Reluctant as we were to leave the beauty of Saud beach we had a lot more Filipino treasures to explore. From the relaxing, serene shores of Saud beach, we headed south towards Donsol in search of some whale sharks. The weather proved challenging, but the wildlife made it all worthwhile.
From Pagudpud we reversed the journey we had made a few days earlier to return to Manila. We got a slightly more luxurious local bus which featured its own LCD screen and a film to enjoy on the way back. It also sported a take on the ‘Intel Inside’ logo informing us that Jesus was inside the bus, but I didn’t see him anywhere, not that I looked hard.
From Laoag we hopped on the flight back towards Manila and again joined in the Cebu Pacific in flight games on the journey back but sadly did not win. It is now our goal to win a prize next time we fly with them.
We decided not to spend any time in Manila but made our way in a very slow taxi from the airport to Quezon City, where you will find the main Luzon bus terminals at the Cubao Araneta and EDSA terminals. We had reserved a seat, (you don’t need to pay when you reserve) with Penafrancia the night before, for the bus departing Manila at 9pm. This was in their ‘Gold Class’ (1,100 PHP each) which offers you a toilet on the bus (which are called Comfort Rooms -or CR rooms- in the Philippines) and instead of coach seating the bus is filled with 28 Lazyboy chairs screwed to the floor that recline which we hoped would enable us to sleep on the way to Legazpi during our 11 hour journey.
The air conditioning on these buses is ridiculously cold, so wrap up well. We had read this so prepared ourselves with socks, jeans and shirt layers, but this was not enough. You need a blanket and a hoodie to keep your head warm. I don’t know why its like this I guess the aircon has two settings - off and ice-cold – no wonder the drivers come armed with winter coats and wooly hats.
The journey was fine apart from the freezing conditions, and the tendency of the overnight driver to do a bit of Karaoke to the light tunes being played on the coach sound system, thankfully he had a good singing voice. It was little bumpy in places which woke you up, but seeing some of the overtaking was enough to make you close your eyes again and go back to sleep. We managed sleep relatively well which allowed us to arrive at Legazpi half awake. At the Legazpi terminal you need to jump on a shared mini van (for 75 PHP ) which does not leave until it has all 12 seats filled. In our case this took about an hour of waiting. He asked if we wanted to buy all the seats to get off quicker but we held out until eleven were filled then we all chipped in the shared cost of the last seat to get us underway. An hour and fifteen minutes later you arrive at Donsol. The last leg of your journey is by tricycle to the resort area just outside the town.
So almost exactly 24hours since we set of from Saud beach we arrived at our accommodation in Donsol. It sounds a painful journey, but it wasn’t that bad and if we had flown from Manila we would have ended up staying a night in downtown Manila and flying out next morning to Legazpi so would probably have arrived at about the same time, but would have spent more money on accommodation and flights via Manila and would have missed out on the sights along the way.
Donsol does not posess any of the white sandy beaches (its a volcanic area so naturally they are black) or beautiful blue seas, but it doesn’t need those because it has something quite special. The world’s largest fish, the Whale Shark , or Rhincodon typus to give them their fancy name, gather here on the coast of the Philippines for their summer feeding.
They are called Butanding in the local language (Bicol) which I think sounds nice and a little more exotic than their English name. Thankfully they don’t eat humans. They’re filter feeders only interested in plankton, shrimps and other small fish. This means it is perfectly safe to swim with them, which is the reason Donsol has developed from a sleepy fishing and rice growing village into one of the Philippines most popular tourist destinations. It also happens to be the reason we were there too.
The whale shark tours are controlled by the local tourist information centre on the seafront in Dancalan which is just outside Donsol. You go here to register for your permit to swim with the sharks (it costs PHP 300 and is valid for seven days) then you need to pay your boat fee. Each boat costs PHP 3500 and you can get a maximum of six people in a boat. The boat fee is actually great value as this covers the boat hire, the captain, three spotters and your Butanding Information Officer (BIO) who will tell you what to do and ensure that if sharks are spotted you will get to see them.
