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Municipal Profile - Donsol,
Donsol used to be a sleepy coastal town in Sorsogon. Nobody knows Donsol except for, of course, its local inhabitants until a few years ago when tourists from all over the world began to flock to this remote place to get a look-see at the largest fish on earth: the whale shark. Now, Donsol is dubbed as the "Whale Shark Capital of the World".
Before, fishermen in Donsol were ignorant of the ecological (and tourist) value of whale sharks. They used to hunt, slaughter and sell the poor gentle sea creatures to Japanese traders. Local folks call them “butanding” or “big fish” in the vernacular. Early sightings of the butandings were reported in the Visayan seas in Bohol further south. It was said that massive slaughtering caused their migration to Donsol waters.
Although, according to stories, the first butanding that was netted out in the area was also butchered. A marine biologist witnessed it and instantly recognized the fish as a rare marine specie. The biologist immediately reported the incident to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), an international organization promoting the preservation of the wildlife.
WWF wasted no time and launched an education campaign about the giant creature. After coordinating with the Department of Tourism, whale-watching soon became a tourist activity that allowed extra income for the people of Donsol.
In contrast to what their terrifying name seems to imply, whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) are not really dangerous creatures. It earned the label gentle giant of the sea because of its harmless nature, considering it is of the shark family. It has nothing in common with whales except for its size, thus the name. They are easily recognized for their broad head and a random of white dots and lines along their backs. Divers can swim and interact with them and are only known to sink deeper into the ocean when it gets upset. There has been no known attack on humans of whale sharks.
Scientists are still baffled with the large migration of whale sharks in Donsol. These fishes are known to prefer the cold waters, not the tropical seas that we have. One explanation would be the flourishing of planktons in the area. Planktons are organisms that fill the diet of the whale sharks. It is also hard to record the number of whale sharks that now thrive in Donsol. But early studies show that whale sharks can travel 14,000 miles in 40 months and is capable of breeding in different sea environments.
Whale sharks swim on the surface of the water especially during the morning and early afternoon. It opens its mouth rhythmically when feeding on the planktons and visitors may be treated to this wondrous sight if they spot the fish at the perfect time. But don’t expect them to jump up and down the water like the whales or dolphins. That’s actually another beauty of the whale shark experience because this makes it perfectly east and safe to get near them.
Getting there: Donsol, Sorsogon is approximately 1-hour drive away from Legazpi City. The roads all the way to Donsol are well-paved, scenic and very accessible. There are several taxis available that make daily routes from Legazpi to Donsol, Sorsogon.
What to bring: Although food is available at a number of locations in Donsol, you can bring your own if you want to enjoy a picnic there. If you plan to eat at Donsol, check with the Donsol Tourism Office for accredited eating establishments. Bring plenty of water.
You can bring along your snorkeling equipment (mask, snorkel, fins and water vest) but if you don't have any, these are also available for rental at the Donsol Tourism Office. Bring your swimsuits, towels, camera, some sun screen, sunglasses, a change of clothes, slippers, as well as sealable plastic bags to keep valuables. You can bring your own life vest, but these are also available on the boat.
Arriving at Donsol, Sorsogon: Once in Donsol, proceed to the Donsol Tourism Office. If you drove in your own vehicle, there is plenty of space to safely park your vehicle there. If you took a public vehicle, make arrangements for your return trip to Legazpi. At the Tourism Office, you will be required to register and attend a brief orientation session prior to heading out to see the Whale Sharks. You will also be required to pay the fee for: boat rental and crew, registration, and snorkeling equipment rental (if needed). The maximum number of registrants per boat is 7 people.
After Registration: After a brief orientation period on the rules and guidelines, you are ready to head out to sea on a 12m (40ft) boat. Your group will be accompanied by a BIO (Butanding Interaction Officer) who will serve as your guide while you're out in the water, one spotter, on the look-out for the Butanding, and two crew members to man the boat.
Out in the Water: While there are no guarantees of being able to see the Whale Sharks, you can count on it that if you are there in the right time and season, it can literally take only a few minutes after leaving shore before you come across the first Butanding! Generally, you do not need to be out in deep waters in order to interact with the Whale Sharks. Your BIO will point them out and educate you on how to spot them, as well as provide additional information you need to know during the experience. The BIO's are quite knowledgeable and friendly, and are willing to answer your questions. When the BIO feels that the situation is ideal, he will instruct the crew on the boat's approach to the whale shark, and take the lead in getting you ready for the experience.
Seeing the Butanding for the first time is an extremely exciting experience. It is very important to keep the safety procedures in mind, and always follow the lead and instructions of your BIO.
Duration: The whole experience can last anywhere from 1-4 hours, depending on how long you want to be out in the sea.
Season and Timing: Although Butanding are spotted year-round in the waters off Sorsogon, the season starts around November and goes on through May. The peak season is February through April. The best times to go are in the morning, as the waters are clearer and it easier to spot the Whale Sharks. According to the locals, the Whale Sharks are also more abundant before noon. On peak season, it is very common for each visitor to see more than a dozen different Butanding.
Text and photos courtesy of tourism.albay.gov.ph, butanding.com and sergeyphoto.com
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