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!
This post was sponsored by Travelbag. Want a whale shark experience of your own? Koh Tao is a popular South East Asia hotspot for natural whale shark encounters for lucky scuba divers. Book your Thailand holiday now!
This is such a sad thing – both for the animals as well as the town. It must be really bad news if the main source income comes from one certain type of tourism which is on the decline. I do understand why you felt underwhelmed, it’s always a disappointment if somthing doesn’t live up to its hype.
I know, I worry about what will happen to this place if things don’t turn around. No matter what happens I think they will have benefited from some of the infrastructure that’s gone into place in the meantime.
We are looking forward to seeing the whale sharks near Cancun in July. The season has just started but there are only a couple, and by July apparently there will be hundreds (!). I can’t imagine it but I cannot wait. Sorry your experience wasn’t great but Im glad you saw them elsewhere!
Yeah, I can’t feel too sorry for myself having already seen one 🙂 I think it’s more that had I known the facts I could have tempered my expectations or perhaps altered my itinerary. I would love to see them in Mexico one day… I’ve heard amazing things!
It’s always dicey traveling off of paper guidebooks because they are immediately out of date, even when they’re first printed, but I think the Lonely Planet for the Philippines is especially bad as when I checked, most of the information in it hasn’t been updated in well over 3 or 4 years! While the Philippines may not be changing as quickly as other parts of Asia, with underwater/ecological sites, a lot can happen in that time, and that clearly is the case with Donsol. How disappointing that you made the journey all the way there for such a lackluster experience. I’m sure that, as you say, however, most people would be elated to catch sight of 1 whale shark no matter how clear the water (I know I would be!). It’s a shame to hear about what is happening at Oslob. I’ve been finding so much as we’ve been traveling that this always seems to happen: people get greedy and wind up developing systems that aren’t sustainable OR threaten to completely destroy/annihilate the thing people are coming to see. It’s so short-sighted and hopefully something can be done to help address this imbalance before it is too late!
Yup, I love the Lonely Planet series but the Philippines one was the worse I’ve ever used. And unfortunately, there wasn’t much online info to supplement it! But luckily there are bloggers like you and me trying to add a a tiny bit of info to the conversations 🙂
I swam with whalesharks when I was in Mexiko (July 2012) – and I really can recommend that. We started in Cancún and after 1,5h boat trip we saw loads of whale sharks and where able to snorkel several times with them. It was one of most impressive moments of my Mexiko trip.
I’ve heard amazing things about the summer whale shark migration in Mexico… it’s totally on my bucket list! Thanks for the recommendation 🙂
It sooooo sucks to look forward to something really badly and then have it turn out to be nowhere near as awesome as you wanted. I have seen whalesharks while scuba diving, and it was made VERY clear to us that we can look for them, but there’s no way to GUARANTEE to see them. That’s disappointing, but your story seems to have a happy ending in Donsol. 🙂 I’ll wait to find out about it!
Yeah, that’s the way whale shark sightings work in Koh Tao and Utila and other hot spots I’ve been. I’ve never been sold so hard on a “basically guaranteed” sighting as I was in Donsol, though. I don’t mind taking a gamble (I waited a long time in Koh Tao before seeing one!) but I think the current information is a little misleading.
I’m disappointed for you guys that you didn’t have the experience you wanted, but it’s also sad to think that tourists might have had a part in driving the whale sharks away. If that’s the case, I hope they’ve found somewhere else to go that makes them happy rather than all hanging out at Oslob.
I can see why tourists are tempted by places like Oslob — even I was for a quick moment! But in the end I am so glad I didn’t participate in something as ethically dubious as that.
That is so sad that the whale shark population is disappearing so drastically. You are lucky to have seen them before though and I am glad that the whole trip to Donsol wasn’t for nothing!
I’m hoping they’ve just moved to friendlier waters… and hopefully not all to Oslob 🙁 I like to picture them out somewhere in the deep ocean, playing somewhere safe and sound!
I have worked as a photographer/videographer on a whale shark boat in Exmouth, Western Australia for the past 10 years and can highly recommend a trip here if you want a good whale shark experience. Our season runs from late March to late July/early August and while nothing is ever “Guaranteed” it is rare to miss out. My boat hasn’t missed for the last season and a half (touch wood). We have developed a system that is designed to have minimum impact on the whale sharks to avoid a situation like Donsol. We use spotter planes to find them, the boats must approach slowly, a maximum of 10 people in the water with a whale shark at any one time, no touching or interfering with their natural behavior. It’s a system that works well and every year thousands of people have the experience of a lifetime and if anything it appears they are appearing here in increasing numbers. The manta rays and humpback whales have just turned up as well as they always do around now so on any given day on the one tour we can swim with whale sharks and manta rays and watch the humpies at play. It’s not a bad job to have…
Leith, I have a friend from Koh Tao who recently moved to Exmouth to do the same job! Her status updates have me checking flight prices on a regular basis! Trust me, it’s on my life list. 🙂 Thanks for the added info!
