Whale sharks can be found throughout the Philippines with the best times of year being January to May. But there is one place in the Philippines where you can have an almost guaranteed encounter with a Whale Sharks during the right season, and that is in Donsol (which should not be confused with Oslob)
Before 1999, very few people had heard of Donsol
Donsol lies in the Bicol region of Luzon in the north of the Philippines. It was just one of the small fishing villages along Donsol Bay and the Donsol River. The outside world knew nothing of the Whale sharks that visit the Bay from November to June.
The fisherman only knew they were not allowed to catch them. But then, the outside world did start becoming aware of Donsol, for the locally named Butanding, known worldwide as the Whale Shark
Donsol Bay, fed by the Donsol River is rich in plankton and krill, the main food source of these gentle giants, and this is why they come back to feed, birth their young and breed year after year.
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You should not visit Oslob for a Whale Shark encounter
You may have heard of Oslob, which lies in the south of the Philippines in the Cebu province. This is where you can dive and snorkel year round with Whale Sharks, but we strongly advise not to go there.
The main reason for this is that the Whale sharks here are being fed by local fisherman and, therefore, are disturbing the natural habitat and behavior of the Whale Sharks
The Whale Shark in this area are now a huge tourist attraction, and any form of environmental awareness is long gone! It is now quite normal for an Oslob Whale shark to swim to an upcoming boat because a boat is associated with food.
It is needless to say that these frequent uncontrolled interactions with humans and boats cause a lot of injuries to the Sharks.
Donsol Bay is restricted for scuba diving, only snorkeling is allowed.
Interacting with a whale shark in a situation like this is best done on the surface. They normally stay just below the surface. While you calmly float at the surface, the whale sharks will likely approach you for a close look. They are a very curious animal and gentle.
They may come right up to you if they do you should avoid making contact with them because oils and bacteria on your skin may be harmful to them.
The Donsol Whale Shark program started off on the right foot.
It received some development funds to be established as an Eco-tourism site. A series of rules and regulations were established using experts in different disciplines. They limited the number of boats in use at any one time.
The result was a program that provided a new local industry while at the same time protecting the whale sharks and other environmental concerns. The Donsol Visitors Center is the starting point of your Whale Shark encounter.
Here you will meet your Butanding Interaction Officer (BIO), receive a (safety) briefing on the rules and regulations. Watching a short video is mandatory and part of the educational experience.
After you have watched the video you have some waivers to complete, and you will be asked to sign a statement to confirm that you understand and will follow the following rules:
- Do not touch or ride the Whale shark
- Do not restrict the movement of the shark or impede its natural path
- The recommended distance from the whale shark is 3 meters from the tail
- Do not use flash photography. Do not use scuba scooters, jet skis or any motorized underwater propulsion
- A maximum of 6 snorkelers per shark
- Only one boat per whale shark
A registration fee of 300 Philippine Pesos (PHP), less than $7 per person, is paid at the visitor center. The visitor center is where you will also rent your boat for the day. The boat package is 3,500 PHP around $75 for a half day rental.
This price is good for up to seven passengers and includes the rental and fees for the spotters/guide and Butanding (Whale Shark) Interaction Officer. The BIO will be on the boat with you all the time to ensure that everyone follows the rules.
When a Whale Shark is spotted without any snorkelers around it, the boat will slowly approach. The BIO will indicate when to stop and direct the snorkelers to jump in. The boat will then carefully depart the immediate area.
The snorkelers will have about 10 minutes of interaction with the whale shark before the boat comes back to pick up the snorkelers. The boat then moves off to find another Whale Shark.
Donsol is the place to find Whale Sharks in the Philippines
If you want to find Whale Sharks in the Philippines, you should plan a trip to Donsol. The local tourism campaign states that Donsol has the most Whale Sharks in the world. That is not fully supported by scientific evidence, though, however, given the fact that they are concentrated in a smaller area then most places it is an acceptable claim.
You will seldom see exact numbers on how many Whales Sharks are in the bay. The numbers vary, still even in a slow year the numbers are impressive and most people will see on average five different Whale sharks.
When is the best time to find Whale Sharks in the Philippines?
The migratory patterns of the Whale Shark in the Philippines and worldwide are still a mystery. However, they do return each year to the plankton-rich shores of the Philippine Islands.
Here they gouge themselves on the plankton, krill, and small marine life. The Whale Sharks start to arrive in November and reach their peak numbers in January.
The best times for seeing them in Donsol is between April and May, which is also the “summer” vacation time in the Philippines. The weather is best at this time of year and the months of eating by the Whale Sharks has reduced the plankton improving visibility in the water.
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How to get to Donsol (according to WikiTravel)?
There are several flights from Manila daily and three weekly from Cebu City (Cebu Pacific – Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday) to Legazpi. Legazpi is the biggest city in the Bicol region.
From Legazpi it is approximately 1.5hours by public van or private pick-up to Donsol.
Private vans cost from P1500-P2000 per van, and you can get them outside the airport when you arrive. They have a/c and will drop you directly at your accommodation. Private cars are also available outside the terminal, be prepared to bargain.
Public a/c vans run by UV Express are also available, take a tricycle from the airport to the bus station. Fare is P70, they leave when full and will drop you at the Donsol bus station in the town center, from where you can take another tricyle the 4km to Dancalan, unless you plan to stay in town.
Buses also are available from Manila direct to Donsol (daily, 13 hours) or to Legazpi (many buses per day, including overnight buses). If you come from Batangas you can take a bus to Turbina and from there a bus to Legazpi.
It is possible to travel from Malapascua to Donsol via Masbate in less than 24hours, there are two ferries from Bogo (1hour south of Maya), departing to Cataingan and Cawayan on Masbate. Both leave daily at midnight and arrive about 6 hours later. From either of these ports get a van to Masbate City and catch a ferry to Pilar.
What if organized Whale Shark outings like the one in Donsol are not your thing?
Divers in the Philippines are often joined by these animals while they explore the wrecks, reefs and walls of the Philippines. The Whale Sharks use the straits between the larger islands in their migration. Being slow movers, they may take weeks to navigate them.
The dive locations around Cebu and Bicol are good choices if you want an unexpected encounter with January to May being the best times.
Whale shark can be seen year round in the Philippines but you would have to be lucky to see one. A random Whale shark encounter cannot be orchestrated, but tend to be between January and May.
If you want to have a 99% chance to find a Whale shark in his natural habitat visit Donsol between April and May.
Do not get tricked into a trip to Oslob where Whale sharks can be seen year round, 24/7. The only reason this is, is because the Whale Sharks here are being fed by local fisherman.
What are your thoughts about snorkeling with the Whale sharks of Donsol? Let us know in the comments below
Article written by Rutger who is an avid scuba diver and loves to travel, dive and write about scuba diving. Based in Amsterdam he plans a dive trip of the beaten track twice a year.