I've always known the Philippines to be a top spot for swimming with whale sharks, but until this recent journey I never really delved into the idea of considering it myself. It kind of sat on the edge of my bucket list as a 'that might be pretty cool' activity that I ‘might’ get to do one day so long as it’s in an ethical manner and not in a zoo-like environment.
Fast-forward to May 2016 and I find myself scouring the Philippines backpacker Facebook page for suggestions on what to do in the land of the 7000 islands. I befriend Matt, a couchsurfing veteran actively engaged in the Facebook page, who regularly shares the knowledge of his home country to curious travellers eager to visit the Philippines.
"We have no real itinerary" I tell him, “but I've heard it's the time of year the whale sharks are prevalent in the waters off the Philippines," the environmentalist in me ending the sentence with "but is there an ethical way to see these creatures?"
Quick to share common values, him having been a volunteer for WWF and actively involved in community projects in his hometown of Donsol, Matt tells me about the different types of encounters offered here in the Philippines "There are a few places where you can swim with the sharks. I highly recommend Donsol over the popular Oslob if you can"
Oslob is the whale shark capital of Philippines. It's like the Angkor Wat of Siem Reap; people go there to see the whale sharks. As you can imagine with any of these prime tourist attractions, I hate to put it bluntly but, we ruin them. We flock to them as if it’s the last thing we will see on earth, we flock to them like a stampede and often forget about any of our implications on the given place. Oslob has become just that, a stampede of tourists wanting to catch an underwater selfie with the giants of the ocean. Unlike Siem Reap however, with its withstanding structures, here in Oslob we are dealing with nature, nature that cannot withstand a stampede.
Later in my journey through the Philippines I would see what Matt and others had warned me about. Signs lined all bus stations and tourist centres with tours to visit Oslob. The thing is in Oslob they feed the whale sharks, a practice not common anywhere in the world. They entice them so that tourists can get up close and flood their Instagram accounts with whale shark pictures. In a circumstance like this it's hard for the animals safety to not be compromised.
Matt had sold Donsol to me the second he mentioned the words ‘sustainable tourism’. A ferry ride away from infamous Oslob you can have a different kind of experience with these creatures, one that sees the protection and conservation of the whale sharks, and one that has seen a small unethical fishing village turn into a thriving sustainable one.
The bus from Manila to Donsol was what I called 'the bumpiest bus ride ever'. If there were ever an investment to be made by the newly elected mayor of the area then it should be to use some of their otherwise corrupt money and put it into paving a better road. But as a backpacker you endure those bumpy bus rides and exchange that luxury form of transportation for a somewhat uncomfortable and more adventurous one, inevitably coming out the other end to something spectacular, which is what Donsol was to us. (If bumpy bus rides aren’t your thing you can book a flight to Legazpi in advance for a relatively cheap price)
Matt, my newly befriended Facebook friend, met us and our new posse of travellers, an American, an Icelandic and a Polish, at the bus station bright and early on Wednesday morning. We jumped into two small tricycles barely fitting all of us and our luggage (you’d be surprised how much weight these things can take) and ventured into downtown Donsol.
"Welcome to Donsol” Matt says, “We've got whale shark watching in an hour"
Bewildered by what he said and sleepy eyed after the bumpiest ride of our lives we all looked at each other and thought 'why not?'
Donsol is a sleepy seaside town. It was a refreshing environment after tackling the gauntlet of Manila, a place certainly not for the faint hearted. This seaside town, located in the western part of Luzon Island, is home to a small fishing community. Prior to 1998 the people of this town survived solely off fishing the surrounding seas, and the fishing practices back then were far from sustainable. The area was subject to dynamite fishing, which is basically the worst kind of fishing anyone can do that involves the practice of using explosives to stun or kill schools of fish for easy collection. It was desperation for these men, with nothing else to rely on and no knowledge, education or concern for the environment surrounding their village.
Enter WWF in 1998, after word got out of a large concentration of whale sharks in the seas off Donsol area. They saw what was happening here and committed themselves to providing assistance in the conservation aspects of whale shark tourism in Donsol. They educated and trained the local people and, through the support of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Butanding (Whale Shark) Ecotourism Development Project was implemented. This project provided an alternative way of life for the people here. It provided jobs, income and infrastructure to the town and it stopped the dynamite fishing, saving the reef and it’s marine life, from more destruction.
We arrived at the Butanding Ecotourism Centre early that Wednesday morning ready for what was going to be one of the highlights of our travels. Each of us sits down in the designated area to watch a video, which outlines the rules of interaction with the sharks. The centre enforces the rules as a way to protect the animals from harm, they have a 1 boat, 6 people per shark policy, they enforce a strict rule of 4 metre distance between humans and sharks, and they prevent any scuba diving, fishing or underwater flash photography in the area.
Our boat departs into the big blue ocean surrounding Donsol. It’s a clear day with not a cloud in the sky as we venture out to see the gentle giants roam these waters that provide them with an abundance of plankton to feed on. The spotter on the boat sights the first whale shark up ahead and the boat stops at a safe distance as we hang off the side, snorkels set, ready for our signal to jump in the water. Each tour provides income for one spotter, one boat driver and one BIO (Butanding Interaction Officer) who guides us through the waters and ensures rules are enforced.
“Now” yells the BIO as we all jump into the seas beside the boat, following his lead. For a while all I can see through the mask of the snorkel is blue cloudy ocean, a sign of abundance of plankton. Not to long after a grey silhouette fills my vision. A 6 metre long whale shark swims graciously by me, its strong fins pushing it through the water at a fast pace. We swim hastily with the creature, keeping our distance and hovering at the surface, watching as small fishes cling to its side feeding off elements on its skin. For a moment I’m mesmerised by the encounter, privileged to get the chance to witness these ocean giants in their natural habitat. It’s in those moments you feel completely in touch with nature, completely in awe of what this world has bestowed upon us, and completely vulnerable knowing that you are so small in this vast world full of wonders like these. We see the shark for no longer than 20 seconds and the silhouette starts to fade as the gentle giant drifts off into the cloudy ocean to continue its journey. We swim back to the boat to wait for another sign of movement.
Hundreds of whale sharks swim through these waters from the months of February to May. Records have indicated an increase in number over the past two years since the decline in 2014, with reasons unknown. The creature’s still face threats by humans and climate change but for now Donsol is home to many of them. That day we would see 6 different sharks, the largest being 12 metres!
Choosing this type of encounter with the whale sharks was rewarding in so many ways. Firstly knowing the safety and conservation of these creatures is not compromised, and secondly being able to ethically encounter such a magnificent creature while providing alternative income and opportunity to a small community who would otherwise be disadvantaged. It was definitely one of the highlights of my life.
Butanding Ecotourism Centre, Donsol, Sorsogon, Philippines
3-hour boat tour (6 people) - 3500 Pesos
Registration Fee (each) - 300 Pesos
Snorkel & Flippers Hire (each) - 300 Pesos