Mar 14

So big - Whale Shark Encounter in Donsol Whale sharks are the most amazing gentle creatures of the sea. They are huge, blue-grey monsters with white dots; big like trucks – but they are moving and gliding so effortlessly through the seas. The thrill you will get when swimming with them is unbelievable and indescribable.

The best place in the world to see them in their natural habitat – are the waters around Donsol, in the Bicol region on the main island South Luzon in the Philippines.

Here is what you need to know, to make it a successful and exciting encounter:


Donsol is the name of the place

The small town of Donsol/Sorsogon is at the center of the natural migration for Whale Sharks each year. It’s said it has to do with the sea currents or the right concentration of plankton here – but the fact is, Whale Sharks are known to pass through here since ages in bigger numbers than elsewhere.

Over the last few decades, the Whale Shark population is monitored professionally and all sightings are recorded. So far, more than 384 individual Whale Sharks were identified and some of them even tagged for easier recognition. The monitoring and Whale Shark encounter statistics are maintained by the WWF (World Wildlife Fund).

To take part in a ‘Whale Shark Interaction Experience’, head straight to the Butanding Visitors Center in Donsol. Butanding is the local name for Whale Shark.

Whale Shark Spotter Crew in Donsol Here you will be registerered and assigned to one of the boats, together with a Spotter Crew and a Butanding Interaction Officer (BIO), who will brief you on how to approach those animals and who will also direct you when encountering the Whale Sharks. They are of course very gentle and slow creatures and mean you no harm, but still they are huge and unpredictable animals and an accidental slap from a tail fin or else could cause quite some trouble for you, so better listen to your BIO.

Here are some more tips, on what you can do to make sure, you will encounter whale sharks, while you are here in Donsol:

5. Come and visit NOW!

Although Donsol is definitely Whale Shark Alley, with a high probability of actually encountering Whale Sharks, it is not guaranteed. In 2007 was a record year with about 150 sightings of Whale Sharks. But since then, encounters have dramatically declined. Sometimes, there can’t be any animals found for days or even weeks on end. Some blame it on natural phenomena like La Nina and El Nino, others on the increasing pollution of the seas or even overfishing. So, don’t wait to long….make your way to Donsol within the next couple of years. Who knows, how long those creatures will still be around.

4. Preferably come during Peak season

Massive body of a 7 meter long Whale Shark That might sound a bit counter-productive, as you will be surrounded by lots and lots of other tourists. After all, there are about 100 boat trips per day during peak season, compared to the lower season with 12-20 boat trips daily. But that has only one reason: In peak season, which is between January and March/April, there are definitely more Whale Sharks in the waters around Donsol, than at any other given time. Your chance of seeing some will increase dramatically. Also, outside of peak season, the time you would have to spend to actually see Whale Sharks on your boat tours, might increase or you might not even see any at all. And that would be frustrating, no?

3. Take at least a few days time

You should spend at least 3 days in Donsol. I know that sounds like a lot, especially since there is nothing much else to do in Donsol, which is really a small and sleepy fishing town. But as everything in nature, there is no guarantee that you will actually see Whale Sharks on your Whale Shark Interaction trip. They are very difficult to spot, as the Whale Shark Spotters on your boat are normally just 2-3 meters above the water level and have only a radius of maybe 20-40 meter to spot Whale Sharks.

Looks like the front grill of a Maserati, mouth of a Whale SharkAs Whale Sharks are more like Sharks than Whales (but they mainly survive from filtering plankton from the waters) they also don’t produce any bubbles and are therefore only to be seen by their own shadow just under the ocean’s surface. No sonar or other tools are used by the Spotter Crews and you might experience 1 or 2 days, where not a single boat has seen any rat’s tail of a Whale Shark at all. Considering the fact that between 20-100 boats are out daily with maximum 6 passengers, that can be a whole lot of frustrated tourists. For myself in early February, it took 3 trips to actually see some for myself and it would have been a frustrating experience to leave after 2 days without having see anything. Only on the 3rd day, we had 12 separate encounters with 2 animals of 5-7m length in just under 3 hours – but that made it all worthwhile!

2. Preferably go out on sunny days, avoid cloudy days

The reason for that has also to do with the conditions of spotting the Whale Sharks. On cloudy days with choppy seas, it is even more difficult to spot them gliding through the waters, as clouds produce lots of shadows on the water surface. It’s much harder for the whale spotters to distinguish between those shadows and make out the Whale Sharks, as they only see a small radius of ocean surface around the boat.

Whale Sharks Gills are unique and used to identify individual animals After a while, the spotters will get tired easily and I saw them getting less enthusiastically to look around and actually finding Whale Sharks in rougher seas or on cloudy days. You see them gazing towards the horizon and wishing of being back home with their families. After all, for them its a job, they have seen countless of Whale Sharks already. But for you, it should be the experience of a life time, you wouldn’t do that every so often. So make sure, you catch a day, when its easier and more pleasurable for your boat crew to spot Whale Sharks in the wild.

