Swimming with the Gentle Giants of Donsol

Posted by on Mar 28, 2012 in Asia, Philippines | 1 comment

Ben and I had only 2 weeks in the Philippines. An impossible schedule considering all the country’s worthwhile destinations. Ben and I often found ourselves in intense debate when deciding what to do next. But there was one attraction that we both were committed on doing…. Swimming with whale sharks in Donsol.

The day after we arrived in Donsol, we dragged ourselves out of bed at 6 am and walked to the Visitor Center, located about a half mile away from our hostel. While Ben paid our registration fee and arranged for our boat, I went back and forth from our hostel three times! First to rent snorkeling equipment, then to retrieve my waterproof camera, and finally to put on my bathing suit! It was like I didn’t have a thought in my head while I was getting ready that morning.

Before getting on the boat, we watched an introductory video on how to properly interact with the whale shakes. To ensure the whale sharks and our safety, only 6 people could swim with one whale shark at a time. Also we were not permitted to get within one meter of the powerful creatures. One whack of the whale shark’s massive tail can do serious bodily damage to a human.

A spotter, a few guides, and an American family boarded the boat with us. The spotter scurried up the front mass of the boat, taking his position as the whale shark lookout while the rest of us settled in for the ride. Everyone in the boat was anxious. Seeing a whale shark is never guaranteed and we were on the fridge of the March to May season. The conversation on the boat was dominated by whale shark speculation. Was there any spotted yesterday? How many? Is it too foggy today? How clear is the water?

Always the optimist, I put on my goggles and fins in anticipation. Soon after I had “suited up”, the spotter excitedly pointed to the side of the boat. We all lined up with our equipment, waiting patiently for the go ahead to jump in when one of the guides reached over the side of the boat and came up with a died squid. False Alarm.

Died Squid.

Soon we came up on 6 other boats. Supposedly they all were corralled around a whale shark feeding near the surface, but I couldn’t see it. Our guides told us to line up and one by one instructed us to jump into the murky blue water. Disoriented, I felt someone grab my elbow. I started to swim, letting whoever had ahold of my elbow guide me. All I could see were clouds of bubbles and the occasional snorkel fin.

I abruptly emerged from the bubbles to find myself directly in front of enormous spotted wall. A whale shark was slowly gliding pass me like a passenger train and all I could see was whale shark in both directions. I gasped.

whale shark wall!

Frozen in a mixture of shock and terror, my initial instinct was to get away from the gigantic creature as fast as possible. I felt very uncomfortable being so dangerously close to a wild animal that size. Thoughts raced through my head. Was I more then a meter away? Where was the tail? Where was the tail? Panicked, I started to back pedal with my arms. Just then I felt a push of encouragement from my elbow reminding me that this was what I was here for.

A jolt of adrenaline rushed through me as I began to swim side by side with the whale shark . At first I was hesitate, unwilling to move any closer and cautiously avoiding it’s tail, that was easily the length of a tall man.


Fast Tube by Casper

Then I become more confident swimming above and even in front of the majestic animal. The whale shark’s large gaping mouth gave me the impression that I would be sucked into it like dust in a hover vacuum. I had to keep reminding myself that the whale shark’s mouth is used for gulping in water teeming with plankton and not for swallowing people whole.  That helped me push images of Moby Dick out of my head.

I went out four separate times. Since there was only one whale shark we all had to take turns. Each time I went, my experience became more and more tranquil. I wanted to reach out a stoke the gentle giant, it’s movements so graceful and deliberate. It was hard to image that I was so scared of this peaceful creature. Finally I watched it mysteriously vanish as it dove down into the ocean’s depths leaving me to ponder the world in which it came.


Fast Tube by Casper

More Pictures!

2012-2-4 Swimming with Whale Sharks Donsol

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One Comment

  1. In awe of your trip and your description. As a student, future minister, future educator, and future author I feel blessed to be getting an eye witness account that conveys such wonder. Should the situation ever arise, I would be honored if you two would allow me to interview and write a story on you for school. I have an English Composition class starting on July 2nd. If you are so inclined and the curriculum allows, I think it would be awesome to share a bit our your stories with class. God Bless…

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