had 8 interactions with the whale sharks, the last one of which lasted for about 15 minutes. We headed back to shore, pressed for time to catch our plane back to the urban jungle of Manila. Our bodies tired from swimming in open waters, our minds restless from the surreal memories. This privileged encounter with one of Mother Nature's wonder was like an underwater safari, now I just need to save up enough money for a trip to Kenya.
I wonder if D. will consider it for our honeymoon?

Approx. budget per person
Roundtrip airfare: P1,500
On-ground transpo: P500
Accommodation: P1,500
Whale shark tour: P500
Snorkeling gear: P300
Food: P500
Total = P4800

Don’t forget:
- Sunscreens
- Packed food and bottled water
- Snorkeling gear (although you can rent at the resort)
- Underwater camera (no flash!)

Where we stayed:
Woodland Resort, double occupancy rooms with A/C and hot water, P1,500.
Contact Marichu at +639219699544

How to get there:
From Manila to Legazpi via Cebu Pacific (45min flight) and from Legazpi City to Donsol (1.5 hrs ride), several private (approx. P2,000 for 10-12 pax) or shared (approx. P70/pax) vans leave from Satellite terminal in Legazpi. Some tour guides also wait for tourists at the airport.

Follow the rules:
The government and WWF made conscious efforts to develop the responsible eco-tourism in the area and the local fishermen have gone from hunting down the animals to serving as experts and tour guides, promoting the preservation and safety of the whale sharks.
1. Do not touch or ride the whale shark
2. Do not restrict the movement of the shark or impede its natural path
3. Maintain the recommended distance from the whale shark is 3 meters from the head and body and 4 meters from the tail
4. Do not undertake flash photography
5. Do not use scuba, scooters, jet ski or any motorized underwater propulsion
6. A maximum of six (6) swimmers per shark is allowed

Other things to do around the area:
- Visit the Cagsawa Ruins and Mount Mayon in Legazpi
- Take the Firefly Tour
- Go island hopping or diving and have a picnic on a deserted beach


Gachupilandia said...

So you saw the shark at the end of june?
Do you think that if we go now we can see?
Thanks for your posts!

Cosmopolicious said...

Hi Gachupilandia,
We actually went swimming with the whalesharks sometime mid-March, which is really the best time. Sorry for the confusion, I'm just really bad at updating my blog regularly... ;-)

I know the sharks arrive in Donsol as early as October but the peak is really from Feb to May, after which they leave for the open sea.
I would suggest you call the tourism office there at Tel: +63 52 4810250 for more info.


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