Donsol - Extreme Snorkelling
By Olive Hale
Even non-divers have heard about the whale shark. It is one of the world's most mysterious animals. A meeting with this gentle giant in its natural habitat is probably the most extreme and exciting snorkeling experience SE Asia has to offer
Moment of Truth
It was May on Donsol in the Philippines and Trevor and I sat in the boat, nervously scanning the surrounding waters. We had come to Donsol to attempt to snorkel with the whale sharks that for some reason congregate at low depth there from April to May. It had taken a while for us to make the decision to come, as both of us are elderly and neither of are as strong swimmers as we used to be. I personally had thought that all my life’s most exciting experiences were behind me, but Trevor had persuaded me to give this expedition a chance. I find it impossible to refuse him anything, as he has done so much for me over the last thirty years, so I eventually agreed. This is the fourth day that Trevor and I have been out on the pretty white banka boat and, whilst we have seen lots of beautiful corals, the biggest fish we’ve seen so far has been a barracuda. Our boatman Manuel promptly harpooned it and then subsequently served it up in his wife’s restaurant. This was tastiest dinner we’ve yet had here – which isn’t saying much, as the food here is nothing to write home about.
Manuel cries out and points to the port side. And yes, only about 100 metres away, we can see the fin of a big shark ploughing its way through the still surface of the sea. He shouts “whale shark” and points the banka boat towards the animal.
This is the moment of truth. Are we really too old to be attempting to swim alongside such a giant of the depths?
Everybody on the boat dons their masks and flippers as Manuel cuts the engine and the boat glides slowly towards the shark. As the distance narrows down to ten metres we all slide as soundlessly as possible over the gunwale. Thoughts are racing through my head. “What am I doing here? This is all surely foolishness. Shouldn’t someone my age just stick to golf?”
So far I can see nothing. Just the blues. Long, heart-stoppingly-slow seconds crawl by - and then I see it.
The shark is heading right towards me, its mouth more then a metre and a half wide – and wide-open.
Is it bored with eating plankton ?
The big animal passed us by at a distance of only 2-3 metres. What a relief to know that it eats only plankton, as it looked big enough to have half of us for its main course, then come back for the other half for dessert. I knew it was a whale shark and that it wouldn’t eat me, but it was still rather unnerving to gaze into its awesomely-proportioned maw. I wondered somewhat irrationally whether it might make a dietary exception and eat us anyway. Then I looked at my dive companions and felt a bit safer, as several of them looked far tastier than me. If I was forced to make a similar dietary exception I certainly wouldn’t choose to eat someone like me. If I was a sick-of-plankton whale shark, I muse, I would probably prefer a nibble on the pink-wetsuit-clad young Swede swimming nearby.
The gentle giant graced us with a long visit. Its belly was white and the back was greyish-black with white dots. Here and there the dots formed distinct lines across the back. For about ten minutes we enjoyed being together with one of the underwater world's greatest icons. Then one of our party grabbed at the enormous tail-fin and at once the shark took fright.
Quite why it was frightened of us was difficult for me to fathom, as the only threat that it had (arguably) been exposed to was the possibly infectious effect of the touch inflicted by the snorkeler, who knew but didn’t care that snorkelers shouldn’t touch marine life. I could hardly believe that the animal was worried about getting some of its sandpaper-like skin rubbed off and admitting some deadly bacteria, it seemed a pretty implausible theory, as the hide of a whale shark is supposed to be as touch as old boots.
My husband has another, somewhat far-fetched in my opinion, theory. The philosopher Carl Jung believed in a common species memory, which when extended to whale sharks rather than just humans states that every whale shark has a link to every memory of everything experienced by every whale shark that has ever lived. Maybe this whale shark has some Jungian species memory, via another specimen of its species, of one of those vilest specimens of our species, a shark-finner. Or maybe he myopically mistakes us for a similar-sized predator shark from another of the oceans it visits.
The whale-shark is a big mystery, who knows the answer? Gathering speed it dives away and disappears in instants. Poof, just like that, it’s gone. Whale-sharks are apparently shy by nature and easy to frighten off. They have sensitive fins and heads and it should be a golden rule among snorkelers never to bother or frighten the animals in any way. I feel annoyed that one of my party had ignored that rule and frightened the shark off.
The wonderful shark had gone! Meeting a whale-shark and swimming together with it is a precious experience. The whale-shark is, to ‘aquaholics’, what Arnold Schwarzenegger is to body builders, Madonna is to pop fans and Bill Gates is to computer nerds. You might meet one once or twice in a lifetime and that would be sufficient to savour the memories for as long as you drew breath. I was happy with my whale-shark encounter. I certainly did not expect to see any more of the gentle giant. But I did. There was more to come!
Don’t touch !
