Star-spotted giants: swimming with whale sharks in Donsol, the Philippines

In this travel story I share my experience of swimming with whale sharks. If you are looking for practical information about this activity, or if you are interested to learn why you should choose Donsol and avoid Oslob if you care about the animals and want to have a sustainable experience, click here to jump to information about swimming with whale sharks in Donsol at the bottom of this page.

“Get ready! Here it comes! Get ready!” The scout who had climbed to the top of the boat’s mast has spotted a large dark shadow not too far from our boat. In a hurried frenzy we all pull our snorkelling masks onto our faces and swing our legs over the side of the boat. Some 2.5 meters below, the ocean water races past as our boat chops through it with considerable speed. The boat crew shouts: “Jump!”

Earlier on the boat we had agreed that we would jump in a certain order, to make sure we would not leap on top of one another. The person on the far end pushes himself off the port side of the boat and momentarily disappears into the dark blue. “Jump, jump!” The first jumper re-emerges behind the boat. Each one of us takes the leap, and when it is my turn I hold on to my mask and snorkel as I get ready to push myself into the deep. I estimate the force that I have to use to end up in the right spot in the water: far enough to be well away from the fast-moving boat, but not so far that I would hit the outrigger that runs along the entire side of the vessel. As I jump I close my eyes out of a natural instinct, and as buoyancy brings me back to the surface I see the end of the outrigger race past my face. Close call! The thrill of the jump almost has me forgetting why I am making this crazy leap in the first place, and it is for something even far more exciting: I am about to see my first wild whale shark, the largest fish on the planet, here in the ocean waters near Donsol, in the Philippines.

Until not too many years ago, Donsol was a sleepy fishing village far off the tourist map. It consists of not much more than a few dusty streets, some farm fields and stretches of black sand beach that are rather unimpressive by Filipino standards. Local fishermen who take their small boats into the ocean to catch smaller fish knew about the large shadows lurking below the surface, but were not particularly fond of the butanding, as whale sharks are called in the local language, as they tend to destroy their fishing nets with their stoic cruise. It wasn’t until 1997 when a foreign scuba diver happened to swim into a whale shark in the bay off Donsol and reported this sighting to the World Wide Fund. In the following years the community of Donsol has, in collaboration with the WWF, slowly built a tourism industry that now lures more and more visitors to this small town at the southern tip of Luzon.

A mangrove estuary that runs east of town disposes phytoplankton consisting of krill, crab larvae and fish eggs into the Donsol bay, which attracts the whale sharks whose menu primary consists of these tiny organisms. The sharks gather here between November and June, when the river’s provision of food into the ocean is optimal and the fish scoop up enormous amounts of plankton to sustain their gigantic size. They do this by cruising just below the surface, their colossal 1.5 meter wide mouths open as they drift through the ocean, their gigantic tails slowly swinging from left to right.

A mural in the village of Donsol depicting the town’s most famous visitor

Now I am in the ocean, and I hear the voice of our guide yelling from the boat: “Look down!” I fix my mask which has come off a bit because of the force of the impact with the water when I jumped, and then dip my head under the surface. The water is murky; light filters through only minimally and I see nothing but a blueish grey void. Visibility is no more than a few meters. I swim forward, all the while keeping my head underwater and my eyes at the empty canvas in front of me. Then, out of nowhere, it appears. A shark the size of a school bus. It is so large that it escapes my full vision in the opaque water that surrounds us. I see its dark body float past, its gills opened wide and the white spots on its back – that form a unique pattern on every individual whale shark – reflecting the little light that penetrates the water’s surface. My heart pumps like crazy and I am close to hyperventilating through my snorkel. The fish is massive, and my natural instinct tells me to move away from it. The animal is not the one to back up; it just continues to cruise along, as if I and my fellow snorkelers are not there. I let him float past and watch its powerful tail, which by itself is already larger than me, disappear into the blue.

