Booking acco is a lot harder than it appears, as there is only one landline in Donsol and most people make do with cell phones which seem to be almost permanently outside the coverage area. There is of course no internet and other connectivity either and hence reservations are made manually (our resort used a blackboard!) and the entire thing is a rather hit-and-miss affair.
But it was a decision well-taken. Swimming with the whale sharks has definitely been a highlight of our life and easily one of the top three experiences we have shared together (the others would possibly be soaking in the panorama of the French Alps from the top of Mt. Blanc and spending happy hours listening to music at St. Marks' Square in Venice)
We took the Air Philippines flight to Legazpi, which is the capital of Bicol province and the closest airport to Donsol. It is also the home of the Mayon volcano, of which we have already written. The terminal building is a quaint little garage-sized unit that has the mandatory bird-flu foot bath, a superb view of the volcano, and little else - not even a conveyor belt for the baggage!
On to Donsol
From the airport you have a choice of regular taxis (can be bargained down to 700-800 pesos) and air-conditioned vans (shared, at about 60 pesos a head). Having done little research before coming, we made the mistake of taking a taxi and spending way more than required.
The ride itself is a little over an hour on decent roads till you actually reach Donsol town, where the taxi will ask you to alight and continue on with a tricycle (no, it's not what you are picturing - it's a motorbike with a covered side car and will take perhaps 40 pesos). You need not do this, as the road onwards is just about wide enough to accommodate a taxi. It was being widened when we went so I guess it would be even better in a few months.
The Woodlands Resort
Last-minute begging and pleading by Sandi helped us get a non-aircon room (800 pesos) at the Woodlands Resort, a comfortable and friendly place with cheap and good food, though not very upmarket. Don't land up expecting a pool with jacuzzi please!! The only luxury was an outdoor hammock that was almost permanently occupied.
The weather was pleasant - at least for Indians - and we felt no need for an aircon, the pedestal fan being enough to keep us quite cool. Aircon rooms are larger, with a sitout and come for about 1500 pesos. There is little scope for negotiation in season and anyway you're usually thankful that you have a reservation at all, given the hi-tech nature of the process.
One of the plus points of staying at Woodlands is that you are within a short walk of the Tourist Office which is where you need to go to register and get a boat to go see the whale sharks. And if you are a diver, there's Prosafari, a diving service provider situated on the Woodlands premises.
Another good option is to stay at Vitton, which looks a shade better and is situated right next to the Tourist Office.
Registration at the Tourist Office
OK, now this is the part that could make or break your trip so pay attention. The system has been carefully designed and tuned to perfection to ensure that is the most illogical and unreasonable process known to man. If there was a perfect example of how to take a simple thing and make it into a tangled weave of uncertainty and confusion, this is it.
Everyone (foreigners and Filipinos alike) has to register at the tourist office before they can have a shot at the Butanding. Registration is a nominal 100 pesos for locals and 300 for foreign nationals. The boat with crew, BIO (our guide, the Butanding Interaction Officer) and spotter comes for 3,500 pesos and can carry up to seven people.
You fill out a form with your details and get assigned a boat number. If you are few, try to team up with others (you'll find many people at the office who would be glad to share) to reduce your costs per head.
And then boat numbers are called as they are available and the respective groups make their way to their boats and spend a happy morning frolicking with the sharks. Right?
The Tourist Office seems to operate under the assumption that the number assignments are a basis for further negotiation. In other words, it only entitles you to participate in a raffle, as it were. Thanks to the efforts of a zealous lady who is assigned to sort out your forms and put them 'in order', the numbers are called out like in American football, "36, 24, 16, 52, HIKE!" or something like that.
Thousands of years of mathematical evolution seem to have passed this lady by and she seems to be unaware of the serial nature of numbers. To her they are only symbols and and could have easily been substituted by hieroglyphics, had she known what they were.
To compound the problem, they don't tell you when your number is likely to come, forcing dozens of people to camp in front of the desk waving their tokens and praying to their respective deities to get them a boat. It was in this process that I discovered that Hinduism has a significant gap in its array of gods - there is nobody we can turn to for expediting our token.
And the ultimate irony? The local government, in its infinite wisdom, had organized a parade of boats for that morning which no tourist went to see because they were at the tourist office clamouring for boats, which weren't there because they were all at the parade! Its funny in hindsight...
Anyway, to cut a long story short, we had to wait from 7:30 am to 12 pm to get a boat, by which time the butanding had all gone off to sleep and the few who were there were being wooed by some 60 boats (the parade was over by then, you see), making it impossible to get a decent sighting.
But We Made Up the Next Day
Disappointed by the first day's experience, we decided to cut down our planned time in Legazpi and give the butanding another shot the following morning. And we were not disappointed.
Wiser from the previous day's experience (and due to the fact that the 'sorting lady' was missing in action due to the stress of the previous day) the tourist office had set a limit of 25 boats at a time and we managed to get on to the 16th (though our number was 10 - they never learn...).
And it was amazing! We saw and swam with 13 butanding seeing about 9 in the first hour itself. In fact, they were so numerous in the morning that no sooner would we get into the boat after a swim, we'd be told to put on our fins and be ready to dive again! On at least two occassions, the fish decided to rise while I was directly above it, making me scamper quickly out of the way. And I had to be careful not to be hit by the tail on several occassions when I fell back. But they are so gentle and go about their own business - I guess to them we're some funny coloured fish like the many that swim along under them... Boy, was it worth it! Sandi and I were within touching distance of the fish on several occassions.
Armed with my trusty disposable underwater camera (525 pesos in Manila) I was able to take some decent shots, though the water was murky with plankton - which is why the sharks are in Donsol in the first place, so one cannot complain - and they did not come out as clear as I hoped.
A ghostly shape in the water
The gills and back of the head
Dorsal fin - from right next to it! The fins are distinctive and the fish can often be recognized from the cuts (usually from propellors or fishing attempts) and abrasions on it
The view from above
Say hello to Mr. Whale Shark!
Also check out this video, which is what made up our minds to go to Donsol.
Tips for First Timers
Based on our experience, we think the following will help:
- Get to the tourist office by 7 am, the opening time, register and get your number as early as possible. It is possible to register the evening before but don't bother with that unless they also give you a boat number
- Stand at the desk, making sure you are on the first few boats
- Go in the morning, preferably when it's sunny. Afternoons and rainy days are not good for spotting
- Find people to share with, preferably not more than 5 swimmers in all due to the jostling that invariably happens when so many people are trying to follow the same fish. The ones behind invariably get kicked in the face and give up after a few attempts!
- If you are a weak swimmer ask the BIO to hold you by the hand and guide you - you'll get the best view this way
- Keep swimming with the fish - don't stop in awe as you'll find it difficult to catch up
- Don't bother trying to aim the camera - just point in the general direction and shoot
- Try to get near the mouth so you can see the mouth and eye - Sandi managed to do this and was rewarded with a wonderful viewpoint
- Keep your fins on all the time in the boat, as you'll have to jump at a moment's notice
- Keep a spare day as backup. If you have a good sighting on the first day, you can always visit Legazpi on the extra day
That's all folks! Do get to Donsol next year - and write to tell us how you liked the experience!
Oh, I forgot to tell you about the Firefly Cruise! Sandi, do you want to tell them about that?