Swim with the Butandings

Donsol, Sorsogon in the southwestern island of Luzon in the Philippines, is an ideal location for eco-tourists eager to encounter the whale shark. Its’ scientific name is Rhincodon typus but is locally known as the “Butanding” or “Balilan”. They are also found in other major oceans, however, Donsol has the highest concentration of whale sharks in the world. The protected waters around Donsol is a sanctuary for these migratory species.

Many people mistake these creatures as a whale because of their size, they can grow anywhere from 30 to 60 feet. In reality they are sharks, but unlike their fearsome cousins, these enormous creatures are docile and are in fact plankton feeders.

Above they sport deep blue color and white on the bottom. Their bodies have silvery white spots and have ridges along its’ length. They have hard leathery skins, their flattened heads with their huge gaping mouths and baleen teeth, scoop the water for plankton. They swim close to the surface allowing easy interaction with these gentle giants using basic snorkeling gear.

Although starting as early as November, whale shark season peaks from February to May. The best time to go out is in the mornings from early April to late May.

There are daily flights from Manila to Legazpi City, Sorsogon, which usually takes an hour. From Legazpi City you can rent a private van, taxi or use other public conveyance to Donsol. Be sure to arrange for your return trip if you use public transport. After the 1-hour ride you can proceed to the Donsol Tourism Office (DOT).

Upon registering with the DOT there is a brief orientation. A Butanding Interaction Officer (BIO) is assigned to your group of seven (7) registrants. Boats, including 2 crewmen, and snorkeling gear can be rented. The BIO will serve as your guide and spotter. The BIO are experienced look-outs and will take you to areas where whale sharks can be spotted. During peak season, spotting and interacting with a dozen whale sharks isn’t unheard of. Swimming with the whale shark is permitted as long as safe distance is observed for their and your protection. Remember that their gentle nature masks their power.

An encounter with the “Butanding” either in the water alongside it or just observing from the boat is an assured unforgettable experience. You will be in awe of the majestic beauty of these fantastic creatures, moments that you will surely treasure.

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