Chasing whale sharks

Whale shark and swimmers

The largest fish in the world, whale sharks migrate thousands of kilometres to reach areas where plankton accumulates because of ocean currents and spawning coral reefs. Slow-moving filter-feeders, whale sharks congregate near Donsol to feed on the large number of plankton in the area.

Credit: Getty images

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Overfishing is the main reason why the species is now listed as vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Throw climate change, ocean acidification and changing ocean currents into the mix and its obvious that the fight for survival won't be easy for this fish.

In 1998, video footage of whale sharks swimming in Donsol taken by divers was passed on to conservation organisation WWF and the media. Seeing evidence of these majestic giants and the potential tourism benefits they would bring, the Philippine government passed a law banning the killing of whale sharks. Though some illegal finning and slaughtering does still occur here and elsewhere, the locals of Donsol are now embracing the benefits of tourism as a more sustainable option to killing sharks for cash or food. The first recorded sighting of a baby whale shark in 2009 suggests the area is a breeding and nursery site for these endangered creatures.

Locals are making further use of the unique natural features of the area and the influx of tourists by running night-time cruises on the Ogod River to view the region's incredible fireflies. While you may have seen the odd firefly in your lifetime, it's unlikely you've seen them like they are in Donsol. Here they form a mega-organism, communicating with each other by pulsing in a huge ball - like a collection of 'pimped-up' fairy lights. Some travellers say they are just as impressive as the whale sharks. The beauty of it is, there's no need to choose: visit Donsol to see both!

Getting there
Between Qantas and Philippine Airlines, you can fly direct to Manila from Sydney daily. There are three direct flights a week from Brisbane. From Manila, several flights to Legaspi leave daily with Cebu Pacific Airlines; from there take the mini-bus to Donsol (approx. an hour, AUD$20).
Where to stay
Giddy's Place offers a range of accommodation options for all budgets; breakfast included.
Visa requirements
Visitors can enter the Philippines and stay without a visa for up to 21 days.
Where to eat
Barracudas, where chef Juliet cooks up the freshest seafood, drawing on a wealth of experience in kitchens overseas.
Snorkelling & Diving
Hire a seven-person boat from Butanding Interaction Centre (located at the Donsol Visitors Centre) for AUD$90. Snorkel/mask hire is AUD$7. Diving with the whale sharks is prohibited, but you can go diving off nearby islands.
There are no ATM's in Donsol and you won't always be able to pay with credit cards here. Bring sufficient Philippine pesos (PhP) with you, as the closest (unreliable) cash machine is a bumpy hour's ride away in Legaspi.
You should know
The Philippines is a developing country, so transport and roads can be unreliable and electricity and water are a luxury. Approach your trip with an open mind.
More info
Carbon offset
Climate Friendly says return flights from Sydney to Manila then Legaspi create about 3.3 tonnes of CO2-equivalent ($80 to offset).

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