Swimming with a Butanding

What is the biggest fish in the ocean?

Sharks are fish too, and the whale shark, reaching 30ft in length, is the biggest of them all. Although their name and size sound intimidating (Imagine swimming next to a fish as big as a school bus!), whale sharks are gentle giants who feed on plankton. They are pelagic, migratory species, but their migrations have become well known in certain areas.

I took this photo with my gopro with snorkeling in Donsol, Sorsogon.

A visit to Donsol, Sorsogon in the Philippines in March, April and May is a near guarantee to see whale sharks! (Note: nature is unpredictable and there are no guarantees). Furthermore this small little town is a perfect example of successful eco-tourism.

Upon arrival visitors watch a short, entertaining orientation video. Do not touch the butanding (Butanding means whale shark in Tagalog). Do not swim in front of the butanding. Do not feed the butanding (in other areas of the Philippines whale shark feeding is permitted. This is BAD!! Check out this article to learn why.)

Oriented visitors are then assigned a Butanding Interaction Officer (BIO), a boat and driver, and a spotter. These 3 highly trained individuals are your key to seeing a whale shark. Once on board the BIO will give additional instructions to your 6-person boat team.

“When we locate a butanding, I will tell you to prepare your gear. All individuals will sit on the side of the boat with mask, fins and snorkel on. When I say ‘jump now’, you must jump. Do not hesitate. Do not jump until I give the signal. In the water you must follow me.”

Intense. Fast-paced. Exhilarating. I didn’t realize this was about to be the most action-packed snorkel experience of my life. We were the first boat to leave at exactly 7am on March 24. The trip began as a casual boat ride: our spotter scanned the water, while we relaxed (While everyone else relaxed, I was on the edge of my seat scouring the water and praying for whale sharks.) John even set up his camping chair to get comfortable. But with the first, “prepare your gear,” from our BIO, that chair was abandoned and the adventure had begun.

“Jump now!” Sitting on the side of the boat with our masks on and snorkels in our mouths, we all belly flopped into the water at the exact same moment. (If one person hesitates then you enter the water at different times and tend to land on each other. Luckily, we were a group of expert snorkelers and we executed the entrance maneuver in perfect synchrony.)

“Swim with me! Look down now!” There it was: my first whale shark. Check mark on the life list goal as it swam literally exactly below me. Our BIO was an expert.

Waiting on the side of the boat with our mask, fins and snorkel ready, while our spotter stood at the bow scanning for more whale sharks

Throughout the day we saw maybe 10 whale sharks! You lose count after 5. Some were just babies and others were gigantic. When the BIO says, “Dive!” we faithfully free dove down into the blue abyss and without fail a whale shark would pass by. This first pass is ideal for the head shot, but after we proceeded to sprint alongside the whale shark, keeping pace for a minute or two for some amazing video footage.

Jumping, swimming, diving, sprinting, climbing onto the boat, and doing it again. Seriously, the best whale shark adventure ever!

Bring your A game if you are headed to Donsol. Non-swimmers can also see whale sharks, but you will don a large orange life jacket and be one of the floating masses, scrambling for a fast glimpse of this majestic creature, while you try to avoid the elbows of your disposable-camera-equipped neighbor.