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Whale shark encounters in Donsol, Philippines

Until whale sharks put the town on the tourist map, Donsol was an obscure, remote fishing village. In December 1997, a local diver shot a video of the whale sharks and a newspaper carried a story about Donsol’s gentle butanding. By March 1998, Donsol had became a world class eco-tourism destination.

Words in this article by Melissa Connell, pics by Grace Picot.

Me, feeling small alongside this gentle giant on a previous whale shark trip to PNG. Donsol was quite a different experience. Pic by Grace Picot.

Driving through this countryside, I finally understand what it must have been like for mum to grow up here” remarked Grace, speaking of her mother’s childhood in a rural village of The Philippines.

When I invited my friend Grace to join me on a trip to The Philippines, she jumped at the opportunity to reconnect with her family and to explore more of the island where her mother grew up.

After an eight hour flight from Sydney we arrived into Manila for a brief layover before boarding a 1 hour flight to Legazpi, in the Bicol region. Bicol is located in the southern-most tip of Luzon Island, the largest of the Philippines’ 7,107 islands. Our destination was the little seaside village of Donsol, a 1.5 hour drive from Legazpi city.

Grace wandering the landscape where her mother grew up, in a rural part of the Philippines. In the background is the active Mayon Volcano. Pic by Melissa Connell.

Exiting the city, Mayon Volcano loomed ominously in the distance, its majestic, almost perfectly symmetrical contour giving the countryside a balanced and peaceful ambience. But don’t be fooled, Mayon is the most active volcano in the Philippines having erupted more than 40 times in the past 400 years.

We navigated past rice fields, coconut plantations and acres of vegetation before winding up a misty mountain to bathe in the cool waters of Vera Falls – a stunning, cascading waterfall that we had all to ourselves.

Bathing in the chilly waters of Vera Falls. High up in the mountains, we walked through misty forest and were delighted to find that we had the whole place to ourselves. Pic by Grace Picot.
Water streams from the rocks to the left hand side of the larger cascading waterfall at Vera Falls, 1.5 hours from Legazpi city. Pic by Grace Picot

The ocean was calling so we headed southwest to the coastline where Mark dropped us off at Donsol, formerly a sleepy fishing village that now has a thriving tourism industry due to the presence of ‘butanding’; whale sharks.

“The butanding bring our village employment and prosperity” explained Marilyn, the owner of Aguluz Homestay in Donsol, “20 years ago, there were no tourists.”

Marilyn and her family invite you into their home at Aguluz Homestay. There’s no better way to experience Filipino culture! Pic by tripod (Grace’s camera).

It’s true. Until whale sharks put the town on the tourist map, Donsol was an obscure, remote fishing village. In December 1997, a local diver shot a video of the whale sharks and a newspaper carried a story about Donsol’s gentle butanding. By March 1998, Donsol had became a world class eco-tourism destination.

Thankfully, the World Wildlife Fund were quick to move in on the scene and establish regulations and guidelines for shark interactions, including limiting the number of swimmers per boat to six and remaining 3+ meters from the sharks.

Even when you’re out of the water, you’re constantly in the presence of whalesharks in Donsol! Pic by Grace Picot
Village kids playing. Pic by Grace Picot.

Whilst interactions in other regions have been criticised for attracting the butanding by feeding them – which interrupts their natural feeding cycle – the whale sharks of Donsol come of their own volition every December-May, when warm streams bring plankton close to the shore.

Thousands of tiny plankton are responsible for bringing one of the world’s largest aggregations of whale sharks to the tropical waters of The Philippines each year.
Pic by Grace Picot.

The Elysia Beach Resort website indicated that 8-12 sharks were being spotted per day and, upon entering the water, we were not disappointed. Our guide led us across to a small stirring in the water and we peered through our masks into the cloudy blue abyss. For a few moments there was nothing, then suddenly a large shadow drifted beneath us, its gigantic mouth gaping open whilst its tail gently swished from side to side. I was mesmerised.

Growing to lengths of up to 40 feet, the whale shark is the biggest fish and shark in the world. Observing a whale shark in its natural environment is a relaxing experience. I found myself consistently drifting closer and then having to remind myself that they are wild animals; it’s important to give them their space.

Pic by Grace Picot.

Apart from their distinct shape, whale sharks are easily recognisable by the markings on their bodies. Their beautiful ‘checkerboard’ pattern of light stripes and spots against a dark background are as unique as human fingerprints.

Sadly, whale sharks are currently on the WWF’s ‘vulnerable to extinction’ list due to demand for their meat, fins and oil. But, as tourism continues to grow and benefit local communities, fishermen are getting in on the action as whale shark ‘spotters’ instead of whale shark ‘hunters’.

