Chasing whale sharks

G Magazine

Swimming with majestic whale sharks in the Philippines is not only a breathtaking experience, it's a positive contribution to the future of a species and a community.

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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"Go! Go! Go!" screams our guide. I plunge feet-first off the moving boat into a flurry of activity and foamy, splashing water. The rest of the group are stronger swimmers than I am, so they've kept up with the guide and are steadily swimming away from me. I don my mask and snorkel, put my face into the murky water and start kicking as hard as I can to reach the group.

The water visibility is terrible - I can only see about four metres ahead. Despite that, almost instantly I make out some vague white spots and a dark shape, and then I see it. The wide head of a whale shark roughly the size of a bus is swimming straight towards me.

At first, I panic. It's swimming so fast I don't have time to move out of the way. I feel as if it's going to plough straight into me and I imagine the headlines: 'Australian girl eaten by whale shark in the Philippines'. Somewhere along the way I've missed out on both the 'fight' and 'flight' responses and instead just freeze, in total wonder.

Watching the shark get closer, I'm struck by a feeling of absolute calm. It's not the reaction I'd expected from swimming with the biggest shark in the world, and it's certainly a stark contrast to the excitement and activity of a few moments earlier. Everything seems to stop and become silent - faced with the truly awe-inspiring and peaceful animal only a few metres away, nothing else matters any more.

For a few moments we share the same water column in this vast ocean; the docile shark cruising a few metres below the surface while I float silently above. It's one
of the best things about swimming with whale sharks: you're able to get so close and yet hardly disturb them.

The water is murky for the very same reason that these gentle giants are here - plankton. Hundreds of whale sharks (Rhincodon typus), or butanding, as they are known locally, visit the waters off the small town of Donsol each year. The largest fish in the world, they migrate thousands of kilometres to reach areas where plankton accumulates because of ocean currents and spawning coral reefs. There are only a few places in the world where so much plankton is funnelled into a contained area like this.

The sharks arrive between November and June (peak season December to May) each year. This predictability and the fact that they tend to congregate in shallow areas close to land accounts for the growing popularity of whale shark tourism in the Philippines. And the tranquil nature of these gentle giants means even people without strong swimming skills are able to enjoy the encounter.

There is a strong incentive for shark conservationists to get involved in promoting whale shark tourism: through increased exposure and understanding it is hoped visitors will gain more respect for the marine environment and the sharks that live in our oceans. Indeed, one of the key outcomes of a UN-led conference on migratory sharks held in the Philippine capital, Manila, earlier this year was that the priority of communicating knowledge on sharks should be as high as the need for more research.

Nowadays, tourists can even contribute to the research themselves through the ECOCEAN Photo ID Library, which has tagged over 2,300 sharks since it was established in 2003. The ECOCEAN team uses software adapted from that previously developed by NASA to identify clusters of stars, and any good photos of the left side gill area can be sent in for identification. In return, tourists will receive a report on the shark they photographed, including information on the last time it was sighted. Of the 12 sharks my dive group spotted in the waters off Donsol, two were new to the database, and one of the large males had been photographed three times in Donsol before. The initiative is a great way for everyday individuals to become an integral part of the conservation process.

The sharks bring much-needed money into the poor community through foreign tourism. The locals of Donsol are proud of their butanding, with the destination now viewed as one of the top spots in the world for swimming with whale sharks. The Butanding Festival, in which a massive papier mâché whale shark is hauled through the main street, is held every April.

It wasn't always such a happy tale: early media reports of whale sharks off the coast of Donsol drew poachers to the area. In parts of Asia whale shark fins are highly sought after as an ingredient in shark fin soup and even as a table centrepiece for weddings; the fins are seen as a sign of wealth, prosperity and lasting relationships. Dried whale shark fins are valued at round AUD$800/kg. A study by WWF-Philippines and Silliman University in Dumaguete City estimated that around 190 sharks were killed in the Philippines in 1997 - an alarming rate for an animal with a slow reproduction rate.

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).