It emerges from the underwater haze like a gigantic submarine. It’s truly massive, well over 8 metres in length and appears unconcerned by our somewhat clumsy attempts to get out of its way. This is the whale shark, or Butanding, as it’s know in the local Bicolani dialect in the Philippines.
Every year, between November and May, scores of Butanding migrate to the bay off Donsol in Bicol Province. They come to feast on the plankton which is their staple diet. For me, this is a 60th birthday present. I decided to forgo the slap up party and the inevitable wine hangover that would follow. Instead my wife, son and I decide to fly from Manila to Le Gaspi, home of the still smoking Mayon volcano and then drive a further hour to Donsol. Here, they said, we were virtually guaranteed to see whale sharks. They were right! After four hours in the bay spread over two days, we actually saw nine. To be exact, my son Liam saw nine, I saw five and my wife Cecile saw two. This in itself was no mean feat as she can’t swim and relied on a guide to pull her into position on a floatie!
But everything I had imagined about swimming with these magnificent gentle giants of the sea was turned on its head. Before we left for the Philippines I envisaged dropping gracefully over the side of the boat and seeing the whale shark gliding far below. The reality was much, much different. For half an hour we methodically motored up and down the bay in an 18 foot bunca boat. A sun and wind ravaged Filipino skipper was at the helm, while two crewmen and a guide hung off the masts, their eyes scanning the gentle swell. We remain on alert, snorkels at the ready.
“There!” yells the guide and the boat turns quickly to where he’s pointing. These guys have done this before! Expertly the skipper positions the boat so that the shark will glide past the bow. My son Liam and I jump in the water and have to swim fast to keep up with the guide. Suddenly he points below and we look down. For two seconds we can see nothing. The water is incredibly hazy. But then all of sudden, just two feet below, the spotted mass of the whale shark takes up our entire field of vision. You can see the small pilot fish gliding beside its gills as it cruises into the haze beyond. Our guide motions us to swim and keep up with it. But the whale shark is moving much more swiftly than we thought. After about three minutes it sinks majestically into the depths. It doesn’t dive, just drops as though in slow motion. Liam had managed to swim alongside the shark for over two minutes but years of smoking had taken their toll on the old man (me) and I pulled up puffing like an old bulldog after a romp in the dog park. This swimming with the whale sharks was an enormous thrill, but it was also seriously hard work!
After each encounter you then have to climb back into the boat. This also requires a degree of fitness that these days I find is fading fast. I seriously consider giving up smoking and getting a professional trainer. So much for slipping gracefully over the side and gazing into the depths below!
The Donsol area is picture perfect. Palm trees line the beach and there are a number of resorts to choose from, ranging from very basic local style to three star. Where we stayed, Vitton Beach Resort, could best described as 2 star and was very clean and comfortable. It was also the most convenient to the boats departure point. Probably the most “luxurious” resort is Elysia. It’s a ten minute walk from the departure point, but it is the only resort with a swimming pool.
The food at the resorts is not what you’d call adventurous. Filipino food is by far the most bland of all the Asian cuisines and the resort food on offer is just that. If you’ve never tried it before then you might enjoy the Adobo dishes (soy sauce and vinegar) or the Sinigang. (Noodles). The only western food they had was hamburger which thankfully kept my son vaguely content for the three days.
Apart from the whale sharks there is not a lot to do in the immediate area unless you’re into long walks, which thankfully I am. I explored the local villages every afternoon and made friends with a few of the local fishermen and Sari Sari stall owners. The Philippines of course is the only Asian country where you can always find someone who speaks English. The National language is Tagalog and there are over one hundred local dialects. But English is compulsory at school.
There was one night time trip that came thoroughly recommended and we decided to give it a try. Cruising the river at night is not what you’d expect to be in any way educational or exciting. Probably more dangerous than anything else! But at Donsol they have colonies of fireflies that have to be seen to be believed. Hundreds of thousands of them cluster round different trees and bushes, illuminating parts of the river in a dancing, dazzling red glow. My son, (he is after all a teenager), thought the firefly trip would be -quote unquote- “boring!” But even he was impressed!
Back in Le Gaspi it’s possible to make the trek to the foot of the Mayon volcano which, according to volcanologists, has the most perfect cone of any volcano in the world. Unfortunately the volcano was off limits when we were there due to recent eruptions. In fact it you could see it still smoking in the distance.
As MacArthur once uttered when leaving the Philippines, “we shall return”.
What did you do for your 60th birthday?
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