We had come to Donsol for one reason: to see the locally named butanding in the proudly named Whale Shark Capital of the World. Long before my plane first landed in the Philippines, when my trip was just daydreams and scrawled notes in the margins of a guidebook, this moment was what I looked forward to the most. Lonely Planet Philippines assured me that in “the peak months of March and April [when I visited], the question isn’t whether you will see a shark, but how many you will see.”
Donsol didn’t exactly wow us upon arrival, but we didn’t mind — there were whale sharks in them waters, ya’ll! And this tiny town knows where the pesos are at. The town is littered with whale shark statues, whale shark murals, thatch roof souvenir stands selling coconuts and whale shark figurines, and framed underwater photos of the majestic creatures swimming side by side with lucky humans.
The guidebook was wildly inaccurate and unclear about the system to sign up to see the whale sharks — pattern alert! –, but we managed to figure it out eventually. We checked in at the Visitor’s Center the night before to fill out paperwork and received strict instructions to come back the next morning at 7:00am. We were there right on time, but we were a bit groggy and therefore didn’t exactly bum rush the doors like some of the other eager beavers around. Hence we were some of the last people to finally fill a boat — so I recommend you throw some elbows in the morning if you want to be one of the first people out there. Visitors are assigned into groups of six and then sent out to a boat at the cost of 885 pesos or $22 per person (there is a lower fee for Filipinos). Snorkel gear is available for rent at the visitors center, though guesthouses rent it for cheaper. We travel with our own gear, but I believe the price was around 300 pesos.
The gray day reflected the somber moods that had begun slowly setting over us. While chatting with locals upon our arrival, we had received noncommittal noises in response to our excitement about the swarms of whale sharks we were bound to see, which wasn’t really a great sign. Then, when we checked in at the Visitor’s Center, our hearts really sank. Printed calendars taped to the wall recorded the daily sighting for the last two months. In the same months that friends of mine have reported seeing ten to fifteen whale sharks per day years ago, the calendar now recorded a bleak record: one whale shark, two whale sharks, no whale sharks, no whale sharks.
Where had all of Donsol’s whale sharks gone?
Photo by Heather Holt
Photo by Heather Holt
It was a question we had plenty of time to contemplate, as our boat joined the ten or so out in the bay, circling halfheartedly through the dark and choppy waters. And later, when the question still nagged at me, I found that I wasn’t the only one asking it. Various news outlets and even local bloggers have started to address the elephant — or should I say butanding — in the room, and the answers paint a bleak picture for Donsol’s future.
Donsol, once a poverty-stricken municipality that eked out a living on subsistence fishing, found a calling in the late 1990’s when tourists caught on to the whale sharks flocking into the plankton rich bay. The WWF and other conservation groups swooped in, fisherman were turned into Butanding Interaction Officers, souvenir postcards and t-shirts were printed, and an eco-tourism destination was born. Photos from this time show fifty foot long whale sharks swooping through crystal waters, feeding with mouths agape; reports tell tales of eighteen whale sharks spotted in a day, and people swimming with groups of three to five at a time. This is the image that Donsol is — understandably — so desperately trying to hold on to.
When pressed, officials admit that sightings have been on the decline since 2011 — and tourists are slowly taking note. There was a 20% decline in tourist arrivals between January and April of 2013, compared to the same period the previous year. While it might be a mystery where the whale sharks have gone, it’s easier to trace the paths of people. Butanding-sighting hopefuls are being lured away from Donsol to places like Oslob, which is basically an underwater petting zoo and a horrifying example of animal tourism gone wrong. Oslob has become a phenomenon because unlike Donsol, sightings are guaranteed — the whale sharks are being fed by hand. Not only does this upset their normal feeding and migration patterns, but photos show that the whale sharks in Oslob are covered in wounds and sores from bumping into boats and hooks, and rumors circulate of the animals actually being tied up and restrained until tourists arrive.
While at least one whale shark from Donsol has been confirmed as sighted in Oslob, most sources agree that a mass migration is not the cause of the dearth of butanding. Many blame climate change, as heavy rains have brought murky, less plankton rich waters, while some cry that illegal fishing has disrupted the feeding habits of the whale sharks. Still others blame the behavior of tourists, who with their large numbers and over enthusiasm may just be loving whale sharks to death.
One thing is for sure: on that cold, rainy day in March, we had given up on all those “not if, but how many” promises — we just wanted to go back to land.
And so of course, that’s when it happened. As we huddled together against the bitter rain, the Butanding Interaction Officer on our boat cried out for us to suit up. Despite my growing cynicism I felt giddy as we raced to slip on our fins and slap on our masks. When he yelled “GO!” we rolled into the water, swimming as fast as possible in the direction of the spotter. With my first glance down into my mask I basically stopped moving — it was some of the worst visibility that I had ever seen, and I immediately gave up hope for an experience like the ones pictures in the framed photos around our hotel. The spotter must have sensed my surrender, because he grabbed my arm and forced me down just in time to see a perhaps three-second glimpse of what I consider to be the world’s most magnificent creature.
This is a pretty accurate representation of what I saw.
The photo above conveys pretty much the opposite of what I really felt — underwhelmed. I know, I’m spoiled, right? I’ve already been blessed with a fantastic whale shark experience that was so special it had me clearing my mask of tears, so maybe I was greedy to want more. But this blurry, cloudy glimpse of spots was simply not worth the effort it had taken to get there — at least for me.
I came with really, really high expectations, and they were let down pretty spectacularly. I went to bed this night thinking that if I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t have included the considerable time and money it took to get to Donsol into my itinerary. We decided to give the whale sharks a break and dedicate our next and final day in Donsol to something different, which would luckily change my opinion about this tiny town — as always, stay tuned!
One thing is for sure — Donsol won’t be able to survive on the reputation of its former glory days forever. Changes are happening in this tiny corner of the world, and the secret is finally out. This town is having a serious identity crisis, one that for the sake of the Donsol’s residents I hope is resolved soon.
Photo on left by Heather Holt
Have you been to Donsol, or swam with whale sharks? What were your expectations, and did your experience meet them? Tell me in the comments below!
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