I never thought I would really have a close and personal encounter with the whale sharks, popularly known or locally called butandings. Butandings are whale sharks found in the open waters of Donsol, Sorsogon. Sightings of such butandings fall during the months of November until June.Wanting to experience such adventure, my friends and I decided to book this trip. That was April 2012, the day I finally met butanding.
From Manila, we took a 45 minute flight going to Legaspi City Airport. From Legaspi City, we rode a tricycle going to Legaspi Grand Terminal. From the terminal, there is a passenger van going to Donsol directly where travel time is 1.5 hrs. We booked our accommodation near the tourism office so we had to take another trike going there.
Legaspi City Grand Terminal
It was almost past 4pm when we arrived in Donsol town. We wanted go in to the first batch which is 7am the following day so we went directly first at the tourism center to register before they close at 5pm. Good thing the kind tricycle driver advised us of this vital information. The tourism center limits the number of boats per batch so it won’t be crowded.
Welcome to Butanding Interaction Center
We registered at the tourist center but sad to say the early batch is already closed. We were listed at the next batch which is at 10:30 AM. We were saddened by this but the tourist officer told us to still come prior to 7am. He said that some people who register in the first batch arrives very late. Assembly time is prior 7am and the boat leaves at 7am sharp and will not wait for late comers. In this case, the group who is there will be allowed to go in.
Donsol Tourist Center
We were also asked to watch a short video and attend a brief orientation. These consist of the do’s and don’ts when swimming with the whale sharks.
Butanding Interaction Code of Conduct
Morning comes. As early as 5am we were already awake! Talk about being excited! lol We are hoping some tourists will be late and thus we will be allowed to go in the first batch. Around 6am, we were there at the tourism center. Indeed, there is a reward for being an early bird! In our case, an early bird catches the early butanding. Few minutes before 7am, only a few groups were there. So off we go to the designated boat. Yipee! We just cannot contain our excitement!
The boat rental is 3500 pesos. These includes the payment for the boat crew. It includes the captain, the spotter (perched high above the boat to look for the butanding) and the Butanding Interaction Officer or BIO. The BIO is in charge of guiding when to jump, which side of the boat to jump, which direction to swim and when to look down. He also assists non-swimmers throughout the entire interaction.
After about 30 minutes on the sea, the BIO asked us to wear our goggles and be ready. We were asked to sit on one side of the boat. OMG! I felt like backing out. Our legs trembling, we obediently followed the BIO to sit on the side of the boat. I don’t have any pic of us in this position but this is how it looks like (borrowed pic to show you).
A few minutes later, I heard the dreaded word from our BIO. He said “JUMP!” Jump means going into the water and finally face the great whale shark. OMG! I was very very scared! Thoughts such as me directly on the shark’s path with his wide mouth ready to swallow me keeps playing on my mind. Mustering enough courage, I jumped into the water.This is it, I said to myself! Then I heard the BIO said “look down.” I looked down and saw a gigantic whale shark with gray spots underneath me. It was very huge! For a moment I was stunned.I just stared at the awesome creature marveling at the giant beauty.
1st Butanding Sighting taken from our Underwater Camera
A few minutes later someone grabbed my elbow. I looked up. It was the BIO. The butanding is swimming away from me and I need to follow. Knowing that I don’t know how to swim, he grabbed my one arm as he swam fast while pulling me and all I have to do is just to look down with my goggles 🙂 This is great! I got to follow the butanding even if I don’t know how to swim. Hurray!
2nd Butanding Sighting from our underwater camera
The butanding swam fast and we finally lose sight of it and waited for our boat to come and pick us up. The boat by the way leaves the spot as soon as everyone jumps out of the water. This is to ensure safety on swimmers as well as the whale sharks.
Resting on the Boat and Preparing for the Next Jump
Our second jump was no longer scary. In fact we were looking forward to it with much gusto! We jumped upon the BIO’s order and he allowed us to stay longer on the ocean to snorkel too. Our staying in the ocean to snorkel has some rewards too. We thought we won’t be able to see anymore after the butanding swam fast on us on our second jump but we were rewarded with two more playful medium-sized butandings. It’s not huge as the first sighting but still we’re lucky to see them.
We were all tired, thirsty and hungry. We decided to go home after our second jump. The experience was awesome! We never thought we would see these gentle creatures. There were not sightings 3 days prior our arrival and expectations were set that we may not get to experience the close encounter with the whale sharks but we did. Waiting tourists on the next batch who saw us asked if we saw them and we happily said yes which brings them hope that they will also see these gentle creatures.
On our way back to the hotel, we opted to walk enjoying the countryside while recounting and telling our own share of experiences with the great giant.We were very lucky to have experienced such unique encounter.
To those who have not yet tried it, please do so before it disappears. Will I go back? Definitely! It was one great encounter I will cherish for the rest of my life…