Swimming with whale sharks
Trip Start Sep 05, 2010
149Trip End Sep 27, 2011
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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
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.
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
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
After recovering from that initial moment of awe, I turned around and started chasing after the whaleshark
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
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.