Whale sharks are curious creatures. They’re sharks as big as whales but they don’t behave like their kind. Two words describe whale sharks best: gentle giants.
These behemoths feed through a filter in their mouths, much like a baleen whale. Whale sharks only eat small fishes, fish eggs and planktons much to the relief of the smaller creatures in the tropical seas they inhabit. Divers who have had the pleasure of swimming with these giants get out of the water unscathed and with only great stories to tell.
In the Philippines, whale sharks have become a major attraction that draws in travelers from all walks of life. The waters of Donsol, Sorsogon and Oslob, Cebu have become a mecca for travelers looking for the thrill of seeing a real-life giant and if preferred, swimming with them.
Donsol is a small town tucked away in the southern part of Luzon. It is part of the province of Sorsogon in the Bicol Region. The town has become largely popular in the past couple of decades because of the giant residents in its bordering waters. In 2004, Time Magazine featured swimming with whale sharks in Donsol as the Best Animal Encounter in Asia.
Whale sharks are locally called “butanding”. Donsol has enjoyed the presence of these marine giants for more than a hundred years but have only recently learned that they are docile. Interactions with the butanding in Donsol started in December of 1997 and by the first quarter of the following year, the sleepy fishing town has transformed into a world-class destination for travelers. Donsol is named the Whale Shark Capital of the World.
Sightings of butanding in Donsol start in November and ends in June, peaking between February and May. Tours involve watching and snorkeling (no scuba diving); tourists are advised to bring their own gear as the availability might be limited during peak season.
How to get there: There are regular flights from Manila to Legaspi City. From there, you can have your hotel pick you up to take you to Dancalan, a smaller town close to Donsol where accommodations and tour companies are based. You may also take a tricycle from the Legaspi Airport to the bus station where public vans are waiting to take passengers to its counterpart in Donsol. From there, it’s just another tricycle ride to Dancalan. If you prefer to travel by land, there are buses that ply the route from Manila directly to Donsol. Once you’re there, tricycles can take you almost anywhere you want.
Other things to do: Donsol is pretty remote so there’s nothing much to do aside from enjoying nature to its fullest. Aside from interacting with the gentle butanding, visitors can take a firefly river tour where they can see entire trees illuminated by these nighttime critters. Scuba diving is also a popular past time and there are a good number of dive shops in the area. If you’d like to see more of Bicolandia, you can tour Legaspi and see the famous Mayon Volcano before leaving for Manila. Also, the spicy cuisine of the region is something not to be missed.
Oslob is yet another small town visited by tourists for whale shark watching. It is located at the southeastern tip of the island of Cebu in the Visayas. The gentle giants in the waters of Oslob were “discovered” in September 2011 and since then the town has become a popular destination for both local and foreign travelers. The whale sharks are usually sighted off the coast of Barangay Tan-awan, about 10 kilometers from the Oslob town center.
Locals call the whale sharks “tuki” and travelers derive great pleasure in watching fishermen feed them. A number of concerned groups have advocated stopping such activity as it may harm the whale sharks but tours of the same nature are still operating. It would be good to note that safety precautions are practiced including the prohibition of using motorboats near the creatures. Flash photography is also not allowed. Swimming with the tuki and scuba diving are also popular forms of interaction with these giants.
Tour operators in Oslob claim that sightings of whale sharks are 100% guaranteed anytime of the year. While this may hold true, travelers are still advised to come during the summer months.
How to get there: There are regular flights to Cebu from almost anywhere in the Philippines. If you have not arranged private transportation to Oslob, you can take a van or bus from the South Bus Terminal in Cebu City. The trip takes about three hours and you can be dropped off at the Whale Shark Watching briefing area in Brgy. Tan-awan.
Other things to do: Oslob may be a small town but it does not run short of attractions to keep you occupied when you’re done with the tuki. There’s the famous Sumilon Island where visitors enjoy crystal clear waters and immaculate white sand. The island is home to the Bluewater Sumilon Island Resort. A heritage tour of Oslob may also be a great experience; it involves visiting the beautiful Immaculate Concepcion Church which dates back to the 1800s and the cuartel located just in front of it. The unfinished structure is made of coral and close to it is the Baluarte (watchtower).