Swimming with whale sharks in The Philippines
Putting your mask beneath the surface and coming face to face with the biggest fish in the ocean is a surreal, electric experience. The sheer size of whale sharks should be daunting but these majestic creatures quickly put you at ease as they slowly, elegantly glide through the water beneath you.
7107 islands make up The Philippines but it was the crystal clear azure waters and exploring what lies beneath that drew me there. 3 years ago I did a road trip up the coast of Western Australia in the hope of swimming with whale sharks in Ningaloo Reef but a cyclone scuppered my plans, this time however in the Philippines the sun was shining and my dreams of swimming with whale sharks came true!
Many tourists flock to Oslob in Cebu to swim with whale sharks but after a little research I learnt that their practices include feeding the fish which in turn has changed their migratory patterns. Donsol on the other hand has developed a community-based whale shark ecotourism programme with assistance from the WWF and local government and its waters are a protected sanctuary for whale sharks so for this reason I opted to start my Philippines trip in this Southern part of Bicol.
On arrival in Donsol I headed straight to the Tourist Centre where you can book to join a boat for the whale shark Interaction, the sightings on the notice board showed that the mornings had more sighting so I opted to go the following morning at 7am. The boats also depart from the Tourist Centre so staying at the Vitton Beach Resort, just a 5 minute stroll away made it nice and simple. The next morning I arrived at the Tourist Centre a little past 7 to find a crowd of people waiting to go, around 6 boats of 6 people each with a BIO (Butanding Interaction Officer) went out that morning and I was on the last boat out. As we headed out onto the ocean our BIO gave us some simple rules and told us a few facts about the whale sharks. Whale sharks can live up to a century and the longest recorded has been 18 metres, this for me was pretty mind-boggling, the largest creature I’d seen in the ocean was a mere 3 metre shark and that had seemed pretty big at the time!
After about 10 minutes the spotters from another boat had found a whale shark and all the boats started heading towards it. The anticipation turned to excitement as we all started to kit ourselves out, stripping off our shirts and grabbing our snorkels and fins. We sat on the edge of the boat and once the engine was off we dominoed into the water and swam to where the other snorkellers were congregated. At first it was difficult to see anything with the thrashing of fins of all the people but soon enough I started to see the spots of my first whale shark. The sheer size of it was incredible and it took me a few seconds to find the outline of this great creature. It appeared slow moving with just a very slow gentle wave of its caudal fin and yet it was moving at some speed and my heart was pumping from both excitement and exertion, keeping up with it.
Swimming along with such a huge fish just metres beneath us should have been a little daunting but it was just to gentle and majestic and it’s spots were mesmerizing. After a minute or so it started to grow smaller and its spots fainter as it descended into the ocean and then it was gone. Everyone suddenly stopped swimming and popped their heads up and it was smiles and excited chatter all round – we’d just swum with the biggest fish in the ocean. It was an incredible feeling, a dream fulfilled but it wasn’t to stop there, we were just 20 minutes in and it was straight back on the boat and off in search of more. For the next hour we were in and out of the water and met with a total of 5 whale sharks between 6 and 10 metres long. Each sighting was exciting as the first and allowed you to really study the fish and get to see them from different angles. At on sighting out boat joined the party a little late so pulled up in the direction of where we expected it to swim by the time we got in, the captain got it spot on and as I dipped my head into the water I came face to face with a whale shark, it’s huge mouth slightly open as if smiling. I moved to get out of its way and swam along with him for a few minutes before he dove down.
It was a great experience although slightly comedic to watch as 30 odd people scramble around in the water, arms, fins and selfie sticks flying everywhere! I was more than content with our sightings that day but then fortune struck again the following day while on a diving trip to the Manta Bowl. We’d been told that we might see whale sharks and were lucky enough between our 2nd and 3rd dives to swim with a whale shark for over 10 minutes. With just 2 boats in the area it was a much more relaxed experience and this particular shark seemed very happy to have us swim alongside it. Even the best words can’t describe the feeling so I’ll just leave you with this video!
Footage captured by William Woo, my buddy Simon and me!