Donsol, in Bicol, is one of the few places in the world where sightings of whale sharks, the largest fish in the sea, are guaranteed. Rupert Parker joins them in the water
The Bicol region, around 300 miles to the south of Manila, is largely untouched by mass tourism. You can drive from the capital but it’s easier and quicker to fly to Legazpi City. The tiny airport is dominated by the perfect cone of the Mayon Volcano, at 2,463 metres the most active in the Philippines. The top is clear today and I notice wispy puffs of smoke coming from the crater. It’s one of only two active volcanoes in Bicol, the other being Bulusan, in the south of the region.
It’s exciting enough to be close to volcanic activity, but I’ve got an adrenalin treat in store – I’m here to swim with whale sharks. This is one of the few places in the world that can guarantee sightings from November until June so I take the narrow winding roads to Donsol, 35 miles away. In the bay here, there’s a rich supply of plankton and krill, and these huge creatures return every six months to feed.
Whale sharks are the largest fish in the ocean, some reported as long as 18m, but in Donsol, they’re usually between 4 and 12m. Even so, they have mouths up to 2m across, containing over 300 rows of thousands of tiny teeth. Fortunately for me, they’re not used for biting but instead filter the water to retain the nutrients. The shark sucks in a mouthful, closes its jaws and expels the water through its gills, swallowing the good stuff.
The first recorded sighting was only in 1828, but apparently they’ve been around for over 245 million years. They’re now the subject of intense scientific scrutiny using tracking devices and photo identification to find out more about their habits. In Donsol, until recently, they were killed for food but, with the advent of eco-tourism in the area, that’s now prohibited.
I arrive at the Donsol Eco Tour base and am immediately given a snorkel and flippers, and told to get changed. There’s a quiet confidence that we’ll be lucky with sightings today, but it comes with a warning that it’s not always guaranteed. First there’s a safety briefing. This is more for the sharks’ sake than for us – interactions are limited to a few minutes and there’s no touching.
In charge is a Batung Interaction Officer, or BIO, and his job is not only to spot the sharks but also to make sure we obey the rules. There are six of us in the small boat, lined up in a row on one side, wearing snorkels and flippers. The BIO is sitting on the bows, scanning the surface of the water, and we’re watching him, waiting for a signal for us to jump. It’s a beautiful cloudless day, with no wind, and sea is like a glass
We’re not far from the shore and I see a couple of other boats waiting patiently for the same quarry. It seems like a long wait but suddenly we’re given the signal and all tip into the water. I swallow a mouthful of seawater as I frantically fit the mask over my face, adjust my snorkel and dip my head under the surface. At first there’s nothing but, all at once, I make out a huge shape, the size of a single decker bus, passing inches below me.
We’ve been told to follow it closely but it’s the wide gaping mouth, large enough to swallow me whole, that makes me hesitate. I’ve been spotted so it starts to dive deeper but otherwise shows no sign of being disturbed. I kick my flippers, hold my breath, and dive with it, swimming frantically to keep up. The water is perfectly clear and I get a closer look, fascinated by the sight of this mammoth creature.
All is going well when suddenly I feel a jolt and start to swallow water. It’s not the shark, but one of the others, also lost in reverie, that’s collided with me. We’re a tangles of flippers, but rise to the surface, remove masks and make our apologies. The giant fish has taken advantage of our mishap and disappeared into the depths.
All the same, we climb back onto the boat with a great sense of elation. We’ve not only encountered one of the largest beasts in the sea, but survived to tell the story. And it gets better – over the course of the next hour, we’re lucky enough to get two more sightings and able to dive in to get up close. After seeing three we’re all getting rather blasé and it’s easy to lose sight of how special this experience has been. After all only around 1000 Whale sharks have been identified world and they remain on the endangered species list.
A 3 hour interaction including boat, guide, registration fees, snorkelling equipment and refreshments with Donsol Eco Tours runs from November to June.
Philippine Airlines flies from London to Legazpi City via Manila.
The Siama Hotel near Sogorson City makes a comfortable base to explore Bicol.
It’s More Fun in the Philippines has tourist information.