The area around Donsol is best known for one of the greatest concentrations of whale sharks in the world. The number of sightings varies: during the peak months of February to May there’s a good chance of seeing ten or fifteen whale sharks a day, but on some days (particularly early or late in the season, which stretches from mid-November to June) you might strike out and see none. Holy Week is extremely busy and best avoided.
At the Visitor Centre you can complete all the formalities of hiring a boat for a whale shark-watching trip. Queues can start to form before the centre opens during peak season, particularly at weekends, so arrive early.
Tourists are not allowed to board a boat without first being briefed by a Butanding Interaction Officer (BIO), who explains how to behave in the water near a whale shark. The number of snorkellers around any one shark is limited to six; flash photography is not allowed, nor is scuba gear, and avoid the animal’s tail because it can do you some serious damage. Some boatmen flout these rules in order to keep their passengers happy, but this risks distressing the whale sharks and should not be encouraged. Check that your boat has one of the mandatory propeller guards.
Known locally as the butanding, the whale shark is a timid titan resembling a whale more than the shark it is. It can grow up to 20m in length, making it the largest fish in the seas. These gentle giants gather around Donsol every year around the time of the northeastern monsoon to feed on the rich shrimp and plankton streams that flow from the Donsol River into the sea, sucking their food through their gills via an enormous vacuum of a mouth.
Whale sharks were rarely hunted in the Philippines until the 1990s, when demand for their meat from countries such as Taiwan and Japan escalated. Cooks have dubbed it the tofu shark because of the meat’s resemblance to soybean curd. Its fins are also coveted as a soup extender. Tragically, this has led to its near extinction in the Visayas and further south in Mindanao. Though the government is trying to protect the whale sharks by fining fishermen who catch them, it’s an uphill battle, largely because enforcement is difficult and a good whale shark can fetch enough to keep a rural family happy for months. In Donsol, however, attitudes seem to be changing, with locals beginning to realize that the whale sharks can be worth more alive than dead, attracting tourists and thus investment and jobs.