Donsol – Whale Sharks and Responsible Tourism in the Philippines

Donsol: Whale Sharks and Responsible Tourism in the Philippines

Experience

I drifted through the murky, dark water and rose slowly to the surface as the dive drew to a close. A colossal shadow suddenly loomed large above me. It was the unmistakable shadow of a Whale Shark, and as I reached for my GoPro, all thoughts of the ascent went out the window as I gazed in awe at the behemoth that was circling our small group of divers.

Within moments, the Whale Shark was gone, disappearing into the blue again. A few seconds later, a smaller, younger Whale Shark appeared from the same direction. Gliding gracefully overhead, the young calf had soon followed the parent into the abyss.

This had been my last dive in Donsol, the Philippines, and the last chance for me to see Whale Sharks in a natural setting. The Bay of Donsol, due to the enormous quantities of algae and plankton in the water, attracts large populations of Whale Shark throughout the year. But of course, the bay is big, the water is deep, and there is never any guarantee of seeing these magnificent fish.

After three days of boat rides and diving, on my last day out on the water, the Whale Sharks had made their appearance. The boat captains knew that the ‘Butanding,’ as the world’s largest fish is known to the local Filipinos, would feed out in a submerged crater known as Manta Bowl.

The Manta Bowl is deep, and the dive would take me down to 30 meters. The current is strong, and there is little to do but drift across the bottom of the bowl and hope the Whale Sharks turned up for the show.

After the first two dives of the day, there were no sightings, but on the third and final dive, running low on air and rising to safety stops, the Whale Sharks appeared out of the gloom, ever so briefly.

It had been a fleeting visit, but an encounter with a Whale Shark is always humbling, no matter how quickly they disappear again.

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SEE – Photos & Videos

WSE Travel - Whale Sharks in the Philippines.

Whale Sharks in the Philippines.

WSE Travel - Whale Sharks in the Philippines

Whale Sharks in the Philippines

WSE Travel - Donsol Philippines Whale Shark Tour Boat

Donsol Philippines Whale Shark Tour Boat

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GO – Getting There

Until recently, Donsol was just a small, sleepy fishing village; today, it’s just a small, sleepy fishing village with a few hotels and a Whale Shark Interaction Centre. Donsol is located on the southern end of Luzon, and the easiest way to get here is to fly into the city of Legazpi.

There are regular flights – almost hourly – to Manila and Cebu, from where you can connect internationally or to anywhere else in the Philippines. From the airport in Legazpi, a short tricycle ride will bring you to the large minibus terminal – opposite the SM City Mall – where you can catch a transfer direct to Donsol. The buses leave when they are full and generally take around 60-90 minutes.

The minibusses drop passengers in the center of Donsol, but most of the accommodation, the dive shops, and the Whale Shark Interaction Centre are all located along the coast, around five kilometers away. You can easily grab a tricycle to your final destination though.

WSE Travel - Donsol - Whale Sharks and Responsible Tourism in the Philippines - Map

Donsol – Whale Sharks and Responsible Tourism in the Philippines – Map

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Do – Activities & Attractions

Whale Shark Interactions

The main reason to visit Donsol is for the Whale Sharks. The rich waters of the bay attract these beautiful creatures for certain periods of the year, and Donsol has created a tourism initiative that – unlike the infamous operations at Oslob, in Cebu – keeps the Whale Sharks wild.

At the Whale Shark Interaction Centre, you sign up for a boat trip across the bay. This three-hour tour will allow you to swim with the Whale Sharks if they are spotted, but there are no guarantees you’ll see them. The Whale Shark tours are led by trained Whale Shark Interaction Officers, and there are stringent rules you’ll be required to follow that help keep things here sustainable.

Diving

Although diving is not allowed in much of the bay, just outside of Donsol Bay, in the strait between Luzon and Ticao Island, there are some spectacular dive sites. Manta Bowl is the best, where Whale Sharks are often found feeding, but also where you are likely to spot Sea Snakes and Manta Rays.

There are some great dive sites along the coast of Ticao Island too, which are easily reachable by boat from Donsol.

Firefly Tours

When the sun sets over Donsol, the river comes alive with the noise and light of fireflies as they fill the trees and the mangroves every evening. The unusual phenomenon can be experienced by taking a small boat cruise along the river in the darkness, led by a local guide who will explain precisely what brings the fireflies here.

Waterfalls and Beaches

In the surrounding forest are some lovely waterfalls, but to find them, you will need a tricycle driver to show the whereabouts. You can take time off from Whale Shark watching to explore the local area, discover waterfalls, or simply relax on the beaches found along the coast.

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Stay – Accommodation

Almost all the hotels are found along the coastal road leading out from the center of Donsol. It’s a nice, quiet area, but to get to town, you’ll need to jump on a tricycle. Most of the hotels have restaurants and bars though and are reasonably self-contained.