1. Use a boat with Sun Roof

The boats you are assigned to at the Butanding Visitors Center are price-wise very similar. They cost 3.500 Pesos for up to 6 hours per day and only 6 tourists are allowed per boat, together with the boat crew, the Whale Shark Spotters and 1 BIO (Butanding Interaction Officer). Besides those restrictions, the boats can vary in several ways, some are bigger, some smaller, have slower or faster engines – but the most important feature I found – is a Sun Roof.

P1310044 Some have it, some not. When at sea around Donsol for 4-6 hours under the the merciless sun of the Sulu Seas, any sun block you use will most likely fail. I’ve seen dramatically burned foreigners coming back in the evenings from their Whale Shark Encounter trip. They looked like lobsters in a fresh pot  of hot water and they were crying still days later, because of the severe sunburns they received on their trips, because they were unlucky enough to sit on a boat without Sun Roof.

Trust me! It pays of to ask specifically for a boat with sun roof. Use Sun Screen and cover up on top of that. And you really don’t need that Skin Cancer, do you? ;-)

If you enjoyed this post, make sure you subscribe to my RSS feed!

or save article to your Facebook with 1 simple click:


written by Chris

11 Responses to “5 Tips when hitting Whale Shark Alley in Donsol, Philippines”

  1. theejay18No Gravatar PHILIPPINES Says:

    I really want to see such thing.
    Being in the sea with whales would be something that i would like to do in my life.
    The thing is that im in baguio and sorsogon si so far. hahahaha!
    but if there will be a chance to go there, i will absolutely grab the chance!
    thank you for the blog!
    God Bless!

  2. WegNo Gravatar NETHERLANDS Says:

    Indeed you are blessed. We were in Mexico this januari and really wanted to see the whales. But it was the wrong season. Next year in januari we will visit the dominican republik. I know they are there then!

  3. Jared SeahNo Gravatar NETHERLANDS Says:

    Hello Chris,

    You have really put me to shame! I’m a Singaporean, and yet I’ve not travelled to all the places you have in my backyard!!??

    I will change that! Soon I shall make it a point the travel and explore my neighbouring countries more – and stop procrastinating!

    Thanks for this inspirational post. Philippines, here I come!

  4. ChrisNo Gravatar INDONESIA Says:

    theejay18, yup it’s maybe a bit far from Baguio. But still closer than for the others. Just watch for the promo fares of CebuPac, Zest or the others and I’m sure you will be able to visit soon! ;-)

    Weg, please try that and report back, how it was in the DomRep, ya? Thanks!

    No worries, Jared Seah! At least you still have it on your list. When I lived in Singapore, I met some people, who are born in Changi Village and never even made it to Sentosa. Now that’s a shame! Or maybe not….Sentosa is quite an acquired taste. Hehe. ;-)

  5. Ardyss DiazNo Gravatar CANADA Says:

    Thanks for the post. I never even imagined doing this but now it is going on my bucket list. It looks like an amazing experience.

  6. MegNo Gravatar INDIA Says:

    Thanks Chris as I m also one of those who are highly attracted towards such life and adventures so this would be going to be included in my next TOUR.

    The most important is that you have make it very simple by sharing your valuable tips and suggestions as well as guidances. These are the very most important to any tour at stranger places coz we are for first time and don’t know what and how to manage.

  7. ChrisNo Gravatar BELGIUM Says:

    This must be such an amazing experience! I have to add this to my todo list for the first months of 2012. I didn’t even know that it’s possible to swim with whale sharks! :)

  8. Tripper10:TripsidersNo Gravatar PHILIPPINES Says:

    Donsol is one of my Dream Destination

    Thanks for sharing it… :)

  9. Allen TrottierNo Gravatar not found Says:

    Hey Chris, its been a while since we last spoke. I hope you’re doing well. Im planning another trip to the Philippines next year starting January. Thanks for the tip, i’ll make sure to make this one of the first things I do so its still in peak season. Cheers!

  10. AnnaNo Gravatar SINGAPORE Says:

    Hey Chris,

    Thank you for the useful tips. A few friends and I will be heading out to Donsol come December to see the whale sharks. It has been my lifelong dream to swim with the majestic creatures in their natural habitat. Here’s hoping my wish can can come true before the year 2011 ends.

    Thank you for the tips. I’ll be taking them into account during my trip!


  11. Stephen WarrenNo Gravatar PHILIPPINES Says:

    Hey Chris,

    Thanks for this blog. I’m planning to visit Donsol in 2012. Business is too busy here in Manila right now.
    Thanks for the tips.

Leave a Reply

Hey, if you want a picture to show by your comment, why not get a gravatar?

;-) :twisted: :roll: :oops: :mrgreen: :lol: :idea: :evil: :cry: :arrow: :?: :-| :-x :-o :-P :-D :-? :) :( :!: 8-O 8)