“Look there! Okay everyone… get ready!” the captain commanded over the rumble of the motor. We turned our attention west as the boat kicked into high gear. In the distance, I caught a glimpse of it. Water swished and swirled as the black crest emerged and maneuvered at the surface. “Let’s go! To the left side of the boat!” Scrambling for fins and snorkel masks, we hastily geared up and positioned ourselves port side among the other three passengers. After a morning of false alarms and unfulfilled anticipation, the pressure for this one was building.
It was our second trip out in pursuit of the ever-evasive butanding, or whale shark. On the first search off Donsol’s shore just days prior, Michael had seen one at close range, from massive head to swaying tail. Aware our quest came at the very beginning of the season, we were lucky just to get a glimpse of a few active dorsal fins near the boat. Still, I was keen for my own encounter with the biggest fish in the sea.
The last few seconds above water were a blur. Over my shoulder, shouts from the crew urged us to move quickly. “Now! Go!” I secured on my mask, took a deep breath, and plunged over the edge. The water was murky with plankton and I focused my eyes to see through the haze. Not more than a few yards away, little, white dots were fast approaching and growing in size. I knew those spots. Whale shark skin! Google image searches, YouTube videos, and the mandatory ‘before your interaction’ video at the tourism center prepared me for what I would see, but not how I would feel in the company of that which I sought. I was stunned but intrigued, and somehow resisted an urge to reach out and touch the shark to make sure it was real (I like to play by the rules… we’re told we can look, but not touch). I held my position, taking in the sight of the giant that passed beneath me. Then, realizing that very soon it would be gone, I kicked my feet as fast as they would propel me. Must. Not. Lose. Sight. Steadfast, I followed the shark for a few seconds before it took off into the abyss. “Farewell, fishy,” I thought.
The whole thing couldn’t have lasted more than 60 seconds, but that moment overflowed with intensity. My senses were buzzing. I felt electric on an adrenaline kick, and yet so vulnerable, just feet from the massive creature, which I estimate to have been between 20 and 25 feet long. The big blue ocean is a thing of wonder, but for some, a source of fear as well. Perhaps it has something to do with all the unknown. To be there, to have that experience, to feel the adventure… Jumping into the deep with little visibility, and hoping to find a huge shark is not part of my general repertoire. But what’s life without a little risk and pumping up the heart rate?
Back on the boat, my grin spread from ear to ear. I shook my head to indicate that yes, I had seen the butanding. The captain nodded back in approval. Michael squeezed my hand and we spent the next 45 minutes on the boat enjoying the warmth of the sun and salty breeze. There were no other sightings in our remaining time on the water that morning, but I was okay with that. My experience in Donsol was complete; I’d be going home with a spectacular memory of the day I swam with a whale shark.
Some things to know about searching for whale sharks in Donsol…
- The excursion is about 3 hours long, 85% of which is primarily comprised of what I like to call hurry up and wait, because that’s just what you do. Sadly, many times a whale shark is spotted, it will dive too deep before you have a chance to get to to it (hence, all the aforementioned false alarms). But what can you do? Just cross your fingers and hope you see one!
- There are a few guys on the boat that make up the crew, along with a captain (or BIO = buntanding interaction officer). The boat itself is quite simple, but serves its purpose well. There is covered area just large enough room for the max 6 passengers, and a nice open spot in the front where everyone gathers before the scramble to jump in.
- There is no equipment, per se, for ‘spotting’ whale sharks; at least not in our experience. The crew look toward the horizon in all directions searching for signs of activity. I guess when you live here and have been doing this for a while, your sight is as good a tool as any.
- Guarantees are not made that you will see a whale shark. It’s helpful to go in the height of the season, which has varied slightly over the last few years with warming trends, but tends to be toward the beginning of the year. Even the locals will tell you that it’s never a sure thing, and to see one is very lucky!
- Seeing a whale shark first hand is truly amazing. Highly recommended!!!