During the early 90’s hunting whale sharks was the main source of income for the small fisherman town of Donsol. One whale shark could go for S25,000 in the China and Taiwan fish markets, selling not only the meat, but fins. In 1998 it became illegal to hunt whale sharks causing many to be out of a job and the already small economy to crash in Donsol. It was around this time that swimming with whale sharks started to increase in popularity among tourists. Now, the once fishermen, who would hunt down these sea creatures are now tour guides and boat captains taking tourists out to swim with them! It is estimated that the whale shark tourism industry is estimated to be around $1 million. It’s a win win for both community and whale shark… or is it?
Places To Swim With Whale Sharks
There are two popular location in the Philippines where you can swim with whale sharks. The more known location is Oslob where you will almost definitely see and swim with a whale shark, but at what cost? There aren’t many regulations that are upheld in Oslob making it a free for all. Chum is thrown into the water to attract the whale sharks and then numerous people jump in at once all fighting for their chance to see this gentle giant.
You will see people swimming up and touching them and notice scrapes on the whale sharks from getting hit by the boats that crowd the area. I personally did not swim with them in Oslob, but was told this second hand by a few fellow tourists that I met in Donsol. They even told me the water smelled a little from the chum that was thrown into the water. Although they saw a whale shark, it was not the experience any of them had imagined.
Donsol is not as well known, but has the leading population of whale sharks. The whale shark viewing program is led by the World Wildlife Foundation and has stricter rules. Since the water is rich in plankton, there is no need to feed the whale sharks. They flock to this area naturally to eat. Each boat has a maximum of 6 tourist allowed. Additionally you have your guide, boat captain, spotter, and an extra person helping you out of the water.
Only one boat is allowed to follow a whale shark at a time, meaning only 6 people can swim in that area. Since chum isn’t spilled into one place, the whale sharks are continuously swimming to catch the plankton. This means you will have to swim to keep up with them until they disappear deeper into the water. There are pros and cons to visiting Donsol for whale shark viewing. The biggest con is there is no guarantee that you will see a whale shark. Since regulations say only so many boats can be in one area, you might get sent out to an area that doesn’t have any. The boat I was on saw 7 whale sharks (we jumped in 7 times and swam with them for about a minute or two each time), but the two other boats that left around the same time didn’t see any! It’s definitely a choice you have to make, but either way, I’m glad I went eco-friendly.
Getting To Donsol And Booking Whale Shark Tours
It’s a long trip, that’s for sure. We were coming from San Francisco, CA, USA. The flight to Manila, Philippines alone was around 21 hours with layovers. So we decided to stay in Manila for the night and fly out the next day. The closest airport to Donsol is in Legazpi, which is a 40 minute flight. From there you will have to grab a taxi to Donsol (don’t worry there will be a bunch of drivers waiting for you outside). The ride costs 1500 php for the whole taxi and was around 1.5-2hr drive (taxis on the way back to the airport are 1800php). Once you get to Donsol, there is one place that sets up the whale shark tours that is located across from the two scuba diving shops. You go in, sign up, pay 2000 php per person and the next day they set you up in groups of 6 per boat. It’s a super easy process and something you can do when you get there.
The Donsol Whale Shark Experience
We arrived back at the place we registered the previous day and were introduced to our group. There is a mandatory video to watch made by the WWF on the rules and regulations. From there we were given snorkeling gear, fins, and introduced to our guide. He was a man of few words, but got the job done for us. We had to walk out to our boat, the water came up to my thighs (I’m 5’3″), and there were a couple men that helped us into the boat.
The spotter stood high on a scaffold and scanned the water looking for an outline of a whale shark. When one was spotted we geared up and sat lined up on the edge of the boat. Once our guide jumped in we were to jump in one by one from the moving boat, swim back to the surface and see which direction our guide was going in. A few times he just yelled at us to look down and all of a sudden a giant whale shark swam right under us! It was an incredible experience. Our guide was nice enough to take my go pro and free dive under water to get a different view. After the whale shark swam deeper we would go back to the boat and search for another one. The entire tour lasted around 3 hours, although, we felt like it lasted all day. So be sure to bring snacks!
