Donsol, Philippines: The Responsible Way To Swim With Whale Sharks

Donsol, Philippines: The Responsible Way To Swim With Whale Sharks

I first swam with whales sharks off the island of Holbox, Mexico several years ago and had an amazing and ethical experience. When I began planning my trip to the Philippines, I knew I wanted to swim with whale sharks again, but I also knew I wanted to do it in a responsible way. With that in mind I added Donsol to my trip itinerary.

Swimming with whale sharks has increased in popularity over the last few years, and has quickly made its way to the top of many travellers bucketlists. Whilst this may be good for local economies that rely on tourism it is not always good for the whale sharks themselves.

This particular wild animal sighting has been made even more enticing by social media. Instagram stars and bloggers with huge social followings have began posting about their “incredible and life changing” experiences swimming with whale sharks, and making their followers want to do the same thing. Sadly many of these people are ignoring the ethics of places they visit to swim with whale sharks, in favour of ensuring that they get the perfect Instagram photo.

The main problem location for this behaviour is Oslob, on the island of Cebu in the Philippines. Chances are the majority of amazing whale shark photos you have seen were taken here and you probably now want to go too. To give the people posting these images the benefit of the doubt, perhaps they had not researched the location in advance so were not aware of the unethical practices, however what is really disappointing is that once they have been there they still choose to post their pretty pictures afterwards.

In this article I will share why you should not see and support swimming with whale sharks in Oslob, why you should instead visit Donsol and what to expect from your whale shark experience here.

Why You Should Not You Swim With Whale Sharks In Oslob

Oslob, Cebu has become the place to see whale sharks and the main reason is that you are guaranteed to see them. But have you stopped to ask yourself why they are guaranteed? These are wild animals, with migration patterns that surely means they can’t be seen year round. But in fact they can, and the reason is that the local fisherman began feeding and baiting the whale sharks several years ago to bring them close to the shores and close to the tourist filled boats.

This means that you will definitely see a whale shark, sadly it might be being hit by your boat whilst a huge number of tourists jump in on top of it to get their selfie. There is no protection for these animals in Oslob, no rules and as such the human interaction is not controlled. Worse still, the feeding has made these whale sharks reliant on the boats and has messed with their natural migration pattern – we are truly disturbing the natural behaviour of these animals in a way that could seriously impact their future in our oceans.

From what I understand when you go here, hundreds of boats go out per day and line up ready for the whale sharks. A man in a kayak will pass in front of the boats feeding the whale shark behind him so that it follows him allowing each boat of tourists to drop into the water and take their selfie.

If you are opposed to places like Sea World, but you still choose to go to Oslob you need to check your ethics and realise you are supporting an amusement park if you go here. And worse still you are encouraging more people to do the same if you post about it.

Read what others have to say about swimming with whale sharks in Oslob:

Why You Should Swim With Whale Sharks In Donsol

Donsol is a protected area for whale sharks in the Philippines. This means that there are strict rules about human interaction with the whale sharks and means that when you travel here you know that the experience you have has the least damage to the sharks natural environment. None of the practices that happen in Oslob are in place here. You will go in search of the whale sharks and if you are lucky you will see one.

In 1998, an aggregation of whale sharks were seen off the coastal waters of Donsol, Sorsogon. This made the news and also caught the attention of Manila based shark traders who slaughtered 6 whale sharks. At this time the community, who had no experience with tourism together with support from WWF began an eco-tourism programme to protect the whale sharks. Since then, Donsol has been awarded the Kalakbay Award for the best ecotourism destination for 2003. In 2004, Time magazine voted Donsol as the best destination for an animal encounter in Asia.

What Are The Rules In Donsol

The whale sharks are found relatively close to shore swimming around a bay so the boats that will take you out can circle around the bay in search of the whale sharks. There are a number of rules that will be told to you by the guides and also in a short video which you must watch before you go out on the boat. These are the key rules:

  • Maximum of 30 boats permitted in the bay at any one time
  • Maximum time in the bay of three hours. Only one morning schedule for boats to go our per day
  • Maximum 6 persons (swimmers) per boat (plus driver, guide etc.)
  • Maximum 3 people in the water at a time (however, this did not seem to be enforced at all)
  • No touching the whale sharks
  • Swimmers should stay 3 meters from the head and body and 4 meters from the tail
  • Only 1 boat per whale shark (this was not enforced on my trip)

The Positives

When you choose to see whale sharks in Donsol, you are choosing the most ethical and responsible option in the Philippines. The main positive about Donsol is this – you are seeing a wild animal in its true environment and you can feel good about the choice you made. I think the t-shirts that are on sale at the port in Donsol say it all “I would rather seek than feed”.

The Negatives

Whilst Donsol has made every effort to be an ethical and responsible place to swim with whale sharks there are still some negatives to be aware of.

