These fascinating animals are responsible for putting the small town of Donsol on the radar of world tourism since it was discovered they were feeding near its shores in 1998. Whale sharks are the largest fish that exist today, reaching a maximum size of 12 meters (40 feet) and up to 21 tons of weight; it is thought to have existed for 60 million years but they were not discovered until 1828 in South Africa. They live in tropical waters, where they feed on plankton, so that, apart from tail-lashes, they are harmless. Their large size make them lack of natural enemies, which means that they move slowly and confidently; They are docile and do not usually flee from humans who approach them. The best places to see them are the area between Yucatan and Honduras, Baja California, Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia, Tanzania coast and of course, Donsol and Batangas area in the Philippines, although they can be found almost anywhere with waters permanently above 21ºC (70ºF). They are usually the great attraction of world-wide fame aquariums, especially in Japan, where those of Naha, Osaka and Yokohama stand out; Also known are the Atlantis Hotel in Dubai, several in China and one in Jeju. Outside Asia, they can only be found in Atlanta Aquarium.
SWIM WITH WHALE SHARKS
- The best time are March and April.
- Called “Whale Shark Interaction”, the Visitor Center is 2.5 kilometers west from the town once you cross the bridge, in Dancalan.
- You have to register (300 PHP) one day in advance or the same day at 7:30 am. There is no vessel authorized to search for whale sharks other than through Butanding Visitors Center.
- The boat costs the not very cheap figure of 3500 PHP for 3 hours, and maximum is 6 occupants. There are three shifts a day: 7:30 a.m., 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.
- The money is not returned if no shark is seen.
In Donsol it is presumed that habitat and animals are respected, but it is not true at all, or at least it is not our experience:
- The procedure is that of a lifetime, nor sonar neither any special equipment or any other thing. A spotter on the top of the boat, without even a pair of binoculars. When a boat locates the shark, it is communicated by radio to the rest. At that moment there is a frenzied competition between the bangkas to get to the shark before the others do it.
- The rules and the theory are as follows: you can not touch the shark or block its way; you must keep a minimum of 3 meters distance. Only snorkel equipment is allowed (if you do not have our own equipment you have to pay for it separately, PHP 300); photos must be without flash and swimmers will launch only one boat at a time, therefore a maximum of 6 swimmers plus one officer (BIO, Butanding Interaction Officer).
- Reality is absolutely different. The boats arrive with the engine at full speed to the place where the shark is found, forming a circle around it, so that the fish, if it wants to flee, has no other option but to sink. The swimmers will be launched following the instructions of their guides, but not at all one boat at a time, the boat that is closest is thrown, and as the shark moves, it will approach another boat; the 6 swimmers from the nearby boat also go to the water, without the other 6 boarding their boat. I got to count 13 boats surrounding the shark and at least 30 people in the water simultaneously chasing it on the two occasions we spotted, but I’ve heard stories of up to 25 boats at a time.
This, combined with that we had the bad luck of only locating two the first day (or the same twice) and none the second, left us a taste of defeat. Personally I can only say that I saw its silhouette from the top of the boat and once in the water I saw half a shark, specifically the tail, passing a little more than a meter below me, and I must admit, although it was not enough, the feeling experienced, a mixture of terror and fascination, when that gigantic animal passes nearby you, it is amazing. I had seen them in Okinawa Aquarium, but I can not imagine what it must be like to swim with them for minutes in conditions of good visibility.
The truth is that what happened to us seems to be that it happens more and more frequently, and it is leading to a change in policy. Since they already skip the rules about not harassing the animal, why not modify their behavior before Oslob makes us close? Increasingly, rumors are beginning that sharks are being fed to attract them also in Donsol, and even then, the number of sightings continues to fall every year, supposedly due to the greater contamination of Donsol river (which determines worse quality of the plankton) and climate change (due to changes in water temperature), but it is easy to deduce that the main reason is to have overwhelmed the animals greatly during years, and although now they begin to feed them, it is already too late.
My conclusion is that neither the habitat nor the animals are respected, and that they are harder to find than in Oslob. I can not say in first person about the experience in that other region, since we did not go there, but I think it should be much more satisfactory because apart from the testimony of our friend Mireia, we met several travelers who had done it, and despite artificial all spoke wonders: more than 20 passengers per boat, no control over how to jump into the water, and fish domesticated as if they were in an aquarium… but it is almost certain that you will see and interact to (maybe you can even touch) one or several of these magnificent beasts, and when one has traveled through such a painful country in transport matters as the Philippines is, you want to go home with the best possible memories.