A tale of two tails: whale sharks of Donsol and Oslob

This is my story about my separate encounters with the whale sharks (Tagalog: butanding) of Donsol, Sorsogon and Oslob, Cebu. Let me be clear, however, that I am not a diver. Heck, I don’t even know how to swim.

The photos and videos you are about to see were taken with me holding my waterproof camera. In Donsol, I took the courage to dive into the water and float by the surface of the water in my life vest and snorkel. In Oslob, I remained in the boat and contented myself with dipping my camera into the water, hoping to get a good shot of whatever went on underneath the surface.

The glory of waiting in Donsol

We heard the excited stories of the first few groups who went whale shark watching a day before us. So with brimming anticipation, we headed out to the sea after the initial briefing from the representatives of Donsol and DENR.

We were not supposed to dive in until our guide tells us so. After about an hour of waiting, we saw other groups diving into the water. We were too far from where they were, so we had to wait for our own chance when the whale sharks head our way.  At that moment, I knew I was going to see my first whale shark that day. Swimming skills be damned!

I kept checking and re-checking my camera if it’s working fine, taking test shots from time to time. Finally, on the first “sighting”, our guide asked us to sit by the side of the boat and prepare to jump the second he says, “jump!” No hesitations, he said. Otherwise, we would miss the rare opportunity to see the butanding.

But alas, it was a false alarm. This happened three more times. Three of us from the group of four didn’t even bother to go back to our seats anymore, choosing to stay by the side of the boat and jump when the signal is given. At some point, after a little over three hours of waiting and going around the water, one of my colleagues said we have to go back because she badly needed to pee.

Someone asked me if we should go back, and I firmly said “No. We won’t go back until we see even just one whale shark. We waited this long, we will wait longer until we’re told that our time is up.” And wait we did, with the sun now almost directly above us.

Near the fourth hour, all our enthusiasm were beginning to sink. We were exhausted, thirsty and hungry. Even I was ready to give up. Besides, we have already exceeded the allotted time that we paid for. But our guide, bless him, remained willful for us. We probably looked so kawawa with our amateurish gear and ignorance of what we were supposed to encounter.

And then it came. On the fourth hour, we saw its tail bobbing up the surface. Our guide waited, we had no idea for what. We were like hungry predators ready to jump into the water. Finally, when our guide shouted, “jump!”, they all jumped, except me. The loser that I was missed the cue by half a second, so I jumped in last. You can sense the confusion in the video below, and then on the 46th second the whale sharked appeared.

I didn’t see the entirety of this beautiful creature, but seeing it swim by below me for 30 miraculous seconds is by far the most exhilarating experience I’ve had in my life! Four hours of waiting in exchange for 30 seconds is definitely worth the wait.

Oslob: the agony of not knowing

When I told my diver friend that I would be going to Oslob for the whale shark encounter, she vehemently asked me not to go. I told her I know why, but I just had to document it myself so I have proof to go with this blog. The only way I could reassure her was to promise that I wouldn’t dive into the water.

Just like in Donsol, there was proper briefing for the whale shark watchers in Oslob. They gave similar information, precautions and warnings (stay away from the butanding, do not touch them, do not put on sunscreen and hair conditioner, etc.). After a few minutes, we sailed into the water.

A few meters in, our boat stopped. After several minutes, my companions jumped into the water. There were at least 10 boats, all carrying tourists, with the same objective: swim with the whale sharks and take pictures and videos with them. Everyone went crazy with excitement as whale sharks swam towards the boats while fishermen fed them with tiny shrimps.

A fisherman lures a whale shark with a handful of shrimps.
A whale shark hits its head in an attempt to feed near the boat.

Whale sharks were everywhere. Fishermen were volunteering to take pictures of the tourists under that water for a perfect view with the whale sharks. One of the fishermen tried to shoo away a whale shark that was almost ramming the side of his boat. He was hitting it with his paddle, even laughing when he told another fishermen that he hit one. With the little Cebuano that I know, I heard him say the word “igo“, which is “hit” in Cebuano.

I dipped my camera into the water, aimlessly maneuvering the stick (my phone’s preview capability wasn’t working) to see if I could catch a shot of the whale sharks, and how close they were to the watchers. I got more than what I had hoped for. I saw slash marks on a whale shark’s tail and fin.

In case you missed them, here are screen shots of the wound marks:



Exactly how close were the watchers swimming with the whale sharks? See for yourself:

I know what you might be thinking: why did I even join the whale shark watchers in Oslob if I was against the practice? Like I said, I have to see and record it myself so I can have a little bit of credibility when I talk about it here. Remember, I don’t even know how to swim.

If you want to know more about whale sharks and why this kind of practice being done in Oslob is not right, read Save Philippine Seas and this diver’s take on swimming with whale sharks. For further education, you may also want to consider reading National Geographic’s article on the possible long-term effect of feeding sharks in general.

Donsol, Puerto Princesa, and Sogod Bay are just some of the more responsible ones that can give you a rare opportunity to see whale sharks. I know, I know, what I did is also wrong in a way. I just had to show it here because I have the gift to write about it. Never again, Oslob. Never again.

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