Chasing the Butanding: Swimming with the Whale Sharks in Donsol, Sorsogon

Thursday, November 12, 2015

butanding cebu
The Gentle Giant
That day, the sea was as still as silence. My companions and I boarded the outrigger that was to take us farther out, halfheartedly putting on neon orange life vests.

The arrangement was fairly simple. We paid Php1,500 for the boat for a group of six. We had three hours to experience swimming with the "gentle giants" – butanding to the locals, whale sharks to the rest of the world. The catch: there was no guarantee that we'd get to actually see one.

No, this is not a scam.

See, unlike in other places (I'm looking at you, Oslob), the whale sharks in Donsol are not treated as pets. They are left to their own devices and locals try to interfere with their habits as little as possible. The whale sharks aren't found loafing around a certain area of the sea, waiting for people. They are out swimming and minding their own biological-and-ecological business. It was like these aquatic mammals are telling you to catch them if you can. It seemed less an invitation as a challenge. We took it head on.
whale shark swimming
Us in, according to my friend NJ, "our yearly Bicol thing"
There was a total of ten people in the boat. One boatman, two spotters, a guide, and our company of six.

As we slowly made our way to the sea, our guide gave us instructions. He was wearing a tight aqua suit and had skin so tanned, his eyes and teeth were startlingly white against it. He looked fabulous, honestly.

At any rate, what I gleaned from his briefing was this: you must be prepared to jump anytime. At least that was what I understood, I was still groggy from our early flight. (I'm bad at mornings.)

Anyway, I had my orange vest on. My snorkeling set hung round my neck. My veins fueled with Pringles and excitement. I was so ready to jump!

Fifteen minutes passed and alas, the excitement gradually ebbed like the retreating tides from a deserted shore. My eyes were droopy. The rocking of the boat and the sweet-salty ocean breeze did not help with my drowsiness. Somewhere along the 25th minute mark, I fell asleep.

I didn't know how long I was out but someone, most likely our guide, yelled "Ready" and I jerked straight up, instinctively putting my goggles on. I noticed the engine stuttered to a quieter revving. Not even fully awake yet, I ambled toward the prow of the boat together with my companions. (A very dangerous thing to do, you might think. And in retrospect, I agree.)

Our guide, now wearing unusual-looking flippers, stood alert on the edge of the boat. He said us girls get to jump first, so we did. When we were in the water, he told us to hold hands and he maneuvered us to the direction where the spotter was pointing.

"Here it comes!" He announced before disappearing beneath the water.

I followed his lead, and seconds later this massive gaping mouth glided right below us. I had my snorkel on but I was screaming really.

That was the first time I've encountered a butanding. It was a brief meeting, for the next thing I knew it was gone.
whale shark philippines
Don't be scared. It won't eat you...hopefully
Our guide led us back to the boat. My heart still pumping loud. That was something! My companions and I agreed that we were taken off guard. I think all of us swore that we'd be more vigilant.

It wasn't long when we were told to get ready again. This time, I knew what to do. I braced myself. I was going to swim with the gentle giant.

And I did! Here's the video:
Clearly, I wasn't no match for the whale shark's speed, but that was one heck of an experience! I like to think it was good karma that we got to chase several butanding that day. They're very shy, see.
oslob cebu
Another "chaser" caught on cam
I commend the people of Donsol for having this kind of system. It was heaps of fun and it's good to know that you're doing little to no damage to these adorable sea creatures.

I don't plan on going to Oslob to swim with the whale sharks, by the way. I'm against what they're doing there. So, readers, if you're planning to experience swimming with the butanding, please consider doing it in Donsol.

High-five!

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