I am so in awe of the sudden appearance of the whale shark that I almost forget to take photographs…
…and when I do, they are not the best. The murky water and the quick movement of the animal don’t allow for elaborate photo shoots; also its size prevents me from capturing it in the frame in its entirety

I swim back to the boat and climb aboard along a small wooden ladder. I let my breathing calm down and shove the mask on top of my head. To be honest, the experience was different than I had imagined it to be. I had somehow conjured the idea of serenely swimming alongside the gentle giant, being able to take good quality photos and maybe even have a photo taken of myself with the immense fish to allow for proper size comparison. The moment however had been far from serene: it was fleeting and frantic and had passed in the blink of an eye. To keep up with the fish you have to be a pretty strong swimmer, and the murky water didn’t allow me to see the animal in its entirety. The other snorkelers had been as keen as I was to get a good view of the animal, so at one point I saw more splashing flippers than shark tail. Yet, there was something entirely enchanting about this encounter. To see a creature this large float past at arm’s length makes your heart race and is absolutely exhilarating. So when some five minutes later the boat crew shouts “Get ready!” because they have spotted a second whale shark, I don’t have to think long about making the risky jump again.

The crew scouting for sharks

This time the shark approaches me head-on. Its giant mouth so big that it could swallow me whole wide open, its eyes apparently not registering me, it suddenly looms from the water in front of me. I freeze for a few seconds and then, hyperventilation-mode back on, I paddle out of its course as fast as I can. I stare in awe as its seemingly endless body floats past. The skin looks like sandpaper. Underneath its belly, long grey fish cruise along with it, like living extended parts of its anatomy. Its white spots create a magical pattern over the full length of its body, up until the frayed fins and tail. Wow, this is unreal!

Whale shark incoming!
I was too busy trying to keep up with the whale shark and trying to stay away from it that I didn’t really focus on shooting a good video. This clip however will give you some impression of how frantic it can be to swim with whale sharks, and how huge the animals are.

We are lucky to repeat this captivating activity seven more times as we had nine whale shark sightings in total. At the end of our three hours in the bay we are exhausted. Not just because of all the jumping and swimming, but also mentally – processing this surreal encounter with the world’s largest fish will surely take some time! We spend the rest of the day talking about one of the most enticing wildlife encounters in our lives and looking at our photos.

In the evening we decide to take a boat tour of the river estuary to see the fireflies that light up the mangroves at night. As our small boat floats away from the river bank we stare at the sky in awe. The Milky Way shines brightly among the thousands of other stars that have come out tonight. The white stars on the dark canvas of the night sky remind me of the whale shark’s white spots. The black silhouettes of the mangrove trees pass by as we make our way down the river. Then we see the fireflies. They congregate in the napa trees along the river’s edge, ten thousands of them in every single tree, their lights pulsating simultaneously as if each colony forms a giant breathing organism. We float past several of these trees, each throbbing in a different rhythm. Our boat holds still below one of them, and when I look up the image of the fireflies merges with that of the bright stars in the sky above. Our guide tells us that the droppings of the insects feed the nutrient plankton in the estuary, which in turn will float into the Donsol bay where the whale sharks feed on it. The circle of life. I think of the whale sharks, their white spots like the stars in the night sky and the fireflies in the trees. I envision how even in this very moment the elusive creatures continue to cruise the dark ocean, and how pitch black it must be in those waters during the night. It’s hard to imagine the monotony of their 100- to 150-year-long lives: an endless voyage through the voids of the ocean. To have been a brief part of that journey is a memory that I will treasure forever.

Create your own adventure! Practical advice for swimming with whale sharks in Donsol, the Philippines

Let me share with you below some practical tips & tricks on how to make this bucket list activity happen. However, before I go into the practicalities of swimming with whale sharks and how to organise it, let me go into an important message that should be part of your decision on where to swim with whale sharks in the Philippines.

