Swimming with whale sharks

Trip Start Sep 05, 2010
Trip End Sep 27, 2011

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Where I stayed
Santiago homestay

Flag of Philippines  , Bicol,
Saturday, March 26, 2011

[Blog by Curt]

The morning we flew from Tagbiglaran to Manila, it was drizzling yet again. Luckily it didn't delay our flight and this left us with enough time in Manila to change our flight out of the country. Originally, we had planned flying to Kuala Lumpur on April 5, but with the continuing bad weather all over the Philippines and us not being particularly inspired by what we had seen so far, we decided to move our departure to March 30 instead. It cost us a bit of a change penalty, but with the Philippines being more expensive than any of the other places we had visited, we believed we would still come out ahead. Our new schedule would still leave us enough time to   get to Donsol and try to snorkel there with whalesharks. For me at least, this was the main reason for having included the Philippines in our itinerary. Swimming with these gigantic fish has been a dream of mine and Donsol is the best place in the world to see them; and this was the best time of the year. There was no way we would bypass this opportunity. 

So after only a few hours' layover in Manila, we boarded another plane that took us to the city of Legazpi. It was drizzling there as well, and clouds were obscuring the famous Mayon volcano, one of the landmarks of the Philippines. With nothing else on offer to make us want to linger in the dreary city of Legazpi, we beelined it for the bus station. There we found a minibus to take us to Donsol. On the 1.5h ride we chatted with three young travelers, two Canadian sisters and a Swedish guy, and decided to form a group for the whaleshark viewing. The way the whaleshark thing works is that they rent out outrigger boats with crew and a group pays for the entire boat, which has a capacity of six. So it made sense to form a group of five with the three other backpackers and share the cost. We got to Donsol just before the visitor center was closing and we quickly made our way there to book a boat for the following day. Unfortunately, all boats for the 7am early batch had already been booked, so the earliest we could go was as part of the 10am second batch.

By this time everyone was starving and we set out to find some dinner. This may sound like an easy thing, but not in the megalopolis that is Donsol. There was literally one restaurant worthy of that name. It was affiliated with a dive center and charged exorbitant prices. The only other places serving something that resembled once edible substance were local holes in the wall that have food stored in large metal pots. They contain items that were cooked some time before and are served without reheating. When we asked some lady when her food had been prepared, she rolled her eyes upward and with a straight face proclaimed 'yesterday morning'. At this point, our options were starving, going broke or risking food poisoning from food that had been standing outside for almost two days without refrigeration. We opted temporarily for starvation as we scoured the town for nourishment. We followed locals down dark streets only to find yet another set of cold pots waiting there. As our stomachs started to scare the street dogs away, we finally spotted what seemed like the only place offering freshly cooked (not-a-king's-ransom-requiring) food: a stall grilling tiny skewers of meat. Normally these things are meant as snacks, but we ordered them by the dozens. We left the more exotic options of skewered chicken heads on the grill and focused mainly on the more conventional pork option, although I found a few skewers of intestines hidden in my batch as well.  With a few sweet rolls and chocolate-like cupcakes from the pastry store across the street in our bellies, we felt fairly sure we would at least survive the night. 

In the morning, we got up a bit before our whaleshark time, to find a new place to stay. The previous night, we had crashed at the first option we found and the mosquitos there had been a nuisance. We quickly located a good alternative and the people there pointed us to a restaurant where our breakfast was ultimately disappointing. A culinary hotbed, Donsol will never be. But with the whalesharks in the bay, they could be offering dog-food-only menus and I would still visit. At 10am, we were at the visitor center, ready for our time with the sharks. You can only snorkel with the sharks, so we rented mask, fins and snorkel from a dive shop. Having paid all our fees, we were now waiting for our group number to be called. And we waited, and then we waited some more. Our scheduled time of 10 had long gone, so had 11am, and finally by 12, it was our time to follow our captain to a boat. During this entire time we had been waiting, it had been raining off and on; more on than off. Even as we were climbing on board our little wooden outrigger vessel and motoring into the bay, the rain was falling hard. Our rain coats did little to protect us, and soon we were soaked and chilly, even before having been in the water once. 

Fortunately, our adrenaline would quickly dissolve any cold we were feeling. After only about 20 min on the water, our guide started yelling at us to put on our gear ... fast. We had entered an area where multiple other boats were ambling and something was definitely going on. We peered over the water, not sure what to look for. The excited signs of our guide to our boat captain suggested though that whatever action they saw, we were right in the middle of it. Then we saw it: a massive shadow, just below the waterline, big enough to dwarf an elephant. And it was heading straight for us. We didn't even have time to think whether jumping in the water in front of this massive form was such a brilliant idea. Our guide started shouting 'Now. Now. Jump' and next thing we knew we were all in the water. I had jumped in next to our guide and was swimming on his shoulder as he turned his body and pushed his head underwater. I did the same, peering through the murky water. And I saw nothing. I was warned that the visibility was very poor (around 1.5m) due to all the plankton in the bay and the churning from the rain storms. But the massive shadow that had seemed so close from the boat was gone. There was nothing. And then, suddenly, the massive head appeared out of nothing, right in front of me, close enough to touch and on a straight collision course. I didn't have time to react. I saw the wide open mouth, the size of a bathtub, with suckerfish attached like swollen whiskers and flanked on both sides by dark eyes. Within a second of appearing, the enormous shark was gliding directly under me. Given the underwater visibility and how clearly I saw the beast, it must have been barely below the waterline with its dorsal fin passing less than half a meter from my body. Because of its size and the way it glided past, I only saw parts of it. As I floated there on the water surface, it felt like one of those movie scenes where they zoom in on a portion of a submarine as it glides past. Only, this submarine was a living being, the largest fish in the world, a sleek mass of gray with white spots, around eight meters (25 feet) long. It was totally breathtaking. 

