26 April 2009

Swimming with the Whale Sharks in Donsol, Philippines (part 1)

Wow, Wow and more Wow. This was how I felt after spending 5 awesome days in Donsol swimming with Whale Sharks and diving in Manta Bowl. The trip definitely ranks as one of the most amazing experiences of my life. It is on a par with the trip we took to Sabah, Borneo earlier this year.

The trip started inauspiciously enough when our flight to Manila was delayed by over an hour. This meant that we were in danger of missing our connection from Manila to Legaspi and our trusty tour manager had discovered that all other flights out of Manila were fully booked that day, but fortunately due to a computer malfunction they held the flight to Legaspi for an hour and a half and we got there eventually. (This was not the end of my transit problems. On the trip back the flight to Manila was delayed by nearly 3 hours which resulted in my having to make a mad dash to another terminal (at rush hour) and making my flight to Singapore by the skin of my teeth. Had I missed that connection, I was not going to be able to get home to change my suitcases before flying to Cape Town.)

With transport and other admin headaches out of the way, we made our way to the Whale Shark or Butanding (the local name) visitor centre where we were introduced to our guide - Alan - and watched an introductory video on these gentle giants (they are plankton feeders, so not at all dangerous to humans despite being members of the shark family). The project in Donsol is run by the World Wildlife Fund to create an eco-tourism alternative for the local community following the ban on fishing for whale sharks (they are not endangered, but they are classified as vulnerable as they are hunted for meat and their fins). Finally we climbed onto the boats and set off into the bay.

Very shortly after we arrived the first Whale Shark was spotted (a dark shadow swimming beneath the surface) and we followed our guide into the water, and then it was upon us - a silent behemoth swimming towards us and I scrambled to get out the way. Once it had passed I turned and swam along side marvelling at its size and grace. We stayed swimming with the whale shark for about 3/4 mins and when it dived too deep for us to continue following it (we were swimming on the surface with fins - flippers - and snorkels) we stopped and waited for the boat to come and pick us up. The whole experience was repeated the next time a whale shark was spotted. After about an hour we had lost count of the number of whale sharks we'd seen, but there were at least 10.

On the 4th day we returned to the bay to swim with the Whale Sharks (we'd been diving in the intervening days - more of that in part II). We swam with 2 sharks very shortly after arriving in the bay and then nothing... The boat went around and around looking for the tell-tale shadows, but the small waves and cloudy skies made it difficult to spot them. Then there was one which we eagerly jumped in to join. While we were waiting to get into the boat another was spotted swimming straight for us, so we just started swimming after that one, and another and another. Then there was one... it was about 1.5 metres below the surface and didn't seem to take the slightest bit of notice of us when we joined it. It was moving fast enough that I couldn't keep up with kicking alone and I needed to use my arms at times, but it stayed near the surface. We could swim up ahead and see its open mouth filtering the plankton, we held back and swam at the tail and watched it propel its body through the water. At one point the top of its head broke the surface of the water and then it descended back to about 1.5 metres below. Eventually someone piped up "why won't it go down" as swimming with it was becoming tiring. It listened and disappeared into the murky depths below. Back on the boat we looked at the time of the video's that were taken and we had swum with the whale shark for 15 minutes. It was awe-inspiring. Even at the start of the day I didn't believe that the experience could get any better - but it did! Once again we lost count of the number of whale sharks we swam with - but that was immaterial in comparison to the sheer awesomeness of the experience...
News just in: This post was included in the May 09 "Inspiring Travel" blogcarnival kindly hosted by Andy Hayes

Related Posts:
Diving with Manta's - Donsol, Philippines Part II


Daphne said...

hey Kim,

Lovely post and great video and photos. Glad to have found out about your trip! Have a good time back in Cape Town.

Kim said...

Thanks Daphne. It was an amazing trip - so good in fact that I've had to split the write-up over 2 parts. Watch for next weeks installment.

jotan23 said...

nice video!!! :)
it was truly amazing!!
we wanted to come back again!