Whale sharks are an endangered species; it is unknown how many of them are left but estimates don’t go much higher than around 7.000 worldwide. There are only few places in the world where whale sharks are known to have a constant presence and the Philippines is lucky to be one of those, with the towns of Donsol and Oslob most widely known. Upcoming whale shark tourism could help to preserve the species when local fishermen start seeing them as a source of income rather than as a nuisance. However – and this is really important – not all forms of whale shark tourism are sustainable. Please be sure that with your decision about where to see whale sharks you support sustainable forms of tourism as is practiced in Donsol, and not the destructive type which is unfortunately developing in Oslob.

Why should I see whale sharks in Donsol and not in Oslob?

For sure there are advantages for choosing to see the whale sharks in Oslob rather than Donsol. The town is more accessible and better linked the tourist trail; the waters are more clear and have better visibility, and whale shark sightings are guaranteed year-round. But these advantages come at a very steep price – at the whale shark’s expense. The problem with Oslob is that the whale shark tourism there has completely spiralled out of hand. Thousands of tourists are allowed to enter the shallow waters in front of the town every day, where locals in boats feed the sharks to ensure their presence. The whale sharks become accustomed to being fed and no longer display a fear of boats or humans; this leads to to severe injuries when their fins and tails are hit by the boats’ propellers. The daily feeding is keeping these normally migratory species in the same bay year-round. The effects that this has on their reproduction are unknown but could be disastrous because it keeps them from visiting their mating grounds. You can imagine that this has a negative impact on the wellbeing of the individual animals but also on the eventual survival of the species. Your experience will also be far from magical: you may have come to see whale sharks in the wild, but the experience in Oslob is more like an insanely busy zoo. PLEASE do yourself a favour and do what is best for the animals, and do not support the Oslob whale shark tourist industry.  

Now let’s pan and zoom into Donsol. Why do I think that swimming with whale sharks in Donsol is a more sustainable type of wildlife tourism? First of all: the sharks are not fed by humans. This allows them to maintain their natural migratory patterns and behaviours. It does mean that they are not there all year round; between July and October they are off to unknown places, doing what whale sharks do (no one really knows). It also means that a sighting during the season is not guaranteed. But if you want to see whale sharks in a sustainable way in the Philippines, Donsol is really your only option. The town has set up a local programme together with the WWF that is aimed at sustainable development. The local community is involved in many ways and is profiting from the steady flow of tourists. However they control the number of boats and people allowed with the whale sharks: there is a maximum of six persons per boat and one boat per whale shark. Touching the animals is not allowed and you must stay several meters away from it. You may only snorkel, scuba diving is not allowed as this disturbs the animals too much. Locals are trained in spotting the sharks from the boat and others are trained to become Butanding Interaction Officers, who will be your tour guide on the boat. All in all these restrictions did not affect our chances of swimming with whale sharks; as we were there in the peak of the season we saw 9 sharks in just 3 hours and had plenty of opportunity to swim with them. We felt very pleased with our experience in Donsol – of course things can always be improved even further but it is good to see that the programme is developed with a focus on the wellbeing of the animals and the local community.

How can I get to Donsol?

The closest airport to Donsol is Legazpi. There are direct flights from Manila with Cebu Pacific and Philippine Airlines. From Legazpi it is around 1.5 hours by car to Donsol. Expect to pay around php 1500 if you want to use a private vehicle, or you can use a minivan for around php 75. These leave when they are full and run until about 14:00h. An alternative is to get on a slow-moving jeepney to the town of Pilar and take a tricycle or other jeepney from there. It is also possible to connect to other locations in the Philippines by boat from Pilar. Near Legazpi airport is the volcano called Bulusan which can be hiked, and in general the area around Legazpi and Donsol is very beautiful with lush green vegetation and rice fields.

Arriving at Legazpi with Bulusan volcano in the background
How do I sign up for swimming with whale sharks in Donsol?

