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
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
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
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
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.
|FINDING THE GENTLE GIANTS|
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.