Bungee jumping, no matter how scary it looks, is controlled excitement because we have control over the equipment. Same with the roller coaster and other major rides in theme parks. An interaction with whale sharks, on the other hand, is done in the whale sharks’ natural environment — the deep blue sea. The experience involves a huge shark that could grow to lengths of 18 meters and weigh 40 tons. We certainly can’t control it.
It’s going to be fun and exciting. Whale sharks are gentle creatures. I sincerely believed that. I did. I mean, I still do, except that when Mr. Spielberg created Jaws, it created in my then-young mind something which resembles phobia.
Surprisingly, it was all excitement from the start, as it should be.
Registration. The only way to safely enjoy the company of the whale sharks is through the Tourism Office. You can’t go in the boats or to the sea unless you’ve registered and paid the requisite fees. It’s also required that you’ve watched the introductory video, which includes the “rules of engagement”, or the guidelines to observe when interacting with the butanding.
Rules of Interaction. Let’s take up some of these rules. Swimmers should be 3 meters from the head and body of the butanding; 4 meters from the tail. No touching riding or restricting the movement of the butanding. A maximum of 30 boats at sea at any point in time. One one boat per whale shark, with a maximum of 6 swimmers per whale shark. Maximum of 10-minute swim with one whale shark. Flash photography is not allowed.
How to go there. By plane, through Legaspi City, then take an hour ride through Daraga to Donsol (Sorsogon). The Tourism Office, the jump-off area of the boats for whale shark interaction, is found in one of Donsol’s barangays, Dancalan. For land trip, see our itinerary for Manila to Bicol trip (Legaspi and Donsol).
Best time to go there. A lot of people go to see the whale sharks this time of the year. Whale sharks are highly migratory. They congregate in Donsol in greatest numbers between December and May each year. Best time to go is early in the morning, an imperative not only because whale sharks are mostly seen during this time, but also because you’ll run out of available slot in the designated boats if you arrive late.
Gear and equipment. Scuba, jetski and motorized underwater propulsion is not allowed. You could bring your own mask, snorkel and fins/flippers. No worries if you’ve forgot or don’t have these equipment, as there’s a lot of establishments around the Tourist Center that leases them.
For Non-Swimmers. Life vest is provided for free on board the boats. If you’re a strong swimmer and would want to interact more freely with the whale sharks, no life vest is needed. However, if you’re not a strong swimmer, it’s recommended that you wear a life vest for safety. The existence of life vest also means that non-swimmers could see the whale sharks up close, down in the water. Proficiency on how to use the mask and the snorkel is a must.
The boat crew. The boat crew is already paid for during registration. The crew includes a captain, the spotter (perched high above the boat to look for the butanding), a number of assistants, and one of the most important crew member — the BIO, or the Butanding Interaction Officer. The BIO guides the guests on which side of the boat to jump, as well as when to jump. The BIO assists the guests once in the water, telling the guests to which direction to swim and when to look down (for the non-swimmers and inexperienced swimmers).They are the first line of safety.
Jumping into the water. When the BIO says jump, better jump right away so as not to miss the butanding. The first jump is never easy. The 3-4 hours of boat time, however, provides enough opportunity to see a butanding up close. Upon drop off, the boat moves out of the vicinity, probably to remove the danger of the propellers hitting anyone or disturbing the interaction. That means a floating time of around 5 minutes until the boat circles to pick up the group.
It’s murky underwater, even a few meters from the water surface. The untrained eye wouldn’t notice anything. When the BIO says look down, better expect the butanding to be there. Brace yourself. The sight of the butanding swimming towards you, with mouth wide open, is scary and awesome at the same time. It’s like, “Naykupo, bakit pa kse ako tumalon.”
Perhaps only an insane person would happily jump from a perfectly fine boat, into the middle of the open sea, beside a huge fish that is called a whale SHARK. Maybe that’s why they call it a butanding in the dialect. Butanding sounds cute, like a cuddly little fish. Then again, a shark is called pating in the vernacular, and there’s nothing cute about that.
In my second jump, the BIO motioned for me to look down, so I did. Holy smokes, Batman! A huge butanding! Mama mia! With mouth wide open (fortunately, to scoop ONLY the plankton), it was heading towards me. I knew it was a meter or so below, but being swallowed was not my concern. Whale sharks are gentle creatures. Yes, butanding are gentle creatures. I have to repeat that a number of times to calm myself.
The butanding was going to pass directly under me — and I can see its dorsal fin and its tail coming nearer. What to do? Whatttttt!!?? My mind was racing. So was my pulse.
Sheeps! I have to move fast. I tried to swim to the left, but that means crossing over the whale shark, and I’d probably get hit by the fin. I don’t know if I’d get injured if the fin passes through my belly. I don’t know if I’d be spared even if I don’t eat shark fin soup.
I tried turning right, but because I already tried to swim left, I’m still in the path of the butanding. I’m doomed.
The butanding and its fin/tail grew bigger and bigger. And I was stationary, frozen like some yoghurt thrown into the sea. I kicked harder and hit someone in the group. They must have thought I’m mad or something. The BIO later told me that the butanding was actually 4-5 meters under me. No danger of being harmed. I thought, five meters below and it’s still that BIG. Darn.
We don’t have crisp UNDERWATER photos of the butanding. We used a low-resolution disposable underwater camera. That’s obviously not digital and we had to wind it up for the next shot, precious seconds lost when swimming after a powerful, big fish. We’re a little happy the developed photos revealed a few spots and a blurred head of a butanding. Good enough memories.
It was an amazing experience out in the deep blue sea with a huge whale shark. There will be many more opportunities to swim beside this gentle giant in the future. We should have our digital high-res underwater camera by that time. We will go back because there’s nothing to fear. Whale sharks are gentle creatures. They are gentle creatures. Repeat that a million times in your head when you go see the world-famous Donsol and its marvelous visitors — the butanding, I mean.