Published: March 10th 2010March 5th 2010
When we first read about swimming with the whale sharks in Donsol, and that the best time of the year is March, we knew we had to go. Donsol will probably rank as one of the best experiences of the trip.
From Manila we flew to Legaspi, and then got on a bus to Donsol. On the bus we met a friendly American couple, who I'll call Mr. and Mrs. D, and we agreed to go out on the same boat to see the whale sharks the next day. The first thing we did when we got to Donsol was head to the visitors center and pay for a boat the next day. The boat holds a max of 6 people (not including the boat men, spotters and the BIO - I'll get to them later). Since you pay per boat and not per person, we also roped in two french (?) girls that also rode the bus with us to make six. We were only the second boat to register, out of a maximum allowance of 30 boats at any given time.
That evening we went on a firefly watching tour with Mr. and Mrs. D. It sounds pretty lame but it totally blew my socks off. We headed out to Donsol river, got on a boat, headed upstream until we were away from the lights of Donsol, and stopped at our first firefly tree. For some reason that was not effectively communicated by our guide speaking broken english, the fireflies in the area congregate only on specific trees. The lucky trees look like they are completely covered with little moving christmas lights. The fireflies also seem to be trying to blink in unison, which was also not really explained very well. The result almost looked like waves, or pulses, of light crossing the tree in shifting directions. The scene was even more dramatic because the moon had not yet risen, and there are thousands of stars visible. We tried to take pictures and videos, but they all came out black. We had to settle for just staring in awe at the display. After about 1 1/2 hours and 3 trees we headed back to town. Well worth the 300 pesos each.
The next morning we rose excitedly for our whale shark trip. This is why people come to Donsol. Every year hundreds of whale sharks (called Butanding in Tagalog) come to Donsol for the plankton rich waters. Whale sharks are very passive, gentle, and never attack. They get up to 18 meters long, making them the biggest fishes alive. There used to be a huge problem of locals hunting and killing them until they figured out they could make way more money by keeping them alive. It really doesn't cost that much by our standards - the boat ride, a 5 day eco-tourism pass, and snorkeling gear cost us about $20 each. But it seems to have done wonders for the local economy. We talked to one fisherman that said they used to hate the whale sharks for breaking their fishing nets, but now they love them. And so do tourists.
So here's how it works: On every boat there are at least two "spotters", who stand up on a pole in front to look for whale sharks. Also on the boat is the BIO (Butanding Interaction Officer) who leads the pack of snorkelers in to the water and to the shark. Once the spotters spot a shark, the BIO signals the boat man to get close, and on his command we all jump in the water and swim after the shark. Technically you are only supposed to go to the side and rear of the shark, and stay 3 meters away at all times. Also there are only 6 people allowed per shark.
We were on one of the first boats out, since we had registered so early. Right as we were pulling out there had already been a sighting, but there were already two boats waiting in line so we kept going. It took maybe 20 minutes before we saw our first shark but it felt way longer. I tried to kill time by snapping way too many pictures of Mt. Mayon in the distance. Finally the BIO shouted "shark!", crossed his heart (the way Catholics do) and we jumped in the water after him. I turned my camera on and hoped that it was still waterproof (I had been scared to test it out after I took it apart). I don't know how he was able to see the dark shape in the water, but he pointed towards it and told us to swim.
I saw a fuzzy shape in the distance, but as it got closer I soon realized that the shark was swimming directly at me. My heart was beating so fast I thought it would come out of my chest. I started snapping pictures like mad as I swam to the side to avoid it. We followed it for about three minutes - everyone splashing and running in to each other, but not caring - until he dove into the depths. Our BIO later told us that he was just a baby, at 7 meters long, but he seemed pretty big to me.
Over the course of the next 2 1/2 hours, we saw a total of 8 whale sharks. The biggest one was about 30 feet long (still only half of maximum size). I had two more head-on encounters, and several tail encounters. One time one made a quick turn and I thought I was going to get hit by the tail. Most of the encounters lasted around one minute, with a few lasting only seconds, but it was still totally awesome. I took a bunch of pictures and videos, which came out ok considering I was never looking at the screen. Here's two of the videos:
side views: http://www.flickr.com/photos/42585283@N08/4410955584/
top view: http://www.flickr.com/photos/42585283@N08/4410224657/
We only budgeted one day in Donsol, and our flight left Legaspi early the next morning, so after the whale sharks we got back on a bus to Legaspi. In retrospect it would have been awesome to stay two days in Donsol and see the whale sharks a second day, but I guess it will have to wait until a future trip.
It was a nice clear day in Legaspi, so after we found a hotel and dropped off our bags we set out to get some closer pictures of Mt. Mayon, the famous volcano just north of Legaspi. It is still active and erupted as recently as December 2009, but apparently it was no longer an imminent threat (despite the trickle of smoke constantly exiting the top). You can see the volcano from many places in Legaspi but we were told that an especially good place to see it is Lingnan hill. One person told us to take the Loop 2 jeepney to get there, and another told us Loop 1, so we got on the first jeepney we saw, which was Loop 2. It was probably slower than Loop 1 would have been but we made it to the bottom of the hill.
We passed up an offer by some kid with a motorbike to get a ride to the top of the hill for 40 pesos, but we kind of wished we had accepted after hiking up half the way. It is steep. But we made it. The locals were right, it is an awesome place to see Mt. Mayon. The only thing in between Lingnan hill and the volcano are some very picturesque rice paddies. From the top of the hill you can also see the ocean and the town of Legaspi. Here's a little panoramic shot I took at the top:
We flew back to manila the next morning for an 8 hour layover - which included one more trip to the mall of asia to see "Cloudy with a chance of meatballs" in IMAX 3D (really funny btw) - before flying to our last stop of the trip: Boracay. I can't believe it's almost over!!
Here's some of the pictures of whale sharks and volcanoes. You'll have to use your imagination for the fireflies.