After recovering from that initial moment of awe, I turned around and started chasing after the whaleshark. Fortunately, this particular one was having a lazy afternoon and wasn't going too fast. As I was swimming next to it, close enough to touch (which I didn't try as it harms the animals), it was the most amazing experience. Apparently the other people in our group where either too shell shocked or unable to keep up, so I had a clear path as I swam with the shark. Only after a good few minutes did the tourists from other boats join the fray. Once this happened, it became a game of jostling for position and trying to avoid the swimmers with floaties that were dumped by their boat directly in our path. The rules state only 6 swimmers are allowed per shark and one has to stay at a distance of at least 3 meters. Maybe it was because sightings were more precious with lower visibility, but once in the bay, the rules that had been pressed upon us seemed to matter little, even to the guides. Even in the crowds, I was able to follow the whaleshark for what must have been at least ten minutes. When it finally dove deeper and beyond our visible range, I was pumped up beyond belief as I swam back towards our boat. This was absolutely amazing. 

Laura had not jumped in this first time. Instead she wanted to take pictures from the boat, envisioning shots of swimmers with the massive shadow of the shark. We didn't have an underwater camera and this way we would at least be able to capture the moment. However, as soon as the swimmers left the boat, it had sped away, out of the path of the shark and the snorkelers. So the pictures she had imagined never really materialized. People from the first batch had reported seeing at least five sharks, so there would be more opportunities surely. We had spent less than an hour of our allocated three at this point. However, as we learned only later, due to the low tide, sharks sightings would be much more rare in the afternoon. No matter how much our spotters peered down into the waters of the bay, we could not find another shark. It was now time to go back. As soon as the boat turned, as if having stalked us all this time, there it was, a shadow. Laura would get her chance after all. We all jumped in the water and chased the fish. This one was swimming slightly deeper and a bit faster than the previous one, so it was much harder to get a good look. It was exhilerating nonetheless and when our boat dropped us off at the visitor center we were happy with our whaleshark encounters. 

We were also starving and given the culinary wasteland that is Donsol, it was a blessing we were sleeping at a homestay that offered kitchen privileges. So while I finalized and posted our long overdue Myanmar blogs, Laura prepared dinner. Sadly Donsol not only lacks restaurants, it appears to have a ban on anything that is remotely edible. The best Laura could find was one packet of noodles and some pasta sauce that, despite its label of being Italian flavored,  was horribly sweet. Good thing she also had gotten us some cookies. We realized, however, that we really couldn't stay in Donsol any longer or we would starve. While there is diving in the area, in the so-called manta bowl, the limited visibility and strong currents made it hairy and ultimately not worthwhile. So the next day, we would move on, making our way via Legazpi and Manila to the beach town of Puerto Galera on Mindoro island.

However, swimming with the whalesharks had been so cool, we decided to try to do it again the next morning, before catching the bus in the early afternoon. This time around, we would try to make the early morning batch. We had no more group (the others had apparently decided to do their own thing - we didn't care), but with just the two of us, we hoped it would be easier to find empty spots on a boat with other people. As soon as we got to the visitor center at 7am, everything fell into place. There was a woman who had reserved a boat for her family, but they were no longer able to go, except for one person who had been their sixth passenger. In addition to Laura and I, there were three other travelers also looking for a spot, making us a full crew.

This time, we didn't have to wait long and by 7:30 we were on the water.  And as the day before, we spotted a shark almost immediately. There were quite a few other boats as well, but we nevertheless got a lot of close looks. Twice, we lost the animal as it gradually dove, but once back on the boat we located it again, circled around, and had another go. However, as soon as we would loose the shark in one spot, other people seemed to be spotting something a little farther, but at the same time, suggesting there were in fact more than one shark in the same area. So even though we jumped in three times, we aren't really sure how many individual sharks we swam with. There were more encounters after that.

During the second one, Laura also ended up chasing a second shark that I didn't even see, following another one. We also snorkeled with a juvenile whaleshark, 'only' about 4 meters long. That time, there was a massive group of swimmers in the water.  The swimming with the whaleshark at times resembled more what I imagine an all-team skirmish at a water polo match would be like. People were swimming over each other, pulling, kicking with their fins, in a scramble to catch a glimpse of the shark. From the boats it must have looked like a massive tangle  of human flesh following some invisible underwater target. Imagine something like what you see when you feed the fish in a koi pond, but then with food that is dragged along. Laura felt right in her element; liking the mayhem to the start of a triathlon swim. This shark also kept on going deeper on occasions, causing the frenetic blob of humans to lose it. Chasing just the smallest part of visible tailfin, Laura and I at one point found ourselves almost alone with the shark; well, its shadow really. But then, exactly at that moment, it rose near the surface again, with the two of us smack on top of it. As we dove underwater, we could swim right beside it. We could swear it was staring directly at us with its weird eye on the side of its head. We were so close, we could see all the detajls, the eye, the skin, the mouth. Amazing. 

In all, that second day we went in the water six times, seeing around five different sharks or so. Sometimes, the interaction was short, other times it seemed to last forever. Sometimes, the shark was deeper, but often it was almost at the surface. While the visibility was also low the second day due to the plankton, one time, for just a few moments, the water cleared up. And then, we saw the whole shark all at once. It was an amazing sight, the mammoth beast swimming in a patch of water surrounded by swirls of plankton. This had been a good day, a very good day. And a perfect way to bid Donsol goodbye. 

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