In this blog post, I will discuss what the Donsol Whale Shark Interaction was like for a tourist and also what the Eco-tourism initiative is all about. By the end of this article, you should have an idea of whether it is something you agree with and want to participate in based on my personal experience.
Wondering what Camera and Photography Gear I take all my photos with while traveling around the world? Click Here to view my detailed guide about all of the gear I use and recommend for travel photography.
My travel insurance: One last thing before you get started! Have you got your travel insurance yet? You can Click Here to find out how I get the best deal on travel insurance, which insurance recommend using in Southeast Asia and why I never travel without it. *This blog post involves photos of my bike crash.
WHERE IS DONSOL, SORSOGON?
Donsol is a municipality in the Sorsogon region Bicol, which is in Luzon, Philippines. 15 years ago it was home to local fisherman and their families. The village had unpaved roads and water wells. Today it is a hub of tourism and the home of the Whale Shark Interaction Eco-Tourism Project.
Donsol is leading the way (in the Philippines) for sustainable tourism but also for involving the public in a great interaction with a gentle giant, the Whale Shark or Butanding as it is known in Tagalog.
Where is Donsol and how to get there
We were staying at Casa Simeon in Legazpi, Bicol and took a van to Donsol, Sorsogon, which took about 2 hours. I have placed a map below to show you how far Donsol is from Manila.
Before 1999 Donsol was a small village in Sorsogon going about its own business. The village relied heavily on fishing and no one bothered too much about the Whale Sharks that would visit the bay every year during the November to June period. Donsol River, which feeds into Donsol bay, is teeming with plankton and krill. The Whale Sharks return to Donsol each year to feed and breed.
Donsol eco-tourism initiative is led by the WWF. It was set up and is monitored by experts in the field of maritime conservation.
Rules and limitations were put in place early to create a sustainable tourism operation that was beneficial to the Whale Sharks and not just to the humans profiting from the situation. Too often around the world, humans take advantage of popular animals and greed clouds their judgment when establishing such interactions. Donsol has put in considerable effort to avoid this situation.
The rules and limitations were:
- Don’t touch the Whale Shark
- Don’t restrict the movement of the Whale Shark or impede its natural path
- The recommended distance from the whale shark is 3 meters from the tail
- No flash photography.
- No scuba scooters, jet skis or any motorized underwater propulsion
- A maximum of 6 snorkelers per Whale Shark
- Only one boat per Whale Shark
A registration fee of 300 Philippine Pesos (PHP), less than $7 per person, is paid at the visitor center. The visitor center is where you will also rent your boat for the day. The boat package is 3,500 PHP around $75 for a half day rental.
Most of these rules are enforced but during my interaction, there were several rules overlooked, which I will discuss below.
When is Donsol Whale Shark Season
Donsol is one of just a few places in the world that can almost guarantee sightings during the Whale Shark season. During the month of November all the way through to June Whale Shark season is on in Donsol, Sorsogon. The Whale Sharks come to Donsol Bay and stay for 6-7 months feeding on the rich nutrients that flow down from the mouth of the Donsol River.
My Donsol Whale Shark Interaction
The idea is that your boat has 6 people on board only. When your captain and spotter find Whale Shark, the boat approaches and then the BIO (Butanding Interaction Officer) instructs you when to enter the water.
We spent the first hour looking for the Donsol Whale Sharks but there was no luck. The captains, spotters, and tourists on all of the 25 boats out on the water began to get frustrated it seemed.
Finally, a Whale Shark was spotted and all of the boats spun around and headed straight to the scene. Because the Whale Shark was cruising through it is hard for the boats to drop off the passengers in a good spot. We ended up watching group after group being dropped in the water wondering when we could get in.
Donsol was marketed as the wild experience. I had imagined one boat going out to find the Whale Sharks but that seemed to be naive. There were 25 boats full of tourists in life jackets all waiting to find the Whale Sharks.
When our boat finally dropped us in the water there were at least 6 other groups in the water all trying to see the same whale shark. The one boat per Whale Shark limit seemed to have been forgotten in the rush to make sure the tourists at least got a glimpse of the shark. I can understand the captains don’t want to spend three hours on the water and have their guests disappointed at not seeing a Donsol Whale Shark.
I was finally in the water and wow there he was, a giant Whale Shark in Donsol Bay! He was swimming fast and being a good swimmer I managed to keep up with him while staying the required distance away. All of the tourists kept being dropped in the water and the Whale Shark and I dodged them continuously as we cruised around the bay together.
Most of these tourists would have had a glimpse of the Donsol Whale Shark for less than ten seconds but because I could keep up I hung out with him for several minutes.
That was the only Whale Shark we saw all day but it was a great experience. Of course, it would be great to spend one hour with these gentle giants but that would likely mean we would have to lure them with food or make a negative impact on them. So we accept that we get a short time with the sharks but they can live a natural life without being impacted negatively by humans. That is essentially the trade-off so we shouldn’t get greedy and be thankful the rules remind us what is best for the Whale Sharks of Donsol.
Here are some screenshots from the videos I was taking on my GoPro. It was a bit hazy and all over pretty quickly so the shots aren’t anything too amazing.
Oslob v Donsol Whale Shark Interaction
I have now experienced both the Oslob and Donsol Whale Shark Interaction and these are the observations I have made below. You can click here to see my Oslob Whale Shark interaction blog post.
Oslob has more tourists in the water at once than Donsol
Oslob feeds the whales to attract them to shore for tourists.
The Oslob whale sharks have scars from running into boats and propellers as they surface to be fed.
Oslob is cheaper than Donsol Whale Shark Interaction
Oslob is more of a production line. Donsol still has elements that don’t feel great but overall it is less of a production line.
Oslob didn’t monitor the rules at all or penalize people for touching the sharks.
Oslob was one boatman per 20 tourists and I never saw our instructor the whole time. In Donsol, it was 6 of us and our BIO, who helped us to position and also kept an eye on us so we were behaving and not breaking the rules.
Below are several photos from Oslob Whale Shark Interaction I took one year ago.
Conclusion after experiencing both Donsol Whale Shark interaction and Oslob Whale Shark interaction
Having experienced both Oslob and the Donsol Whale Shark interaction, it is clear to me that Donsol is the best option. It is harder to reach, less time with the whales, more expensive and fewer guarantees. However, you still get that interaction with the whales and the most important factor is that the Whale Sharks are left to be wild. Humans still might annoy them to a degree, with all their splashing, yelling and chasing but they are not physically touched, not fed, not herded.
Environmental tourism with animals will never be perfect. Perfect is to leave an animal alone in the wild. But Whale Shark Interactions like those in Donsol show that there is always an opportunity to combine a successful tourism economy for a local community while still respecting the animal, which is essentially the revenue generator!
In my opinion, Oslob isn’t disastrous. They will likely soon put limitations to stop the feeding, which will stop the Whale Sharks running into the boats most likely. Other than the feeding Oslob is also trying to do the education of protecting the Whale Shark. Oslob just needs to make a few necessary adjustments so it can do it’s Whale Sharks proud!
But for now, Donsol is leading the way and we should always support the leader who is putting in the time and effort to make the sustainable eco-tourism initiative!