“Promise me you won’t go there…” his swimmingly blue-green eyes turn stony, the inflections in his French accent stirring grave sincerity.
“I did, and I saw terrible, terrible things…”
I’ve jumped through hoops for Geoff – literally. (Geoff is not a whale shark… please bear with me.) I’ve followed him through shark-infested waters. He’s beaten me at egg-yolk-tennis at -30 metres. He’s been instructing for three years, and here on this Island for twelve months. He knows the Philippines and he know’s what’s under the surface. This guy has my respect.
Geoff’s eyes light up like a child behind his tempered-glass mask as they follow a stingray flurry past. He is fascinated by tiny porcelain crabs that jitter beneath anemones. He cares that the coffee sachets on the dive boat create a de trop of plastic. So when he flinches with horror as I ask him “have you been to Donsol?” and near-wretches at the mention of the town of Oslob, then makes me promise I’ll stay away – I listen. And just in the nick of time.
March 4th 2013 is the day I will turn 29 years old. Aside from the fact that I’m stepping into the daunting shadow of that towering milestone with the numbers “3″ and “0″ painted on, it’s the first time I’ll ever experience a birthday without family or friends (and in an un-vegetarian-friendly country, to boot.) Not very “me” – but what does float my boat is the prospect of a natural encounter with the ethereal, bespeckled butanding, the king of the fish, the mighty whale shark.
I don’t have a “bucket list” per se, but if I did, THIS would be on it. I’ve heard folks describe snorkelling with whale sharks as a spiritual awakening. It just so happens that it’s prime whale shark spotting season in the Philippines… and in what more distinguished company could a dreamy Piscean swim into their 30th year?
Dreamy Piscean wakes up to the prospect of the looming 3 and the 0
Unfortunately, my initial research on whale shark encounters in the Philippines uncovered some murky results. Appallingly, at aforementioned Oslob, Cebu (please stop convulsing, Geoff), whale sharks are now dependant on the bait used daily by fishermen to lure them in for tourists. Not only that, the tours appear anarchic, with disturbing accounts and photo evidence of some serious whale shark abuse. This Deepsea News article explains.
Oslob fisherman and whale shark
However, after reading Lessons from Donsol, an ABS-CBN News article highlighting the exemplary operations of whale shark watching at another location, Donsol, on the Philippines’ largest island, Luzon, I was convinced that there was actually a legitimately eco-friendly place to watch sharks, the sharks’ wellbeing the foremost principle for tour operators there.
I promptly booked a domestic flight – a less-than desirable 4am departure – but with travel time perfectly scheduled for splash-down on the birthday with the gentle giants of the sea at Donsol, unofficially proclaimed “whale shark capital of the world”.
Why then, did I feel a churning in my waters when I hit “purchase flight”? Perhaps it was Piscean intuition. In any case, when I asked Geoff if he’d visited Donsol, I was disappointingly unsurprised that my swirling suspicions had been right.
“It’s ‘orrible. I saw a person standing on one of ze sharks,” he lamented. “I was drowning, pushed underwater by a ‘ysterical snorkler, desperate to get closer…” I didn’t tell him about the flight I’d booked. I slipped away from the dive shop to my room. I flipped up my laptop.
Google: “Donsol + bad”. 188,000 + results in 0.26 seconds.
A few accounts from TripAdvisor summed up the experience.
“The boats zig and zag until one almost runs into a whaleshark, then every boat within a half kilometer frenzies towards the area… Breaking the 1 boat 1 shark rule is standard practice… It’s chaos in the water with bubbles, orange life jackets, and frantic flippers everywhere. Many people tire or cannot swim so you have to dodge and/or push them out of the way as you follow the shark,” wrote one tourist from Washington, USA.
A senior reviewer on the site wrote,“We went out three times in two days…and finally joined 29 other boats and perhaps 200 other people in chase of one very patient whale shark. I was kicked in the head and pushed multiple times…”
Chaos in the water
Even some of the positive reviews had a sour note, like this one from a Belgian visitor -
“Keep in mind that it’s very touristic and forget about the WWF rules such as one boat per whale shark. On the other hand it’s better this than killing them as before…”
Perhaps Naserah from Sri Lanka summed it up best:
“All the brochures and write ups I read… indicated that at Donsol it was not a matter of whether you saw whale sharks, but a matter of how many….Not so. While we were lucky to have encountered them, many tourists came away disappointed without having had any sightings… perhaps the reasons for this should be examined, particularly if 10-12 boats, each with about 6-8 people on board, surrounding ONE singular creature could be a factor…”
All hearsay, but it sounded to me like more like a shitfight than a life-changing experience.
So, flicking from website to website, I sank deeper into the search for a spot to where whale shark watching can be done respectfully and peacefully – sans the poorly fitted, beacon-orange-jacket-clad, homicidal frenzies of heedless desperadoes.
I think I’ve surfaced with an answer… but this place won’t be easy to reach, nor is it guaranteed I’ll see a shark. I won’t make it on my birthday – in fact I might not make it at all, but I’ll try. In the meantime I’ll dream not of clanking boats, flailing flippers or whale rider imitators. Instead I’ll dream of the silence of the ocean, that unmistakeable square silhouette in the distance, and the flick of a spotted tail as it turns and disappears from view.
I’ll be scraping the secretion from my eyes as I arrive at Mactan-Cebu International Airport at 2am, missing a night’s sleep for what I thought would be a race to Southeast Luzon and a magical birthday treat. Ah well – it is the Philippines. There does just so happen to be this picturesque volcano nearby, that’s asking to be climbed…
***Have you swum with the whale sharks in Oslob or Donsol, or had a similar experience elsewhere in the world? My decision not to go was based on information I was told or read… would you have gone and paid in order to see for yourself? Or, do you think it’s okay to touch/pet/scramble over/stand on the whale sharks? Your comments are appreciated!