Donsol in Sorsogon was once a sleepy fishing town that was transformed into a prime tourist spot, all thanks to the whale sharks (butanding in the local tongue) that frequent Donsol’s waters every December to May. They were able to create an effective eco-tourism strategy that promotes whale shark interaction, but with minimal impact to the gentle giants.
We were lucky to have the opportunity to swim with these impressive creatures in early 2010 during our trip to Bicol to visit a friend.
Getting to Donsol
From the Legazpi Airport, take a tricycle to the Public Terminal in Legazpi. Look for the public vans going to Donsol and wait for the seats to be filled (Fare is about Php 100 per person). From Donsol city proper, take a tricycle to Dancalan Beach.
For our trip, our host had a car so we drove to Donsol with no problems. We were even able to have fresh coconut juice when we saw some fresh buko being sold along the road.
We paid for the boat rental (Php 3,500 for 7 passengers maximum), which we divided among the five of us, registration fee (php 100/person) and snorkel rental (Php 300). At the time, there were only about two or three other groups lined up for the tour so we did not have long to wait before we were ushered in to their office. We watched a video introduction about whale sharks and some general instructions on how to best interact with them. The main point was that we were not supposed to go too near the whale sharks to avoid any accidents and also to avoid disturbing them.
Whale Shark Interaction
After this, we were introduced to our Butanding Interaction Officer (BIO). He told us that he would be our guide during the interaction and led us to our boat. The boat crew included a spotter, whose task is to look for the whale sharks so our boat can go near them.
Our BIO instructed us to stay by the side of the boat with our snorkels already in place, and wait for his signal to jump off the boat when the whale shark is within distance.
We didn’t have long to wait, and at his signal, we jumped into the water excitedly. When I put my head in the water, my initial reaction was fear. The whale shark was huge, as big as a bus!
Then I reminded myself that they were harmless creatures who are only interested in plankton, so I just marveled at their large size and spotted skin while they calmly glided past us.
We jumped into the water several times more to see the gentle giants, and I still felt awe every time I see them. Our BIO was very helpful (and very strong) as he dragged the girls (my friend and myself) to keep up with the whale sharks. He also volunteered to take underwater photos of the sharks for us, since we were too slow to get a lot of good shots.
We hardly noticed the time, and just like that the allotted three hours for our interaction was over. We headed back to Dancalan Beach, tired but overwhelmed from the experience.
Enjoying the sunset
We got back to Dancalan Beach in the mid-afternoon. Our next activity, firefly watching, wouldn’t start until after dark, so we went around Donsol town to look for a place to eat then returned to Dancalan Beach before dark. We still had a few hours to spare so we decided to hang out at the beach resort beside the Tourism Office. We whiled away the time by enjoying the view of the majestic sunset.
At about 6 pm, we went to the designated area for booking the Firefly Watching tour. We paid Php 1,250 for the boat (maximum of 7 persons in a boat), which included a guide.
Our guide led us to the bank of the Ugod river where our boatman was waiting for us. The moon was almost full and there were few clouds in the sky so the night was a bit bright, but we were still able to see the trees along the river bank alight with hundreds of fireflies. The view was calming and pleasant to the senses (sans the good photographs since it was dark and the boat was rocking).
Sidetrip: Cagsawa Ruins
Since the access to Donsol includes passing by Albay (Legazpi Airport), we made sure to slip in a visit to the famed Cagsawa Ruins Park. The area was devastated by Mt. Mayon’s explosive eruption in the 19th century. What remained of the previous Cagsawa town and nearby areas was the belfry of the Cagsawa Church, which is now postcard-famous for its picturesque view of Mt. Mayon as the backdrop.
We took a jeepney from Legazpi town proper then a tricycle to the ruins. We were lucky to have visited on a bright sunny day, our view of Mayon Volcano was perfect!
There were kids offering to take our photos for us, and it was a good thing we relented despite our initial hesitation. They seemed they know their way around cameras, so we happily obeyed their instructions to pose this way and that. The photos looked great and we enjoyed our photoshoot. We decided to give the kid Php 50, although he didn’t really say how much he wanted.
Our Donsol adventure was really worth the trip. Seeing the majestic creatures up close was really a treat. Watching the fireflies and seeing the perfect cone of Mayon Volcano was an added visual bonus. This trip will remain one of my most memorable experiences.