When I was in the Philippines 3 years ago I didn’t make it to Donsol because it appeared to be a long road trip from Manila, and I had learned that one could also see them in Moalboal, Cebu. Did go there but didn’t see anything, and the snorkeling wasn’t very good either. Sad to see that Donsol is just more of the same…
Yeah, part of the disappointment here is that Donsol is quite isolated and a big investment of time (and relatively, money) to get to. So that ups the ante a bit in terms of expectations!
Ahhhh so much to comment on lol. The special moments in nature are so special because they are unexpected after so many misses. You never know what you’ll get! I always loved my dog-eared guides, but I’ve lately grown disillusioned after seeing how they are put together by people living on other continents, often researching off the web. But still, you were out there doing it!! Amazing!!
Yeah, what was that book by the Lonely Planet author about all his mischievousness while writing one of the guides? Not saying that they all are like that — my friend Kyle is writing what I can only imagine what will be the best ever guidebook to Maui for Moon — but I’m definitely learning that some are much better than others!
I was in Donsol in 2009 and my friends and I spotted 7 whale sharks in clear waters. We were the last ones to set out at around noon and most of the other tourists were going back, so we had the bay, and the whale sharks, all to ourselves. Swimming with the whale sharks is still one of the best things I’ve experienced so far.
I went back last year, and saw 5 whale sharks, but this time I was almost ‘fighting’ with over 10 other swimmers to spot the gentle giants. I went again March of this year, and felt really sad and bothered that there were no sightings.
You’re right, I hope this is resolved soon, and I hope travelers like me can help in some small way. I’m constantly in contact with a local butanding interaction officer for that one.
Wow, sounds like you had one of those dreamy experiences that gave Donsol the reputation it has today! I’m jealous 🙂 But now I will be even more grateful next time I’m surprised by one on an unexpected dive…
Anything that you can recommend that we in the national tourism government can do to save Donsol? Thanks.
Rommel, I would recommend developing Donsol as a destination for scuba divers. We were underwhelmed by the whale shark sightings but totally blown away by our day scuba diving!
As a marine biologist and someone who has regularly (5-6 times per season) visited the area since 2007 I can say, without hesitation, that although there was a serious decline in the number of whale shark sightings this year (compared to only my experience over the past 7 years) that does NOT mean they weren’t there nor does it translate to potential experiences next year. For example, the water was pretty warm this year and plankton may be spending time down deeper. Remember why the whale sharks are there. Not for OUR amusement but to feed. They go where the food goes. I am not saying this is the absolute reason, just citing one example among several possibilities as to why we (most guests this year) did not have our ultimate encounter. Also, each year may be good or bad (we didn’t see so many in 2008 but had a great year in 2009 again as an example. So does this mean they won’t be there next year (thus, discouraging the title that they are disappearing) who knows? But I do know that it is NOT an absolute that because they weren’t here this year means they will not be there next year. Maybe they won’t or maybe they will but we cannot say for sure NOW. Whale sharks live a long time and perhaps have longer cycles of migration patterns than we can realize. Maybe this year was the 20-year ‘storm’ or in other words, the year they went elsewhere. Again, we don’t know. While I definitely relate to the author (and have at least 30 people who were disappointed as well) it would be unfair to the people of Donsol to react in such a way that it discourages future guests based on a singular experience.
well said Lee
Hey Lee, thanks for sharing your insight as someone with so much experience in the area! My post wasn’t necessarily intending to discourage future guests — in fact my next post after this one describes the reef diving I did off of Donsol, which was some of the best diving of my life! However, I can only report on my own experience and this is what I found. I also think it’s fair to temper traveler’s expectations and provide another point of view than the current “not if but how many” attitude that guidebooks are peddling.
some people forget that these gentle giants, while having a certain migration pattern are still considered “animals in the wild” there are various reasons that affect their migration and feeding pattern that maybe only nature can control.
it’s just like it’s summer but we cannot guarantee that it will not rain.
Hey Rod, I definitely understand the whims of nature and wild animals… I’ve been in the diving world for a few years now! However, I think Donsol has developed a reputation that, at least at this moment, is misleading. So I’m just sharing my own personal experience here. That’s all I can give! 🙂
The dynamics of our ecosystem may change rapidly that what we can expect or what travel guidebooks and blog sites have assured us. But one thing that I have learned over the years of traveling, domestically, especially if dealing with sea creatures is to temper expectations. Yes, I and my group may have to deal with long road and boat trips for the sake of seeing these giant wonders, be it humpbacks or whalesharks, but seeing them on instant is not etched on stone. I feel for you though. Getting to Donsol from another part of the globe is no joke. I hope however that it won’t diminish your interest to visit our country in the future.
