Contrary to our 2008 attempt when we spent 3 hours waiting and waiting for naught, each attempt a failure.  Disappointed but not defeated, I promised to come back someday.  That someday finally arrived.

“Get ready”, Allan ordered.  We grabbed our fins, mask and sat at the edge of the banca ready for action at the word “go”.  The water was murky owing to a typhoon that hit the area a few days earlier.  As soon as my eyes adjusted to the murky water, I saw a dark image, more like a shadow below me.  Then it disappeared into the deep.  Is that it? I wondered.

Minutes later, we repeated the same exercise but this time with more success.  I could figure out the spots moving gently below me.  Immediately I pointed my camera and shot away, trying to capture images of the world’s largest living fish – a whale shark or what locals call butanding.

Our encounter most likely a juvenile.

These gentle giants can measure up to 15-20 meters long and weigh up to 35 tons.  They have very distinct color markings of pale spots and stripes against a dark background.    Butandings have been observed to converge in the waters off Donsol from November – May.  Each year they disappear in June and find their way back again November without fail.  They come to feed off the plankton rich waters of Donsol.

Sorsogon has been part of the migration highway of one of the highest concentration of whale sharks in the world for generations, sighted and slaughtered since residents could remember.  In 1998, the Department of Agriculture issued a Fisheries Administration order – banning the capture, sale, purchase, possession, transport, or export of whale sharks.

Eco-tourism replaced the age-old hunting practices and since then tourist flock to Donsol in increasing numbers year after year, rising from a 5th class municipality in 1998 to 1st class today.

Barangay Dancalan is where the tourist center is and where one goes to register for a boat and guide.

While close interaction with wildlife is a delicate topic, the World Wildlife Fund has teamed up with the local tourism office to create rules and some best practices for the tour.

With success comes disorganization.  It was disappointing to see that boat operators and some guides or what they call Butanding Interaction Officers (BIO) oftentimes ignore the rules of interaction.

Ironically, a poster of the rules is plastered on the wall of the tourist center for everyone’s guidance while a video is shown throughout the day, a requirement before one goes off to the water.

Outside of the video, pasted on the wall for everyone’s information is the rules of interaction.

Sadly, the non observance has happened in 2008 resulting to our failed attempts.  Today, it is more glaring.

I was engrossed with my encounter, swimming along with this big boy albeit in murky waters, then a fin hits my face,

All after the same fish less than 10 minutes after we jumped.

I looked up and to my dismay, saw more than a dozen heads (definitely more than the 6 allowed per whale shark) bobbing and snorkeling in one direction.  As we were swimming back to our boat, we bumped into a tourist in the water.  Looking resigned he said to us, “This is ridiculous.”  And indeed, it was.

The scene we left — at least a dozen boat fighting for an encounter with the butanding.

Having had 2 sightings, which was more than our 2008 experience, we decided to leave even before our 3 hours were up. Happy with the encounter but saddened by the way things are being handled in that once sleepy fishing village.


3 thoughts on “Finally!

  1. Oh dear… I’m sorry to say it, this depresses me. I’ve been wanting to go to Bicol to swim with the butanding for two decades already, I have friends who live there inviting me, but somehow I never got the timing right (I’ve been to Bicol, but in the wrong season). Now what you describe with the crowds and over regulation, I’ve lost the desire. Sayang!!


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