Best Time To Go and Where To Stay
Because of the plankton rich water, whale sharks can be spotted in Donsol year round. However, peak season to see them is February-May. There are a few hotels in the area that are cheap and really cheap. My friend and I decided to splurge and stay at the Elysia Beach Resort which was around $49/night. It was a nice hotel with an outdoor restaurant, pool, and minimal wifi that worked sometimes in the restaurant. There were comfortable cabanas and hammocks to use as well. It was pretty simple. We stayed four nights and I scheduled our flight to leave in the afternoon on our last day.
Other Activities in Donsol
We arrived in the evening and decided to get all of our activities booked and lay out on one of the beach hammocks. While snorkeling with Whale Sharks is the main attraction in Donsol, it’s not the only thing to do. On our second say we went snorkeling with whale sharks, our third day I went Scuba Diving while my friend ventured into town, laid on the beach, and got a massage.
I have my open water PADI certification, but it’d been almost a year since I had gone diving. There are a couple of dive shops and while the one I went with was good, I wouldn’t put it above the other. They are right next to each other so I suggest going and talking to both and then decide. Because it had been some time since I had dived, I decided to hire a private dive master. There are two dive sites and you complete three dives total.
First we went to San Miguel Island and saw beautiful coral and fish. This was the intro to check our buoyancy. There wasn’t much of a current at this location. Next we headed to Manta Bowl, which is considered more of an advanced diver’s location due to the high current. Luckily I had my private dive master and felt safe the whole time. We swam past Sting rays and Eagle rays, and finally came across a giant Manta ray! Because of the high current, we each had hooks with a rope tied to it and would find any kind of rock or hard ground to hook onto in order to stay in one place. I always love scuba diving, it’s like there is a whole other world underwater that not many people have had the privilege of seeing.
Our fourth day there we hired a guy with a tricycle to take us out to the Underground River. It was about a 45 minute ride until we hit a big construction site that the tricycle wouldn’t have been able to make up the hill. we hopped out and walked up the muddy hill and our guide had two guys with motorbikes hitch us rides the rest of the way (it wasn’t far from there). We checked in and was introduced to our 15 year old guide who walked us down the path to where local kids were jumping off a cliff. We decided to pass since I had already done cliff jumping in Greece and had gotten the worst wedgie of my life, but it was fun to watch.
We continued down to a man on a bamboo raft. This is where I suggest you don’t bring any valuables and bring a WATERPROOF bag. Luckily I had a plastic zip lock bag and put our wallets and phones in there to bring with us. Everything else we had to leave at the entrance where no one watches your things.
We took the raft through a dark cave and on the other side was a beautiful clear water river with small waterfalls all around. The best part was, we were the only one’s there that day! Our guide helped us rock hop over the running water and we watched this crazy kid that we were entrusting with our lives do backflips off the high rocks! He was great though. The water felt so refreshing on my newly sunburned body.
On our way back to the hotel we had one more stop to make. Our guide that had brought us to the Underground River pulled over about half way back and we went for another unseen hike up a steep hill past some cow poop. It was worth it! Again we found ourselves the only ones at the top of this hill looking over what is called the Green Hills. It was so quiet and relaxing. All you could hear was the wind and it seemed like the hills went on for miles. Definitely a spot to stop and check out.
On our fifth day, we had talked with our taxi driver who dropped us off about coming to pick us up. Our flight didn’t leave until later in the afternoon, so we had him take us to some sightseeing spots in Legazpi. Located in Legazpi is the Mayon Volcano, which is the most active volcano in the Philippines. It last erupted in January 2018 and is still active. We had talked about doing an ATV tour to the volcano, but the one we wanted to do was going to be 3 hrs long and we also didn’t want to be sweaty and covered in dirt for our long journey to El Nido. So instead Edgar showed us:
The Legazpi Sign
Sumlang Lake— You can kayak, take a raft ride, check out some craft shops.
Daraga Church, which is over 700 years old and mass is still held there.
Ligñon Hill Nature Park not only gives you a great view of the Mayon Volcano, but also a view of Legapzi city on the other side. There are also small shops here too.
Note that some of these locations had a small entrance fee of 50cents – $1.
Overall I hope to encourage you to make good decisions when you travel. To do your research before participating in something that could be harming another living creature. It is all of our responsibilities to ensure these places and the animals we hope to see still exist in years to come. It may not always work out in your favor, but you can at least feel good knowing you did your part in making the right eco-friendly decision.