Hey Harry, I absolutely look forward to returning to the Philippines! I would even consider returning to Donsol if I was in a more nearby destination. I’m always open to giving second chances 🙂
I’ve been trying to see whale sharks for a few years now but we’re never in the right place or time for them. IT IS SO ANNOYING.
I know, I missed them in Utila and though I did see one in Koh Tao it was like COME ON ONLY ONE?! Not to be ungrateful but there must have been 100 spotted while I was living there, so it was kind of ridiculous that I didn’t see more.
Have you heard about Oslob, Cebu (also in the Philippines)? It is now the newest whale shark haven in town. Unlike Donsol, whale shark in Oslob interact with the locals – fishermen are actually feeding them.
I think Oslob is the best place to visit for whale shark encounter.
Hey Ian, with all due respect to your suggestion, we very purposely did not visit Oslob after doing research and speaking to locals and other travelers. I don’t think the methods of attracting whale sharks in Oslob — feeding them, and allegedly even restraining them — is healthy for the whale sharks. Photographs show oozing wounds from where they have collided with boats not to mention the disruption to their normal diets and feeding routines. I have seem pictures of tourists standing on the backs of beached whale sharks. I can understand the appeal of such a guaranteed encounter, but that’s not the kind of tourism I want to support.
Hmmm, I couldn’t say a thing. I am really sorry. It wasn’t my intention to disappoint.
The practice has been changed and the local tourism office is doing their best to educate the locals.
And about feeding the fish, I guess, the residents weren’t fully aware that they will be disrupting its natural behavior – and they’re not doing it to attract tourist in the first place. They did it out of goodwill (you may not get it but Filipinos tend to feed every hungry being, humans or animals, strangers or neighbors, tamed or wild – even they themselves are scarce. And, this spirit still exist specially in our rural areas).
And about those tourists standing on the back of the whales sharks, they already received a mouthful of education.
You certainly didn’t disappoint 🙂 I just don’t want anyone stumbling upon this post in the future to think that I would support what goes on in Oslob. I was very inspired by the hospitality and generosity of people in the Philippines, and understand that originally the intentions may have been good. Yet the results have been anything but, and I don’t think tourists should support something that is quite damaging to a delicate population of wild animals.
I see. I completely understand. Don’t worry, we are doing all our efforts to educate the local folks. Even the mainstream media are getting involved. This may take time since the change and adjustment may be difficult for the fishes too.
You are very vocal with conscious and responsible tourism – I’m impressed.
We where in Donsol in 2011 and had the oppertunity to snorkel with 6 different whale sharks. From a very young one of only a few meter to a huge old grandfather.
We loved the small town and friendly local people. It would really be bad luck for them if tourist would stop coming and the whalesharks stay away.
Wow, six! How incredibly special and lucky. I don’t even think I could handle how amazing that would be!
Have you heard about whale sharks in Donsol for the last years (2014 and 2015)?
I was planning to go there next February but without whale sharks, I don’t know if worth it.
Hey Carla! Sorry, but I haven’t heard anything since I was in the Philippines myself. Maybe try posting on the Tripadvisor message boards… there might be someone with more recent knowledge there! Best of luck!
Thank you for the answer.
When we hear about whalesharks in Philippines everybody talks about Oslob…
We chose not to visit Oslob over concerns that they were harassing the whale sharks and treating them unethically. I suppose everyone will have to make their own decision based on the information they can find! Best of luck.
I brought my kids to Dongsol last week of December 2015. It is on my bucket list and was very disappointed that on the two days we went out, not a single whale shark was spotted by us or any boats that went out. They should stop making more false advertising on the Web as many of us have to travel great distance to be there.
I felt similarly disappointed by the whale sharks, but was glad I made the trip regardless as the diving was phenomenal. They should definitely focus on promoting that part of the tourism to this region! Sorry your trip was a bummer 🙁
We are considering whether or not to include Donsol in our Philippines itinerary, and this post was a helpful reminder that whale sharks aren’t guaranteed.
I already had one whale shark fail on this trip when my sister flew all the way from the US to meet up with us in Ko Lanta, which I chose because of the chance to dive with whale sharks and mantas. On our dive day, high winds prevented our boat from reaching the dive site. Argh! These things happen, but it was a real bummer because I wanted to dive somewhere special with my sister.
I can definitely relate to that! The good news is that while we didn’t see whale sharks in Donsol, it was my favorite diving in all of Southeast Asia!