You have to visit the Donsol Butanding Interaction Center which is on Pio Duran Road which runs out of Donsol town to the north-west, along the coast. You can sign up in advance, for example by showing up on the day prior to your desired date. They open at 07:30 in the morning and close at 17:00 in the afternoon (although they may close earlier depending on weather or lack of visitors). Alternatively you can just show up there at opening time and sign up for a boat ride on the spot. It’s what we did, and even though we didn’t make a pre-booking there was still plenty of space left on the assigned boats. As the boat takes a maximum of 6 people, it makes sense to pair up with other tourists who will be there waiting so you can rent the boat together and split the cost. It is also possible to book the whale shark experience through several agencies that you will find online when you google, but there is no real point in using their services as they will also book at the same Interaction Center (it is the only place where you can book this experience) but you will pay more than when you arrange it yourself.

What is the Donsol whale shark interaction like?

You can choose to do this activity in the morning or in the afternoon: boats depart at 07:30, 11:00 and 14:00 but the later sessions may be canceled when there are not enough visitors. I recommend to go in the morning when the sea is calmer. It will also give you more chances of being able to team up with other tourists and rent a boat together. When you arrive at the Butanding Interaction Center at 07:30 and you have registered for the experience, you will be shown a short educational video about the whale sharks as well as about the rules of the game: you are not allowed to touch the animals and have to stay several meters away from it. You are also not allowed to swim in front of it. You are also warned to stay well away from the powerful tail that could injure you when it strikes you. Then you are assigned a Butanding Interaction Officer (BIO). These are locals who have been trained to take tourists out into the ocean and guide them through the experience.

Tourists gathering at the Butanding Interaction Center, waiting to be assigned a boat

You’ll get on the boat and within about 10 minutes of sailing you will already have arrived at the whale shark area. The boat crew will scout the animals for you and your BIO will let you know when it is time to jump into the water.

Waiting to jump…

The BIO will come into the water with you to guide you along and keep an eye on your behaviour. This sequence will repeat itself for several times, depending on how many whale sharks you will have the fortune to see on that day. After about 3 hours the boat will bring you back to the shore.

I felt that the reality of the experience made it difficult to follow the rules set out by the Butanding Interaction Center. Because the water is so murky, you typically don’t see the animal until it is within some 2 meters distance from you, which is too close according to the rules. So it is hard to avoid swimming too close to the animal, because you can only see them once they are near you. If you happen to be in its way, it may be difficult to avoid coming too close or even touching it (although accidentally). The experience is called ‘butanding interaction’ but this label is a bit misleading: the interaction should be kept at a minimum and even if you’d try you probably would not experience mutual interaction because the whale sharks just mind their own business and do not really respond in any way to the humans in the water. There was also one point when there were multiple boats releasing snorkelers around the same whale shark, which goes against the local rule of maximum one boat per animal. What you’ll find is that if the shark is stressed it will just get the hell out of there and your sighting will be minimal. You can help by speaking up to your BIO and let him know that you wish to move to another spot. If your BIO is not following the rules you should file a complaint at the Interaction Center. Of course the boat crew try to keep visitors satisfied but this should not go against the welfare of the animals. Despite these difficulties I do believe that the approach taken in Donsol is good. It is just important that everyone, locals and visitors alike, respect the rules and respect the animals.

Not all people respect the rule to keep distance from the sharks, unfortunately… and I must say that at times it is not easy to get out of their way when they swim near you. The sharks just don’t seem to care that you are in their way and you’ll have to swim fast to get out of their course.
What is the cost of swimming with whale sharks in Donsol?

The rental of a boat plus crew is php 3500. In addition you pay a registration fee of php 300 per person. If you share the boat with five other persons this means you’ll pay php 885 each – which is an insanely low figure for such a once-in-a-lifetime experience (around €15 or $17). It’s cheaper than in Oslob, also 😉 Talking of money: bring sufficient cash with you. There are two ATMs in Donsol but when we were there one was closed and the other one didn’t work so we had to travel all the way to Pilar to get some money.

Can I rent a GoPro in Donsol?

