The Best Place in the Philippines to Swim with the Whale Sharks; Donsol, Legazpi

If you are after the whale shark experience you have two options in the Philippines. Oslob (Cebu) or Donsol (Sorsogon). I have done both and Donsol is the clear winner, and is without doubt my favourite activity in the Philippines. You get a much more authentic experience in the Donsol whale shark interaction, and the experience is about far more than your whale shark encounter alone. You have to get out there and find the whale sharks first!

The waiting and the anticipation that can go on for hours while you are searching the bay for a whale shark. The adrenaline rush when one is spotted and you jump in the water, and then keeping your composure and awareness levels in the water to actually see the thing all makes for a unique and amazing experience.

There are two trade offs that you need to accept if you come to Donsol instead of Cebu. The first is that you are not guaranteed to spot any whale sharks. There is a possibility that you will spend three hours in a boat moving up and down the bay and find nothing. I have experienced this once out of five morning on the water. While disappointing it is still not a bad way to send the day. However, it is the waiting and the uncertainty that is what builds the anticipation and adrenaline rush when you hear the spotter scream out ‘Butanding’ and point to a big dark shadow moving through the water.

When the big moment arrives you rush around the boat to find your flippers and snorkel that you had grown complacent with in the preceding hours. As you rush to get ready the crew position the boat ahead of the whale sharks path, and the guide gives you the signal to jump in. the water. When you bring your head up it is a tense and frantic moment as you try to find the guide and swim over to him. There is a lot happening around you, but it is important to keep your composure and relax in the water so you have the awareness to follow the guides instructions. The guide takes you off into the open water, stops, points and yells “over here, over here!!” Now is your chance! With any luck he will swim right by you. Being this close to such a large and wild animal is an amazing experience and once you do it once you will be hooked.

They move rather slowly through the water, so if you are a half decent swimmer you can dive down and swim along side them for as long as you can hold your breath. An awesome feeling to be swimming along next to a 25-30 foot whale, with a few babies in tow.

The second trade off is that the water is not as clear as it is in Cebu… The murky water is kind of the point though. This is why the Butanding are here in the first place! Amongst all those floating organisms is their primary source of food; plankton. There are fluctuations in the visibility and most of the time it is fine, but it can add to the disorientation that you may feel once in the water on a bad day.

I have experienced a day of poor visibility once, and it was difficult to see the whale shark until I was just a few feet away. Swimming along you could see nothing and then out of nowhere this wall of animal just appeared in front of me! On other days you can see them from a fair distance away. Certainly a much more comfortable situation to be in if you have that buffer zone of a few metres, and also ensures compliance with the local rules surrounding your interaction.

Back on the mainland you have a choice of just a handful of hotels. Elysia Beach Resort is my top pick. The rooms are modern and clean, and there are not too many in the complex. The grounds are very well kept which makes for some very relaxing surroundings. The hammocks and huts on the beach are a great place to relax and have a beer. However, the best thing about this place is the restaurant. Every dish is exceptional, and reasonably priced. There are some unique and imaginative cocktails on the menu also.

I have also stayed at the Vitton Beach Resort after Elysia was temporarily closed due to typhoon damage. The complex is a bit older, but the rooms and facilities are nice enough. The family rooms right on the water are quite nice and have a good balcony to watch the sunsets from. The restaurant I thought let this pace down though. The serving sizes are small, the serving time incredibly long, and the food quality does not match the price. You will also have one or more dogs annoy you while eating. Not something you will encounter at Elysia.

While in town check out the firefly tour at night. Even if its not your thing, go anyway. I had no real expectations and just went because there wasn’t anything else to do. It was again one of the coolest things I have seen in my time in the Philippines. You have the option to go on a dinner cruise on a larger barge type boat. I would recommend the more personal option of the smaller boat for just a couple of people. You get a much more intimate experience with the fireflies and can also learn more from your guide as you are pretty much one on one.

One final word of warning, be careful walking along the main road at night. We found out the hard way that there are some fairly aggressive and unrestrained guard dogs outside the houses along the street, as well as any number of street dogs. Do yourself a favour and either take a tricycle every where after dark, or just walk along the beach… This is a challenge at high tide, but better to get wet then bitten by a stray dog.

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