One of the more elusive and incredible creatures in the ocean, the whale shark, is surprisingly tough to find despite it being the largest fish at 12+ meters long (40 feet). We tried to see them in hot spots both in Mozambique and Thailand without luck, so when we heard they were in Donsol, Philippines, we jumped at the chance to finally spot one. We chose Donsol not because it was our best chance to see a whale shark, Oslob on Cebu Island would have been more convenient for us and a virtual guaranteed sighting, but Donsol is a more ethically run location. The whale shark encounters in Oslob are very controlled due to the boatmen feeding the whale sharks, which has significantly altered the giant fish’s behaviors. It’s common for whale sharks around Cebu to bump boats intentionally now, trying to get the boatmen to feed them. That behavior has led to numerous large cuts along many of these whale sharks, sometimes slashing through eyes and fins, and has altered their migration patterns.
Donsol is a tourist attraction, having transformed from a quiet fishing village to a tourism hub catering to hundreds of visitors per day during high season, but a tourist attraction that does less harm than the alternatives nearby. The whale sharks aren’t fed, there is no guarantee of a sighting, no nets are used (rumor is they used to cast large nets to keep the whale sharks from leaving near Oslob), and boats are limited to six visitors each. There are as many as 30 boats out on the water at a time, so you will be in the middle of a mass tourism frenzy, but you’ll be doing very little harm to the whale sharks in the process. Note that you cannot dive with the whale sharks in the bay at Donsol, but you can dive nearby off Ticao or a few other spots. The whale sharks swim near the surface at Donsol so diving wouldn’t make as much sense here, plus these things swim really fast, so you would likely struggle to keep up.
Getting to Donsol
There are multiple ways to get to Donsol depending on where you’re coming from – by boat, plane, and bus are all options to get in. Coming from Manila you can either bus south, which should take 12-20 hours (broad range I know, but traffic on Luzon is unpredictable and a bit rough), or fly to Legazpi and then bus or jeepney to Donsol for 1-2 hours. If you’re coming from Cebu/Masbate you can ferry to Pilar or Bulan and then bus/jeepney to Donsol – half an hour from Pilar or three+ hours from Bulan – read more about ferrying from Cebu here.
Once you’ve arrived in town you can either stay at one of the few guesthouses such as Aguluz Guesthouse, or grab a tricycle (tuk-tuk) north toward the tourism center where basic resorts line the beach. Restaurants in town are lacking, but there are a few near the local market that will serve burgers and some local dishes, you’ll just need to search a bit for them.
How to See the Whale Sharks
Getting out on the water to see the whale sharks is easy enough, you’ll just need to grab a tricycle to the Donsol Visitor Center, rent some fins and a snorkel if you didn’t bring your own, and pay your fees. The fees when we visited in April 2017 were roughly 1,200 pesos ($24 USD) per person – 300 pesos for registration, 600ish for the boat (3,500 per boat divided by 6 people), 150 for a mask and snorkel, 150 for fins. You’ll watch a briefing video on a massive flat panel before heading out in your group of six. We visited in the morning for the 7:30am trip, and other options were 11am and 1:30pm when we went. The morning is supposedly the best time according to the staff, and if nothing else the views of Mount Mayon from the boat are generally clearer in the morning.
The bangkas you ride on are the typical Filipino outrigger boats, all of our belongings stayed pretty dry, so if you have a nice camera or something you want to bring it shouldn’t be an issue. Out on the water the boats began searching by having a spotter sit or stand atop a mast and look down to the ocean for the shadow of a whale shark. Once spotted, all of the boats converge to let everyone have a chance to swim with the whale shark. You’ll put on your mask and fins once the spotter sees one and are told to get to the edge of the boat. While still moving, the crew will tell you when to jump in and your guide will lead you to the whale shark.
Visibility wasn’t good the day we were there, maybe five meters max, so we were floating along looking down, when suddenly a giant mouth was about three meters from our feet! The first whale shark we saw was about six meters long and looked absolutely gigantic. We turned and swam alongside it, kicking as fast as we could, and could barely keep up before running out of breath. You’re told during your briefing that you will be limited to five minutes per whale shark, which wasn’t the case when we visited. We dropped in and swam along as far and fast as we could, which meant we had about two minutes with the whale shark before we were picked up by our boat. The boat drove us along and dropped us again with the same whale shark over and over, so we saw it five or six times in a row.
You get three hours on the water, so we spent an hour searching for more whale sharks after our first one, and found another near the starting point. This huge creature was seven meters long and every bit as fast as the first one. It’s common to see five or more whale sharks in a day, as people the days before we visited had, and it’s also possible to go a week without seeing one. We were very happy to finally have seen two whale sharks, and came back from the trip thoroughly exhausted.
While there were tons of tourists visiting – we got stuck pushing through groups of people, some who couldn’t even swim – we couldn’t have been any happier seeing such a rare and gigantic creature up close. On good days apparently one boat can end up with a whale shark to themselves since so many are around! If you have the chance to visit Donsol, this is a must-do activity in the Philippines.