We rented a GoPro 7 in one of the shops that sells snorkelling gear directly opposite the Interaction Center. We paid php 1500 for a half day, including a hand grip and borrowing their memory card (you may also use your own). It seemed to be the only GoPro around though, so if you don’t have your own make sure to ask around in town or reserve the one from the store in advance.

Can I rent a snorkel and flippers in Donsol?

There are several shops opposite the Interaction Center that rent out snorkelling gear. We paid php 150 to rent flippers (had brought our own mask and snorkel). The resorts near the Center also rent out gear to guests. You may also want to bring water shoes as you have to walk over stones to get into the boat.

When is the best time of the year to swim with whale sharks in Donsol?

The sharks migrate here between November and June, and the high season with best chances of sightings is March and April. We visited at the end of March and saw 9 whale sharks in three hours. We heard from others that they were also lucky on the days before and after our experience, so generally it seems that the chance of sightings is pretty good at this time of year. But remember that this is wildlife and not a zoo, so sightings are never guaranteed. If you are very intent on seeing the sharks, plan to spend several days in Donsol so you can try again another day if you are unlucky on your first try.

Is swimming with whale sharks dangerous?

Unlike most of their cousins, whale sharks only eat plankton and small fish and squid. They pose no threat to humans and are not known to attack humans. That is why they are often called gentle giants. However, they are the size of a school bus, and by jumping into the water with them you enter their territory. They are better swimmers than you (unless you are Michael Phelps, perhaps) and a strike of their powerful and sharp tail can injure you. That is why you have to be sure to stay well away from them and not get too close. Then there is the general risk that comes with jumping off boats and swimming in the open ocean, although if the weather doesn’t permit safe swimming the boats will not leave the shore.

Is swimming with whale sharks in Donsol a suitable activity for children?

Only if they are very strong swimmers. Remember that you’re swimming in the open ocean with super huge fish. To keep up with the whale sharks requires good swimming skills. Also the jump from the boat into the water is not without risk. The boat is moving as you jump and there is a risk of hitting its side or being run over with the outrigger as you re-surface. Life vests are available and it may be a good idea to wear one while out in the water (and not just for kids). I would not recommend doing this activity with small children – teenagers maybe yes but only if they are very good swimmers. Note that in May of 2018 the Center issued a statement saying that the activity is temporarily unavailable for children of 18 years and younger due to the presence of dangerous jellyfish in the waters of Donsol. Check out their (irregularly updated) facebook page for possible updates.

Where can I sleep in Donsol?

Donsol town proper has a number of sleeping options (mostly small scale guesthouses), but it is about a 10 to 15-minute tricycle ride or 30 minute walk away from the boat launching. I recommend to sleep close to the Donsol Butanding Interaction Center out of town, which is where you can sign up for the boat ride and from where the boat departs early in the morning. We stayed at Dancanal Beach Resort, which is practically next door to the Interaction Center and which we found a good place to stay. Its name sounds fancy but it’s really just a collection of basic but clean rooms and huts (your choice of AC or fan) scattered among a pleasant green area and it is very affordable. There is an on-site restaurant where you can have breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Dancalan Beach Resort
Plenty of opportunity to relax at Dancalan Beach Resort after your intense experience
Where can I do the firefly boat tour in Donsol?

The fireflies can be seen on the Ogod river estuary which runs south-east of town. Follow Dawitan road out of town until you arrive at a bridge over the river. Before the crossing there is a building down near the river to the left of the road. Be there around 18:15 (sunset) to sign up, because the boats leave between 18:30 and 18:45. If you want to use a tricycle to go there and back, expect to pay php 300 for a return trip from/to the Butanding Interaction Center and possibly less if you are coming from Donsol town. The tricycle driver will wait for you while you are on the boat. Note: there is another river with a bridge to the west of town (on the road leading to the Butanding Interaction Center) that has a sign that advertises for firefly boat tours, but the boats no longer run from here. You have to go to the location I described above.

Tricycles waiting at the fireflies boat location

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