Making Contact

Getting close to whale sharks in the Philippines

By: Fred Gebhart

Dive! Dive into the water!” The six of us slid off the edge of the boat into the warm waters of Sorsogon Bay and swam frantically toward the dark shadow gliding in our direction. Seconds later, what looked for all the world like a streamlined motorcoach with wings and a gaping mouth loomed out of the darkness. We had found our first whale shark.

Three hours and 22 sharks later, panting with excitement and exhaustion, we headed back to shore for lunch and a much needed break.

Snorkeling with whale sharks is not an insane adventure, it just sounds crazy. Rhincodon typus, to use its formal name, really is a shark, the largest fish in the world. Adults can grow 60 feet long and weigh nearly 20 tons, hence the “whale” part of the name.

“Dangerous? Whale sharks are so dangerous my father used to toss me off his fishing boat to play with them while he worked,” laughed Fernando Gonzalez, governor of the province of Albay, on the southeastern coast of Luzon Island in the Philippines.

Gonzalez grew up in a fishing town near Donsol.

“We would swim after them, dive down and grab a fin to take a ride. It was like playing on the beach with a giant dog, only this dog can’t bite,” he said.

Whale sharks do have teeth, hundreds of them lining a mouth that gapes open like a giant scoop, but they are vegetarians. Whale sharks feed on plankton, clouds of algae and tiny creatures floating in the sea. The tiny teeth are part of a complex mouth that filters out food and expels everything else. While they can move quickly for short distances, whale sharks typically cruise just a little faster than most people can swim.

The giant, yet docile fish have emerged as one of the must-do, must-see wonders of the marine world. Tour operators from Mexico to Australia and Malaysia have been pitching whale shark trips to scuba divers for years.

The Philippines, with a little prompting from the World Wildlife Federation, took the opposite direction. Instead of focusing on scuba divers, operators like Royal Quest Tours use snorkeling tours to expand the market. Even non-swimmers are welcome, explained Royal Quest operations manager Richard Paraguya.

“Whale sharks don’t like the bubbles that scuba divers make,” he explained. “Using snorkels means people can come close enough to touch them. We don’t allow touching because it can harm the fish, but you get a perfect view even if you are on the surface wearing a life jacket. Whale sharks eat plankton, which is thickest near the surface, so they like to stay barely underwater.”

Local fishermen traditionally ignore whale sharks, which mass in Sorsogon Bay between December and May to feed. It doesn’t pay to fish for something bigger than your boat. But their massive size and placid nature make whale sharks a prime target for the shark-fin-soup market.

The Philippines declared whale sharks off limits to fishing in 1998 and began promoting the giant fish as a tourist attraction.

Swimming with whale sharks, called butanding locally, is easy, if unpredictable. Travelers register at a visitor center on the beach at Donsol and are assigned to a banca, a traditional boat about 40 feet long with a narrow hull and outriggers. Each banca has a crew of two and a butanding information officer, or BIO, who runs the tour.

One of the crewmen climbs a short mast to spot the fish, usually visible as a dark shadow. Once a shark is spotted, the boat maneuvers in front of the swimming fish and the BIO sends passengers into the water, then leads the way to the fish.

Most times, the whale shark slides majestically by, airplane-sized tail waving gently. Occasionally it stops to interact, watching the humans splashing on the surface.

Most of the animal’s body is covered with an irregular grid pattern. Inside each square is a white dot, which makes for a fish-like checkerboard. Clouds of small fish frame the whale shark’s mouth, scooping an occasional mouthful from the concentrated plankton streaming into the giant maw. Flat-headed remoras cling to the underside, hitching a ride and grabbing the occasional scrap.

When the fish decides eating is more interesting than playing, it disappears into the watery gloom with a few gentle tail flicks. We relax on the surface while the boat swings back around, clamber aboard and start looking for the next whale shark.


Donsol is about an hour south of Legazpi City by road. Guests usually fly into Legazpi from Manila, a 45-minute flight, then drive to Donsol. A three-day, two-night package runs $200-$260 per person, depending on activity and hotel choices. For more information, contact Richard Paraguya at Royal Quest Tours.