The sleepy, little known town of Donsol in the Philippines offers one of the best whale shark encounters in the world
In terms of tourism and natural attractions, Philippines ranks up there with the best. The country is nature-rich with multiple islands, blessed with scenic beaches, crystal clear waters as well as a vast scatter of mountainous volcano ranges, which provide some of the best treks around. As of late, the Philippines has added another feather in its cap by offering what Time Magazine described as “the best animal encounter in the world” – swimming with the whale shark.
The southern tip of Luzon in the sleepy city of Sorsogon is where this phenomenon exists and it has injected a much-needed shot in the arm for Philippines’ tourism industry. But interacting with whale sharks is not just what Sorsogon is renowned for, as it also offers multiple natural wonders and adventures that will clearly satisfy even the most ardent eco-traveller. However, most trek this part of the world not to see the vast mountainous terrain populated by active volcanoes or the crystal clear waters, they come here with the sole purpose of diving with the biggest fish in the ocean.
The main attraction in Sorsogon is situated in the idyllic town of Donsol some 60 kilometres from the city. What was once a drowsy fishing village has transformed over the years after the discovery of whale sharks in the surrounding waters of the coast of Donsol. Since 1998, the gazetted whale shark sanctuary has attracted legions of nature lovers the world over who have journeyed solely to Donsol for the opportunity to swim with these gentle giants of the sea.
The experience is relatively cheap too in terms of international standards, with visitors only needing to fork out a nominal 300 Philippine Peso (USD 5.12) for the entry fee to the park and a boat rental of 3500 Philippine Peso (USD 60.50) per banca (outrigger canoe), which comes with spotter, guide and room for five more of your friends. In terms of concentrated numbers of whale sharks in an area, Donsol surpasses most other whale shark destinations or sanctuaries with reportedly hundreds of the species feeding off the plankton-rich waters at the height of the season. It has been said that the whale shark, or the Butanding in native Philippines, is seen all year round in the surrounding waters but in order to hedge your bets to secure a sighting, do make travel arrangements between the months of November to May.
Spotting and swimming alongside these creatures is as easy as slapping on a pair of fins and jumping into the sea, which is exactly what one does throughout the three-hour experience. A spotter perched high above the boat peeled his eyes for the dark silhouette of the whale shark as it surfaces to feed. Once the signal is given, the lead instructs everyone to jump right in and within moments you will find yourself face to face with the Butanding, which are often the size of a bus. Each interaction typically lasts five to ten minutes dependent on how shy the creature is but Donsol is not limited to numbers as it is common to come across at least a dozen of these whale sharks swimming in the area at any one time. Basically you’re guaranteed the experience of a lifetime, several times over.