The banke boat speeds up and motor gets louder.
They must see something.
So I look back to Jun, the spotter for my butanding (which means whaleshark in Bicol) search, he points two fingers to his eyes to motion, “I see,” then in the air, “two.”
I and the other five passengers on my banke boat strip off our clothes, throw on our fins and snorkels and move to the front of the boat. About ten boats are heading to the same whaleshark so we don’t have much time before it gets scared and “kararom,” goes deep as the Bicol crew says.
That was a word I had heard two often here in Donsol. This was my third day searching for whalesharks. While a few had been spotted in the past two attempts, every time, “kararom” and the fish that has fascinated me for so long was gone.
But this time is different. I have a good feeling about Jun and he looks pretty determined staring ahead as our banke speeds up to join the others.
“Get ready on the right,” Jun says.
We all sit with our feet hanging off the right side of the banke. Then I the Dutch girl behind me gasps and points ahead.
Passengers on a whaleshark search await on the right side of their banke for the signal to jump. Photo by Bobbi Lee Hitchon
I see the tip of the whaleshark’s tail.
But we notice it too late. The banke goes over it, more than tapping it.
Great, I think. The closest I’ll probably ever get to a whaleshark and we kill it.
But Jun is still determined. The boat swerves and Jun screams, “Go!”
I don’t hesitate. My body flings from the moving banke right behind Jun’s. I follow him closely, but I am the only one. My head is in the water searching desperately. Then I see Jun’s hand in front of me pointing.
There it is. Everything I came to Donsol for. I could only see the whaleshark’s tail, but I saw it!
This photo is of the second whaleshark I saw. Photo by Neils Dekker
I come to the surface, smiling and shouting, “Yes!” to Jun, but he seems unfazed.
“It was hurt, so he swims away,” Jun says.
It’s amazing how fast that whaleshark swam. Every video I had seen showed the fish in slow motion, but this one is speedy.
Jun is even more upset that not everyone in the group saw it, so when he gets back to the banke he reiterates how important it is to follow his command.
We’re not in the banke long. Another whaleshark is spotted and Jun tells us to prepare. The banke moves towards what looks like the scene from “Titanic” when the boat sinks and everyone is splashing around at the surface.
Mayhem at the surface. Photo by Bobbi Lee Hitchon
At Jun’s command we all sit on the edge of the right side of the banke.
“Go,” Jun shouts.
I follow straight after him once again. This time is a bit more chaotic as about 30 people surround me, splashing around. But I keep close to Jun and watch his hand. Again he points to me underwater.
Finally, the whole whaleshark in all its glory. I knew it be amazing, but this was ten seconds of pure bliss.
I’m the only one completely underwater swimming above a six to seven meter graceful beast. I want to hold my breath just a little longer, but I can’t. I resurface, breathe deep and dive down again, but not without swallowing a mouthful of salt water. I catch up to the whaleshark, but this time it’s moving faster. I’m above it’s head, then it’s body and finally it’s massive tail. I watch it disappear, then resurface smiling.
Now I just need to find my group and my banke in this mess!
Jun, legendary spotter, and I after swimming with the whalesharks.
Snorkeling with a whaleshark was even more amazing then I thought it would be, but not nearly as easy.
I don’t know why I assumed I was guaranteed to see a whaleshark in Donsol the first day out. This is the best place to see the fish in the Philippines, but they’re still wild animals that live in a massive ocean.
My whaleshark saga started Sunday, January 30. It was season for whalesharks but not high season. I woke up at 7 a.m. grabbed a pair of fins as well as a mask and snorkel from Amor Farm Beach Resort then made my way to the Donsol Tourist Center, only a five-minute walk.
At the center, people must pay a P300 registration fee, which is good for five days, and P3,500 for the boat ride, which is split up among its passengers, a maximum of six per banke. After a short video explaining procedures, which also featured a Baywatch-like scene introducing Butanding Inspection Officers (BIO), passengers wait to be called.
On the banke, there are two designated spotters, one captain who runs the motor with a long bamboo stick and one person in charge of steering. Spotters look for shadows of the whalesharks. There is no radar system. So it’s easier to spot a whaleshark on a sunny day.
My first banke included four English people and one Chinese guy. As usual with a boat full of English, the experience was a good laugh, but a bit of a let down. A few bankes spotted a whaleshark, one’s passengers even jumped in the water. But our spotter said, “Kararom.” That was the only sighting in four hours at sea.
However, the English were determined to find one that day as it was their only full day in Donsol, so they asked the captain how much it would be to take a banke out that afternoon. They paid P2,000 under the table for two hours on the boat and they came back with nothing.
The next morning I tried again, which went pretty much the same as the day before. That afternoon, a German and I decided to do a bit of “snorkeling” via banke boat and if the spotter on board happened to see a whaleshark then hooray.
The following day, I was scheduled to go on a land tour of Mt. Mayon and Legazpi city. While I wanted to give the whaleshark search another try, I think a day off the sea and away from the sun was just what my over-tanned skin needed. I came back that night to hear from two guests at my resort that they saw five whalesharks and swam with all of them.
Was this some kind of cruel joke?
Then came my third and final day at sea. The day I had originally planned to leave Donsol for Cebu, but at the last minute changed my flight.
Obviously the extra day in Donsol was worth it. I swam with two whalesharks and while I may not have a photo to prove it, (I’ll be shocked if the photos I shot on my disposable underwater camera came out considering all the poor visibility due to plankton) that image will stay with me forever.
And the feeling is one that will be quite hard to top.
Thanks to Amor Farm Beach Resort and Whaleshark Adventure and Tours for supporting my trip to Donsol.
Become a fan of Amor Farm Beach Resort and Whaleshark Adventure and Tours.
This was posted from Legazpi Airport, which is a free wifi zone.