Swimming With Whale Sharks or Butanding | Donsol, Philippines

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Traveling opened up new things I wouldn't know if I had just stayed at home. 

One of these is how tourism can push locals to go extreme to drive more visitors to their place. Concepts like riding elephants or taking photos with wild tigers might come with backhand stories that we wouldn't even know such as abuses, over-feeding, etc. In this age of social media and people speaking up, I am glad I'm becoming more and more aware that these things exist.

A long-time issue with swimming with whale sharks is the use of food baits to lure these gentle giants and show up to their guests. Good for tourism economy, but actually disturbs the natural habitat and behaviour of animals. 

When we were invited to Donsol Whale Shark Interaction Center, the host immediately told us that we will do it the ethical and natural way, so whale shark spotting is not guaranteed. So even with the 50/50 chances, I am actually glad that my first whale shark encounter is with a responsible and sustainable group.

About Whale Sharks

Whale Sharks, or butanding, are said to be the largest known extant fish species and nonmammalian vertebrate. Largest confirmed whale shark is about 61.7 ft! 

They are often found in open waters of tropical oceans. Do not fear though! These gentle giants may have very large mouths but are filter feeders--meaning they only eat plankton and small squid and fishes, and will not put humans in danger. 

Whale sharks also have dark gray skin with white belly marked with beautiful and unique spots and stripes that are also used as identifying marks. Their heads are wide and flat, with two small eyes in front corners. Whale sharks' expected lifespan is around 80 to 130 years. 

About Donsol Whale Shark Interaction Center

On our second day in Sorsogon, I was able to check an item off my travel bucket list right away which is to see whale sharks!

Donsol is popular all over the world as a whale shark destination. In this municipality, you can easily spot and swim with the whale sharks even with just a snorkelling gear. Best time to visit is during the "whale shark season" which is from November to June.

When we arrived at the visitor center, we were asked to watch a short briefing video featuring Marc Nelson and Rovilson Fernandez. They featured whale shark basic information such as their habitat, migration patterns, and behavior. Very educational stuff.

Ready or not, let's go!

We also learned about Donsol Whale Shark Interaction Center's efforts in creating a sustainable tourism for the whale sharks, plus the do's and don'ts of the activity. 

Here are some major points to remember:


1. Only one boat per whale shark, 6 persons per whale shark max. This is to avoid scaring these gentle creatures.

2. Do not swim too close to the whale sharks. Make sure to keep a safe 4-meter distance away. If visibility is too low, you can swim closer but DO NOT TOUCH them, do not block their way.

3. When you encounter a gentle giant, interactions can last up to 10 minutes only.

4. Do not use flash photography.

5. Do not use any motorized underwater propulsions such as jet skis and scuba scooters.

Let's always help these eco-tourism sites by always abiding by the rules. They encouraged tourists to report any illegal incidents, even with their staff.

Team Van 3, Kuya Noel, Tour Guide Faith, Jacque, and Kat:


🐋 Boat (good for 6 persons only, regardless of age) - PHP 5000 / 3 hours

🐋 Environmental Fee - Php 100 / head (Filipino), Php 300 / head (Foreign)

Donsol Eco Tour also offers a travel group package for Whale Shark Interaction which includes pick-up and drop-off within Donsol, boat, guide, registration fees, snorkelling equipment, and refreshments. Feel free to inquire on their page for rates and more info.

My Experience and Tips

As instructed, there were only 4 of us in the boat (Kuya Noel, Kat, Jacque, and me) who will dive, plus the crew--our tour guide Ate Faith, the boat captain, spotters, and our BIO (Butanding Interaction Officer). 

I was wearing rashguard and swimming shorts, which I think were light and perfect for the swimming activity. Hindi ako nadistract or nagka wardrobe malfunction after all the hectic jumps. I also brought my own snorkelling gear, but you can also rent from the center.

They gave us an option to wear a life vest, or just hold on to the red floater our BIO will be pulling for us (yung parang sa Baywatch, hehe) to get closer to the whale shark. Always listen to your BIO.

I am not the best swimmer, but I got a bit of confidence being surrounded by water thanks to my mom who enrolled me to swimming classes early on. I decided to do-away with the life vest since I think it will be harder to catch up with the whale shark when I had it on. 

Wearing of fins is also optional and can be rented from the center, but I just opted to wear an aqua shoes that I bought in Decathlon a long time ago. For me, it was lighter and easier to move in.

Waiting for our BIO's signal to JUMP!

During the spotting, no time was wasted as our BIO continued to talk about the whale sharks. The important thing is to stay alert, coz anytime the spotter signals a whale shark heading in our direction (BIO will then shout "READY!"), we should be ready to jump in the waters. Upo na agad sa edge of the boat next to him. Tumatak sakin na the whale sharks will not wait for anyone, so be sure to enter the water right away when the BIO shouts JUMP!

Kahit kinakabahan, I just sucked it all in and made sure to trust and follow our BIO. Luckily, I saw whale sharks twice (out of four jumps)! The first time was the side of its head only coz the giant fish actually moved fast! I think it got scared, huhu. 

Meanwhile during the second time, it was super comedic coz when we jumped from the boat, naputol yung tali ng floater na pang Baywatch! 😂 So those who held on to it were left behind as I swam next to our BIO closer to the whale shark. It was huuuuge! Nakakaaliw to see it swim with small fishes next to it. 

Our BIO went back to get my friends, so Kuya Noel and I were the only ones left to swim above the whale shark. I had no courage to go deeper or follow the elegant creature, but still, so happy to have experienced this for this trip! 

Sadly, I don't have documentations of our whale shark encounter so thank you to Ferdz of Ironwulf En Route for these GoPro photos! Their boat had this sweet encounter with a baby butanding!

My only souvenirs from this experience: Memories and cute butanding plushies!

Hats off to our spotters who tirelessly looked out the endless seas for whale sharks! I still can't figure out how did it considering the harsh sun and dark open water. 

And of course, thank you to Donsol Whale Shark Interaction Center for the efforts in combining ecotourism for the local community while protecting the whale sharks and its environment. I am super proud to have this in our country, and will definitely recommend this activity to everyone planning to visit beautiful Sorsogon. ❤

Read more of my Bicol trip stories here.

Special thanks to:

Sir Noel Amata and Ferdz Decena, for some of the photos used in this post  

TPB Philippines, for having me on this trip!

1 comment

  1. I really love how passionate the BIOs and spotters are in preserving the natural habitat of Butanding. Ikigai!!! Hehe.

    Miss ko na everyone. <3


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