We returned to shore. The leader of our group had already described, I had thought sufficiently exhaustively, the possible and extremely unpleasant effects that touching marine life can have on the toucher. Aside from the recurrent rashes which such contact can cause, a whale-shark fin-swipe, which seems as though it arrives in slow-motion but can’t be avoided, is apparently like having industrial-grade sandpaper applied, hard, to your skin. The miscreant customer who had touched the shark complained about pain in his hands. Marcus, the leader, couldn’t resist saying, in a somewhat unsympathetic tone “well, don’t worry too much, its fairly unlikely you’ll lose them”. The customer replied “OK, I know you told me not to touch, I’m sorry, I promise I won’t do it again, OK?”, to which the ever-irrepressible Marcus replied “I believe its likely you won’t, mate, ‘cos its quite likely you won’t be able to, once the local hospital chops your hands off”.
Like a war-machine
The next day we swam with an even bigger shark. I couldn't believe my eyes - it was even bigger than the first one had been – this one was about 8 metres long – but even more shy. After only three or four minutes its huge tail-fin waved us goodbye. I followed it for a short distance and managed to stay on its tail for a while. Then the shark gave a couple of extra-hard but still slow-motion strikes of its tail and disappeared. Though I had been virtually bursting a lung trying to keep up, it left me feeling as though I had been treading water. It didn’t seem probable that such a huge animal could move its enormous bulk so quickly. Pooof, it was gone, without so much as a ‘see you later’.
I kept on in the same direction, not daring to hope for another encounter. I had had so much luck already. But there he was again! I say ‘he’ not because I know how to differentiate the male from the female of the species, but because ‘he’ was so huge that he seemed like he must be the larger gender.
The huge animal came swooping up at me from the deep like a war-machine, swimming almost vertically up towards the surface. It was opening its mouth ... but why? Was it angry with me? Was it going to swallow me? No, of course not. I had been looking so hard for the shark that a big shoal of tiny fish had escaped my attention. The shoal had gathered right under me, between the whale-shark and me. This school was the centre of the giant's attention. His attack was directed at the silvery shining fishes, not at me.
That's what I call vacuuming!
The big jaws opened wide, sucking in one third of the shoal of fish and creating a maelstrom of air-bubbles. I was so close, I could have touched the giant. But I didn’t do this, instead I focused on staying clear of its head. The whale-shark repeated the attack three times and the big shoal was transformed into a few confused groups. Now that's what I call vacuuming. Breathless and honoured by being allowed to witness this seldom-seen and exclusive show, I watched its star exit the scene. The sole but well-earned applause was the rapid beat of my heart.
Swimming with Donsol’s whale sharks was listed as the "Best Animal Encounter in Asia" by Time magazine in 2004.
Interaction with the whale sharks is regulated by the local department of tourism office, with WWF guidelines generally observed to protect the sharks. Scuba diving with the sharks is banned.
In recent years the number of male sharks have out-numbered female sharks by 20:1. Nobody knows why. Increasing numbers of sharks show propeller marks on their backs. Anecdotal evidence from local fishermen suggests that prop strikes are from fishing boats in the off-season, rather than from tourist boats in the main February-June tourist season.
Tourism continues to develop piece-meal in Donsol. There are no luxury hotels, but the visitor can find clean and comfortable rooms in the establishments listed in the listings section at the back of the book. Gourmets will be disappointed by the food.
Ten things you probably didn’t know about whale sharks:
1. The whale shark is the world's largest fish.
2. In a 1925 publication, Hugh M. Smith described a huge whale shark caught in a bamboo fish trap in Thailand in 1919. The shark proved too heavy to pull ashore. Smith reckoned that it was at least 17 metres long.
3. The whale shark typically grows to weigh as much as three adult elephants.
4. Females give birth to live young which are 40 centimetres (15.7 in) to 60 centimetres (23.6 in) long. It is believed that they reach sexual maturity at around 30 years and the life span has been estimated to be over 100 years.
4. The species was first identified in the pre-eco movement year of 1828 after the harpooning of a 4.6-metre specimen in Table Bay, South Africa.
5. Despite its striking appearance, it is so harmless that scuba divers and snorkelers can clamber unmolested over its body (if they want to break the law and risk injury).
6. The whale shark feeds mainly on plankton, but has a gourmet side and also consumes sardines and anchovies.
7. Like a human fingerprint, the patterns of speckles and stripes on the skin are thought unique to each individual.
8. New software can identify individual whale sharks by analysing individual patterns of spots and stripes on the skin.
9. The whale shark is called "tofu shark" in Taiwan because of the white colour, the soft texture, and the high water content of its flesh.
10. Known as a deity in a Vietnamese religion, the whale shark is called "Ca Ong", which literally translates as "Sir Fish".
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