Budget options are limited, but most of the ‘resorts’ aren’t too expensive. Accommodation can be basic; Donsol is still developing its infrastructure, and you can’t expect to have hot water all the time or fast wifi. Most hotels overlook the beach and the bay though and are great places to relax.

During high season and public holidays, accommodation can get booked out in Donsol, as the available options can be far less than the demand.

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Eat – Restaurants

Eating options can be limited in Donsol. In the town itself, you have lots of local market stalls and local eateries serving up cheap Filipino dishes. The hotels mostly serve food and drinks, but the menus, while they may look extensive from the outset, are fairly limited, as most of the items may not be available! You can expect lots of rice, Filipino meats, and just a few vegetables.

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Time – Seasonality & Schedules

Timing can be everything when it comes to spotting Whale Sharks in Donsol. The official season runs from November through to May; however, at the start and end of the season, few Whale Sharks can be spotted in the bay. February through to April, which is the Filipino summer, is when the highest numbers are recorded.

Storms can throw off your chance of seeing these creatures, as they retreat from the bay. So if there has been heavy rain before your trip, you may want to reconsider. Ultimately though, a bit of luck is always involved; you can increase your chances of spotting a Whale Shark by spending more days in Donsol itself.

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Safety – Possible risks

Donsol is a safe destination to visit. The local economy now relies on tourism, so you can rest assured that you will be looked after.

Of course, the activities you’ll be doing here may present dangers in themselves, so if you are diving, make sure you are comfortable with the company and with the dive sites you are visiting, and that they suit your level of experience.

Be careful of the strong sun when you are out on the boats, and take plenty of water to stay hydrated.

Please Note: Travel inherently comes with an element of risk (just like crossing the road does). You are putting yourself in elements that are unfamiliar and foreign to your usual lifestyle and with that, become more susceptible to fall victim those who try to play off those unfamiliar to their local scams. There are also potential dangers in the environments to which you may not be accustomed to.

Please take extra care in travelling, ensure that you have adequate medical insurance (accidents seem to happen when you least expect them), and have let a trusted colleague, family member or friend know your whereabouts and activities.

Where Sidewalks End travel advises you to travel at your own risk, and to be extra aware of your surroundings (without letting it spoiling your time).

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Pay – How much does it cost?

Donsol is an incredibly inexpensive place to experience Whale Sharks in their natural habitat, particularly in comparison to other parts of the world.

Transport from Legazpi City to Donsol costs just 98 Pesos (2 USD), tricycles in Donsol cost anywhere from 20 to 40 PHP for a trip around town.

The Whale Shark tours organized by the Interaction Centre cost 3500 PHP per boat, but this is split between a maximum of six tourists. Each tourist also pays an additional 300 PHP conservation fee.

Diving is very cheap here; three dives, including lunch, water, and all your equipment will cost around 100 USD in total.

Accommodation varies in price, but you can find basic lodgings for around 10 USD per night, and nicer private rooms with a swimming pool for 30 USD.

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Responsible Travel – Best Practices

Donsol is all about responsible tourism; it’s a destination that has thrown everything into sustainable travel, rather than the Oslob approach of feeding the wild animals to bring them to the bay. There are strict rules that must be enforced. If you ignore these rules, your boat captain has the power to turn the boat back to land.

You can’t touch the whale sharks, time in the water is limited, and you must keep a certain distance at all times. Boat numbers are limited, as are the number of tourists per boat. Scuba Diving is not allowed in the main bay, but it is allowed out in the strait. Equally, if you see your boat captain not following the rules, tourists are asked to report them to the Interaction Centre.

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Reality Check – Be Aware

Donsol, despite its focus on sustainable tourism, is still an emerging tourist destination. The rules of Whale Shark Interaction and knowledge of the fish themselves is an ever-developing process as the town learns from mistakes. Accidents do sometimes happen, and there can be collisions with the Whale Sharks, but for the most part, the rules enforced here keep incidents to a minimum. You are not guaranteed to see whale sharks, but this is the best place in the Philippines to do it as ethically as is possible.

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JOIN US! WSE Travel Packages

This sounds like quite the adventure, right? We thought so too! Though we realize it can be pretty intimidating to get out there into the world on your own, especially when travelling to some of these off the beaten path locations. We love it when our readers give it a shot and try it for themselves! In fact, please leave us feedback if you do!! If trying something ‘this’ adventurous on your own is just a bit outside of your comfort zone, WSE Travel is here to help!

Follow this link for our ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ Tours – packages that are highly personalized and tailored at your request.

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Have you ever been to a city that had a really unique historical or cultural feature? Where was it and what made it so unique?

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