Butanding with Whale Sharks in Donsol
I was scared shitless.
The first time we dropped in, I looked under the water and freaked out— the whale shark was RIGHT below me, no more than 10 feet away! I gasped for air and started hyperventilating until the Butanding Interaction Officer, Andres, kinda chuffed me on the shoulder and pointed at his own snorkel mouthpiece.
I nodded, took a deep breath, and stuck my head back under the water. It was still right under me, though it had swum forward and I was now directly above the tail, which was waving almost lazily. Took another deep breath through the mouthpiece— shit, I was still freaking scared and I felt as if I couldn’t move. I had brief but vivid visions of what would happen if the tail hit me.
But Andres pushed me forward and, somehow, broke me away from that fear. We swam along with it, easily keeping pace, though I refused to dive closer like everyone else did. Perfectly happy swimming along the surface, thanks.
A good two minutes later (which feels like an eternity when you’re terrified) the rest of the crowds arrived and the whale shark took a dive, slowly fading out of sight.
Andres waved everyone back to our bangka and we set off in search of another. All of us tourists on board were excited and kept exclaiming to each other— oh my god; did you see that; it was so big; did you get it on video?
Alas, Xiker did not! He swears he had the GoPro out the entire time but no video. No point in bothering with whys— the next whale shark we came across (possibly the same one) I grabbed the GoPro and recorded a bit, until I crashed into a group of people flapping around in the water looking for the shark. This time, the whale shark didn’t stick around very long and we just watched as it took a slow dive into the dark aquamarine depths.
The third whale shark we came across also didn’t stick around very long, and that was the last of our whale shark sightings…. But no regrets, having three chances to swim alongside the striped and spotted leviathans were well worth every peso we spent.
I swear, we had the best Butanding Interaction Officer (BIO) out there on the water that day. Twice our boat peeps spotted the whale sharks first, and Andres dropped us RIGHT on the whale shark all three times, so that we didn’t have to swim around looking for it like people on other boats had to. We made sure to tip him once we got back to shore.
We have zero underwater pics, and only one blurry video to show for it… Alas, we discovered too late that the GoPro HD Hero2 is virtually useless underwater in the standard waterproof case, though youtube has plenty of awesome videos of whale sharks… I’m so glad I didn’t see the one of a whale shark attacking a diver until after our tour.
The tour cost 1,770 pesos for both of us; 500 per person for the boat, and 385 each for other “fees”, which is supposed to go towards conservation and stuff, though I have my doubts about that.
We rented our snorkeling gear (mask, tube and flippers) for 250 each, though the usual going rate is 300 per person.
Just show up early in the morning (we showed about 7:15) and sign the necessary forms. They’ll lump yer papers with everyone else’s, divide em up to about 6-8 people per boat (they’ll keep big groups together) and off ya go.
The beach of Donsol isn’t exactly picturesque, and is more pebbly than sandy, but the water is clear, and the area around Donsol is gorgeously lush and fertile. The small town is quiet and friendly, and based on the local reactions, it seems not many foreigners are willing to venture into town, which is too bad—they enjoyed having us there!
Unfortunately there aren’t many options in Donsol for the budget traveler: we only found one homestay in town (the night before we left, d’oh) and the cheapest rooms go for 500 pesos, which are only offered by a few places. Most resorts are lined by the beach, mostly near the Tourist Center, where the bangkas launch from every morning.
We also found it was cheaper to take a tricycle into town (20 pesos per person, one way) and eat meals there than it was to eat at a resort (averaging around 200 per plate).
And finally, a warning for fellow budget travelers: beware of the Woodland resort—they advertise “500 for backpackers” but they mean 500 per person! We found out too late (after we’d settled in) and had to shell out 1000 pesos for one night in a dorm room (never mind that we had it to ourselves).