We joined three other people already registered for a boat and then collared a Swede who wandered in alone to make up our six. The boat cost is divided between you and then all you need is to hire the snorkelling gear which you can do from various stalls around the information centre for another PHP300. If you ask at your hotel or some of the smaller places on the road on the way to the information centre you can get the gear for around PHP150.
So we were all set and had everything but the weather. We decided on the 7am trip and awoke at 6am to torrential rain. By the time we had washed and got ready it had reduced to a trickle and we hoped that it might improve further.
As we boarded the boat the heavens opened again and this continued for the next two hours as we searched in vain for whale sharks.
The spotters are excellent at what they do, but as they explained they need sunlight to penetrate the surface so they can spot the sharks from a distance feeding near the surface. With the grey skies and the rain bouncing off the sea this was impossible. Our only hope was that one came near enough to the surface and revealed their dorsal fin, and that the spotters were looking in the right direction at that time.
We were all absolutely soaked, shivering and all getting a bit disheartened, except for the two Koreans who had sensibly packed themselves some macs and were enjoying a little snooze. I was convinced at this point that the whale sharks and me were never going to meet, I was really despondent and huddled in the boat to sulk and shiver some more.
Then cries were heard from the spotter at the front of the boat and we all leaped into action, donned our gear and gathered on the side waiting for the instruction to dive in. In we went.
I armed the camera and then swam with the BIO but I was too slow and missed the first shark. Bugger, back on the boat and I thought I had missed my one and only chance to see the creatures.
About five minutes later more commotion from the front and we were in the water again. I kept up with the BIO this time, no way I was going to miss it a second time. He gave the instruction to look down and I couldn’t believe what I witnessed. I was right above a 7M Whale Shark. I fumbled for the record button on the camera and hoped it was recording, I didn’t have time to look.
I watched in awe as the huge fish swam under me, then I felt it. As it swished its tail on its way forward it whacked my leg (you will notice the video move off the whale shark at this point) I tried to keep up swimming with it but it decided it had had enough of us and began to dive in the murky sea until it faded.
I didn’t care, I had had my moment with this wonderful creature and it had touched me. Physically and mentally. That is now my very own personal whale shark. As in all infactuation based relationships, I am sure Willy (as I have named him) doesn’t feel the same about me, but I don’t care I am still in love.
It was an incredible experience despite the very poor weather and murky visibility. I will treasure that little bit of muddy, grainy, wobbly video for the rest of my life, that was our moment Willy and no one can ever take that away from us.
We were fortunate enough to complete a few swims that day with more whale sharks, and I must say that swimming with these ‘giants of the sea’ is an amazing experience. The Philippines Department of Tourism along with locals and other organisations impose a code of conduct for those interacting with the whale sharks. This is to prevent the animals being disturbed and ensuring the long-term sustainability of these awesome creatures.
Our other activities in this area should have included a night trip to see the fireflies in the forest, but we were told just not to bother in these monsoon type conditions. I am not sure if the fireflies sulk in the rain and decide not to put on the show, but that was the advice we received and we decided to take it.
On our way from Donsol we had also wanted to visit the Mayon volcano at Legazpi, which is famous for being both active and for having the most perfect conical, symmetrical volcanic shape on earth. But as you can see from my image taken at Legazpi bus terminal it has been shrouded in deep cloud for the whole time we have been here. Bugger, I have an active volcano visit on my bucket list so it will just have to wait for another place.
We decided to move on to Bohol in what turned out to be a complicated and frustrating journey, due to the adverse weather conditions, but that will have to wait till the next post.
The weather was not kind to us here but in the end it didn’t matter, my encounter with Willy the whale shark was all the more special after I had given up all hope.
If anything this bit of our journey has taught me is to have a little more patience and a bit of faith. As some Filipinos will tell you, pray and who knows it may happen if it’s meant to be. You cant rush nature, it will do what it wants when it wants. Not a bad life lesson, thank you Willy.