The Tarsiers were cute. The Thresher Shark was cool. But they were just a warm-up for the big one: swimming with whale sharks (or Butanding as they’re known locally).
I missed them by a few weeks while I was in Utila – so there was no way I was going to make the same mistake in the Philippines. For Donsol is possibly the best place in the world to see the world’s largest fish, and it’s become a magnet for travellers who want to try their luck. It all turned out to be one of the craziest experiences I’ve had so far – but easily one of the best too.
After another typical Philippine journey (boat – bus – taxi – plane – tricycle – jeepney – tricycle) it was straight to bed an up early to get a place on a boat. Luckily enough I ran straight into Simon (who I’d had met in Manila) and four of his friends who were looking for one more person to make a boatfull and we were soon on our way.
Now despite the fact that Whale Sharks are pretty huge by fish standards (they can grow to over 10m long) they are still pretty small compared to the size of the sea – which is where the spotter comes in. The six of us loaded onto a pretty small bangca (outrigger boat), with a local spotter standing perched right up on top clinging on to the mast, and his task is to scan the sea for the telltale dark shadow just below the surface.
It’s a pretty difficult task, and we spent the first couple of hours cruising around in circles with no luck, and our initial excitement soon gave way to a worry that we’d be one of the 5-10% of boats that fail to see any during peak season. So we’d just settled down to a snack (peanut butter sandwiches) when the boat suddenly slowed down and our “Butanding Interaction Officer” suddenly cries go go go! and the madness begins.
The boat is pretty damn narrow, and of course our snorkels, masks and fins were scattered all over the place so we had chaos as we all frantically climbed over each other, kitted out and jumped into the water after our guide.
Now the boats aren’t allowed to get too close to the sharks, so you have to swim pretty quickly if you want to get there in time before the shark dives. That sounds easy enough – but it turns out two other boats had arrived at the same time, so the water was a churning mash of bodies and fins all ploughing through the water at high speed, the confusion being compounded by the fact that everyone is looking down (to try and see the shark) rather than ahead (to see where you’re going and who’s in front of you). On that first attempt the chaos was overwhelming, I felt like I swam fast enough to qualify for the olympics (amazing what adrenaline can do) and all I ended up with was being battered in the head by fins. For the shark dived before we got there.
After all that excitement the disappointment was crushing…so we swam back to the boat, climbed in, and got back to the waiting game. This time the waiting wasn’t quite so long, and despite being a bit more prepared for what was happening, it was all still just as chaotic – with one crucial difference. As I manically paddled away I suddenly saw movement just below – and it was enormous. After all that waiting nothing could prepare me for the moment I realised I was swimming just two metres above a Whale Shark, gently gliding its way through the sea. It was a bit of a blur of spots, a huge dorsal fin…and then it was gone, suddenly diving back down below our range of visibility.
It may have just been a brief glimpse, but it was incredible, and as I all surfaced and looked around, I was surrounded by people grinning like idiots and cheering and laughing. It’s impossible to describe if you haven’t done it, but the combination of hours of hanging around waiting, one minute of frantic, adrenaline-raising swimming, and then just thirty seconds of seeing what you set out to see turns out to be the perfect recipe for inducing euphoria.
The atmosphere on the boat afterwards was electric, and it still hadn’t worn off before it was time to go again – and yet again we were succesful. The second encounter was very similar to the first one, and had exactly the same results, and by the time we tried again for a third time, failed, and then were told by the captain it was time to go back in, none of us cared – because even those brief glimpses had been incredible.
But all credit to the spotters – we were already an hour over our allotted time and still they kept on looking. And boy am I glad they did – for soon the cry went out again and we had the best encounter yet. This one was huge – about 10 metres long – and really close to the surface. So close in fact that at one point I practically jumped out of the water to get out of the way as its tail nearly hit me as it turned. We got to swim with this one for longer too, and as if that wasn’t exciting enough, we had literally just started climbing back in the boat when we were back in the water again for one final encounter, this one just as good as the previous one – and for me especially, as it swam right towards me, meaning its entire length from head to tail passed right beneath me.
Words cannot describe quite how awesome the experience was. The wonderful feeling kept going all day, and even now as I type a twinge of that incredible natural high is hitting me again.
What a way to end my time in the Philippines. The usual round-up posts will follow next – and then on to Singapore.