Living large on less! A Filipino tricycle, sans roofed sidecar, transporting local kids around the streets of Donsol. Pic by Grace Picot.

I fell in love with the community of Donsol over the course of our time there. While I was initially drawn to the village by the whale sharks, it was the community that made the experience enriching. Strolling the dusty streets in the tropical, summer heat, locals waved to us and children smiled and said hello. Everyone was out and about each evening, socialising and sharing meals together. Depsite being a foreigner, I really felt like I was part of the local atmosphere and I genuinely felt welcome among this simple living, ocean loving community.

My tip – Come with an open heart. Chat to the locals; prepare to laugh often; sample Filipino cuisine and leave your watch at home. From the moment that you step foot in the Philippines, you’ll be on ‘island time!’

Enjoying a sneaky moment with his bag of sweets. The children of Donsol will welcome you with big smiles, waves and some attempts at basic English words. Surprise them by learning a few words in their language! Pic by Grace Picot.

2 organisations that are doing some great work to assist in whale shark conservation:

LAMAVE (Large Marine Vertebrates Project)

Researchers and volunteers work closely with local governments, communities, businesses and tourists to ensure the conservation of large marine animals through science, education, and advocacy. You can donate to LAMAVE or join them as a volunteer, becoming part of a conservation project actively working within the local community. Apply via http://www.lamave.org/

WWF Philippines (World Wildlife Fund)

WWF experts continue to study shark habits and gather information in the Coral Triangle on individual sharks by using satellite tags, sonar devices and digital cameras. The information is used to create further protections for whale sharks.

DONSOL TRAVEL TIPS

1. Eat as the locals do

Well known for dishes cooked in “gata” or coconut cream, Bicolano delicacies are plentiful in Donsol, both in the resorts and on the street. A famous dish is “laing” or “gabi”, which is dried taro leaves cooked in coconut cream with cuts of meat or fish. Another delicious Bicolano dish is “Bicol Express” – stir fried pork with shrimp paste, heavy coconut cream and green chillies. It’s a spicy dish that is best eaten with hot, steamed rice. Be sure to keep some water nearby.

Fresh fruit at Donsol’s market. Pic by Grace Picot.

2. BYO cash

Bring enough cash to Donsol as many establishments accept cash only.

3. Whale sharks are not guaranteed

While there is a good chance that you will see whale sharks during the peak months of December-May, remember that they are wild animals and sightings are not guaranteed. Allow yourself enough time to go on a few boat trips to increase your chances, but prepare to participate in other local activities if there are no whale sharks around.

The best vantage point for sunset – Elysia Beach Resort. We didn’t stay at the resort, but we grabbed a few ‘whale shark cocktails’ one evening with a few travellers that we had met that day on our whaleshark excursion. Pic by Grace Picot.

4. Getting there and away

As I found out the hard way, if you leave your flight bookings to the last minute you can pay hundreds of dollars more than you should. Book early! Most accommodation offers van transfers from Legaspi airport to Donsol.

Elysia Beach Resort by the sea, for those who prefer a little luxury. Pic by Grace Picot

5. Getting around

The tricycle is a motorbike with a sidecar / passenger cabin on an attached third wheel. This popular local form of transport is both cheap and fun. 50 pesos for 3-4 km’s is the standard rate. When bargaining, remember that a small amount to a foreigner can go a long way to help, so don’t be too aggressive. Smile, agree on an amount, then enjoy the ride!

6. Learning the language

“Kamusta ka”. Say it out loud a few times. There you go, you just learnt how to ask “how are you?” in Tagalog. Tagalog is a dialect widely spoken and understood throughout the Philippines. Spend an hour familiarising yourself with 5-10 phrases and then enjoy the feeling of speaking to locals in their own language.

7. Accommodation

“Aguluz is a combination of my parents’ names. My father was Augustus and my mother was Luz. After our family moved away from the area, I turned the house into a guest-house,” explained Marilyn, owner of the Donsol guesthouse that we stayed in. Marilyn invited us to share meals with the family and the children practiced their English with us. Staying with a local family really added to our travel experience.

8. What to pack

When preparing to travel, lay out all your clothes and all your money. Then take half the clothes and twice the money.

Susan Heller

Essential travel items include:

  • Snorkelling gear – If you’re a water baby, at some point you’re best off investing in a good snorkel and mask.
  • Suncream – I’ve found that suncream in Australia is usually about half the price than it is to purchase overseas.
  • Hammock – I took my lightweight parachute hammock on the journey and used it constantly.
  • Tagalog phrasebook
  • 2 pairs of flip-flops. These are the only shoes that I packed.
  • A reusable water bottle
  • Swimwear and a towel
  • Poncho – a very versatile item which can be used to wrap around you and keep you warm, or to sit on
  • A sense of humour. This will get you a long way in the Philippines.
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