Donsol: Chasing Whale Sharks    

The wide head of a whale shark
Donsol is where you go to see whale sharks-- butangdin, in the local language. The whale sharks make a stop during their migratory wanderings to feast in the krill rich waters off the coast of Donsol Their high season is February to May. Up until '98 the whale sharks mainly drew local hunters. However, in '98 an ecotourism program was started which turned hunters into Spotters, Butangdin Interaction Officers (BIO), boat captains and crew.

The tourists descend upon resorts, or, like us, come from Legazpi and go straight to the visitor center. A boat had just filled up before us but a short wait brought a few more passengers. We watched the introductory video and changed. There were six of us -- a good number because the interaction guidelines say no more than six swimmers (and one boat) per shark.

The boats were large motorized bamboo outrigger canoes with a tarp roof and wooden seats. It was nicer than I thought it would be with decks high enogh out of the water to stay dry. We had a BIO and a couple spotters and a boat captain who operated the motor on a large pole.

Our whale shark hunting boat
The air on the water was refreshingly cool and the sky had a slight layer of clouds. The water was blue green. It wasn't crystal clear as I was hoping it would be but it turned out that the murkiness was from the tiny sealife the whale sharks feast upon. There were a lot of boats out. Ours headed to the area where the others were. Then, we spotted a whale shark and the boat dropped us off. Our BIO pointed to a fin and we swam towards it. To our disappointment it dove down before we saw it. Back in the boat we continued. All the spotters seemed to be watching each other and not for the sharks. When one boat saw one, all the other boats sped to that location and dumped their swimmers. We joined the crowd. This time I inhaled some salt water when I jumped in and was delayed by a coughing fit. This made me lose the group as they sped off into the crowd of snorkels and splashing fins. By the time I found everyone, the shark had dived but this time Kelleen had seen it. "You have to keep on the guide's tail," she recommended.

Back on the boat the BIO asked if I'd seen it and when I said "no" he said, "You've got to be fast. You took too long getting in." I hadn't realized how athletic whale shark interaction was. The photos made it seem like we would be slowly and gracefully drifting with the huge creatures below us. In reality, it was a chase. The spotter would point to the shark (or the boat next to the shark), our boat would crank its engine and speed to the spot. The BIO would tell us to get ready. Then he'd yell, "GO! GO! GO!" as he jumped in and we'd all follow. Then we'd speed off to try to find the shark, then swim back to the boat, climb up and attempt to catch our breath.

We spent quite a while not finding any sharks or arriving at the crowded shark sites too late. Then, for a while, no one seemed to be finding anything. Rowshan saw one but I guess the spotters didn't see it. "Remind me not to go on these animal viewing things. They are always a disappointment," I told Rowshan. We were dismayed by the number of people in the water and the number of circling boats.

For the third sighting, we came up beside another boat. The shark had changed position so they didn't see it. Our crew saw its dorsal circling. Our BIO pointed to the fin and yelled, "GO! GO!" This time I quickly jumped in and swam as fast as I could towards the fin. And then, there it was right in front of me just below the surface. It looked like a regular shark from the side except it was spotted. I couldn't see the width of his mouth but for a moment everything was still and I could just watch, wondering if I could get closer but unsure if I was within 3-4 meters away. I don't know if the others also were there but if they were, they were out of my vision and I really felt it was just me and the shark. It wasn't huge but it was definitely a bigger than me. Actually, it could have been a lot bigger since I don't know how far I was from it. Soon it dived down.

The next sighting we were right over the shark which gave us a view of its wide head and huge spotted body. Now everyone on the boat had seen a shark. Everything else was icing on the cake. In the following sightings we did some more fast chasing, watching the shark disappear. Another time it was so crowded I could just see the hazy form of the shark through a crowd of kicking limbs.

Another time I started close to the shark but people forced past me scrapping my legs with their fins and kicking bubbles into my face. At this point I decided I'd seen two really good views of sharks and so maybe I should just stay on the boat unless we were the first group-- or only a small group was there. I couldn't help but feel sorry for the sharks trying to eat with 40 kicking swimmers chasing them. However, I also wanted to see more sharks. It is hard because everyone wants to see the sharks but there is only supposed to be one boat and six swimmers to one shark. Instead there would be 8 boats and 50 swimmers. Kelleen, who freedove down to get a better look at the shark, said it was frightening to look up and see all the fins and bodies between where she was and the air.

Please don't kick the whale sharks!
I was very happy to have seen the sharks. They are strange, beautiful creatures. We boated around a bit more. Rowshan and I both sat out a viewing. I felt it couldn't get better than my first view. But as we neared another shark, which was not overcrowded, we jumped in with everyone. I followed the BIO out then looked below in the water wondering where the shark was. Just then it rushed past me with gills rippling, close enough to make me do the swimming equivalent of jumping back and shouting, "Wow!" (Wbbbblbbblblb!) Rowshan had also nearly been run over by the shark which surprised him rushing by with wide mouth open. This was the climax of shark viewing. We went back in a couple more times then headed back to shore.

A whale shark swims off
The sharks were great but can't help having mixed feelings about the whole experience. Swimming so close to the sharks was amazing but the crowds were irritating, perhaps for the sharks as well. The rules designed for the well being of the sharks weren't being followed. However, the tourism was a better alternative to hunting. Ideally the BIO's probably should have kept the numbers per shark down-- but I'm sure they also need to bend to what the customers want and the customers would be upset if the boat didn't give them the chance to see the shark everyone else was seeing. Of course, the other tourists and I should also have tried to limit the times we joined the crowds but this is easier said than done since it may be the only time in our lives we see whale sharks. It is a tricky balance.

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