  • There is no guarantee that you will see a whale shark. They are not baited so it’s like heading out on a safari where you can search for hours and maybe not see a thing.
  • When you do see a shark you and your fellow boat riders will jump into the water together meaning whoever jumps in first will probably get the best view and chances are you might miss it if the whale shark is moving quickly.
  • The water was murky and dark, meaning the sighting may not be the perfect clear sighting you see at other locations.
  • Honestly, having swam with whale sharks in Mexico I did feel that whilst Donsol is protected and they have strict rules, the quantity of people in the water at any one time was still disruptive to the whale shark. In Mexico, we were allowed two people and one guide at a time in the water and this was not per boat, this was for all the boats. So each boat would wait as the next two people plopped into the water. This meant there really was very minimal disruption to the shark (please note, this was several years ago and practices in Mexico may have changed). In Donsol, there are maximum of six people per boat, but everyone can get in at the same time. With a maximum of 30 boats in the bay, 6 x 30 could mean you end up with 190 people plus the guides in the water at the same time. Now this is unlikely and the boats are not always close together, but it’s something to be aware of.

What To Expect From Your Day With The Whale Sharks

We booked our whale shark trip with Bicol Dive Centre. My boyfriend did a lot of research and decided we should go with a proper dive centre rather than simply lining up at the port and joining a boat. This seemed to work out really well and we were happy with the service we got at Bicol.

You will be picked up from your hotel at 7.30am to take you to the dive centre. Make sure to have some breakfast before you go. At the Dive centre you will receive masks and fins and complete a registration form and watch a video detailing the rules of swimming with the whale sharks.

You will then head onto the boat and start your search for the whale sharks! This happens in the bay directly in front the beach so you don’t travel far out to see and the water is relatively calm. When you do see a whale shark you will line up with the other swimmers on your boat with the guide at the front and you will all drop into the water together. To be totally honest, this was very frantic and not a calm or serene experience at all! Hopefully, you will then get to have a good view of the whale shark before clambering back onto the boat to do it all again when you see another one!

After three hours your adventure is over and you will head back into the dock – hopefully with lots of great memories to take with you!

What Other Dives Can You Do In Donsol?

If you have a few days in Donsol and some dive experience then you should add a dive at manta bowl to your itinerary. Manta bowl has mantas, whale sharks, sometimes thresher sharks all congregated at the same spot. Your day will include three dives, one easy entry dive at San Miguel island followed by two dives at Manta Bowl. San Miguel island is about one hour from Donsol and then it’s another 45 minutes to Manta Bowl. (The journey back is 1.45hrs from the Manta Bowl to Donsol)

Since we had not dived for a while and had an early flight the next day we decided not to dive at manta bowl and instead go along with the dive boat to snorkel at these two spots. Whilst it was a nice day out at sea I honestly could not recommend doing the same. The only way to see manta bowl is by diving and unless you are lucky enough to see a whale shark surface you will likely circle around for a few hours and see nothing. The day trip starts at 8am and finishes at 5pm and that’s a long day if you don’t get lucky and see a whale shark. The divers on the other hand had great success and saw multiple whale sharks on both dives in the manta bowl.

Where To Stay

Since Donsol is not yet an established tourist destination, accommodation is limited. If you are looking for a luxury hotel that will not be an option, however there are enough great options to choose from. Personally I prefer a smaller hotel that is not part of a chain so the options in Donsol were perfect for me. We chose the Elysia Beach Resort which cost roughly US $60 per night for a comfortable double room next to the pool. I really fell in love with this place, despite running full occupancy, you felt like you had it all to yourselves. It was quiet, tranquil and I just wished I had more than three nights here!

Other Donsol options include:

Donsol, Philippines: The Responsible Way To Swim With Whale Sharks

Getting To Donsol

Getting to Donsol is easy! There is absolutely no way that anyone can use the excuse that getting to an alternative location to see whale sharks was difficult so they chose Oslob, this is simply not true. To get to Donsol, you take a one hour flight from Manila to Legazbi and then a one hour car ride from Legazbi to Donsol. Easy peasy. You just need to allow a couple of days to add this into your itinerary.

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To summarise, I absolutely loved my time in Donsol. We saw whale sharks and got to experience them in a way that I could feel good about. Travelling is a privilege and a responsibility, if you are fortunate enough to be able to travel please do your research and if you see something that you don’t agree with stand up and say something about. Tell others so that together we can all be more responsible travellers.

Donsol, Philippines: The Responsible Way To Swim With Whale Sharks

I truly hope that this article has changed your mind about visiting Oslob and  inspired you to visit Donsol instead. If you have any questions or comments please share in the comments below.

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  • Reply
    April 12, 2018 at 3:52 am

    Great post Becky! Thank you for sharing a responsible way to swim with the whale sharks!

    • Reply
      Becky van Dijk
      April 13, 2018 at 6:10 pm

      Thanks Vanessa! I want to see them in the Maldives and Western Australia next if you want to join me!

  • Reply
    April 13, 2018 at 7:59 am

    Love this article and happy that the message is getting out there. I agree with your negatives about Donsol. They really need to put some limitations on the number of people around the sharks!

    • Reply
      Becky van Dijk
      April 13, 2018 at 6:11 pm

      Thanks for reading! Yes, I think Donsol is doing an amazing job, just a few less people in the water would be good!

  • Reply
    Ma Lily Magdamit Fernandez
    April 17, 2018 at 6:28 am

    Donsol is my hometown…and I want to thank you for this article…. God bless you Becky!!! ❤😊

    • Reply
      Becky van Dijk
      April 26, 2018 at 12:56 am

      Thanks so much for reading! I am happy you liked the article and we can do a little bit to share about Donsol and visiting the whale sharks here!

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