Encounters with Whale Sharks – “The Gentle Giants" of Donsol
Contribution by Vijay Phadke. Manila, April 22, 2003
For almost last three years in Philippines, I was waiting eagerly to get an opportunity to go for watching “Whale Sharks”. This Easter holidays provided just the right opportunity as it is the peak season for this activity.
Donsol, a small coastal fishing town, 600Km away from Manila, on the southwest coast of Luzon, Philippines is frequented for several years by Whale Sharks, called “Butanding” in local Filipino dialect. All local fishermen were aware of them but it was like a best kept secret. A team of foreign divers publicized it for the first time in year 1998. After that, poachers and hunters swarmed this place. Filipino government stepped in quickly and declared this variety of fish as a protected species.
Butandings, although called as Whales are not mammals like other whales but they are actually fish and belong to group of sharks. However, this one is not a predator like other varieties of sharks and just feeds on the plankton and small fish. Thus, in a sense a giant vegetarian fish. The meaning of this Filipino term “Butanding” means “Gentle Giants”. This name represents their true nature. This is the largest fish in the world and grows up to the length of 60 ft and weighs up to 15 Metric Tons!! The lengths up to 50 ft are found in Donsol region. It is never heard of them hurting humans intentionally however collisions with fishing boats are common. After declaring it a protected species and after knowing its behavior, Filipino government was quick to spot the opportunity of “Eco-Tourism” in Donsol. Butandings are found in this region from February to June when they migrate looking for the right water temperature and food. The seawaters of Donsol have just the right temperature and are rich in plankton to attract them. This small town of 30,000 residents becomes a busy place as tourists from all over the world arrive to watch these huge fish. Local fisherman assists as whale spotters. The fishermen with experience are known as “Butanding Interaction Officers” or BIO. This quick action from the government not only stopped the killings but also provided employment to local community in form of tourism.
We were team of seven, four from my family and three from my friend, Peter Fernandes’s family. All of us had a long drive from Manila and arrived in Donsol on the evening of April 13 without the slightest of idea of what excitement is in waiting. We promptly registered in the local Whale Interaction Office and paid the necessary fees. We were shown a short video film on these species of fish and the trip was scheduled on the next morning at 7:30 AM. Our BIO was “Alan”, the most experienced of all and the President of the BIO association and the spotter was “Jun”, a local fisherman.
That night, all of us went to bed in excited state, not exactly knowing what we will be experiencing next day…
Alan and Jun promptly picked us up in the morning and we started our tour in a small motor boat called “Bunka”. It was a 30 footer with balancing bamboo on both sides as per local style. Alan asked us to be ready with out swimming gear, the snorkel and fins etc. Jun climbed a bamboo cross to get a cleaner view of the surroundings. He spotted the first Whale Shark just in 10 minutes, hardly a kilometer away from the shore. There was a sudden excitement in the crew and Jun started guiding the boatman, shouting in local dialect. Alan told us that the boatman will position the boat correctly, about 25 meters from the fish and then upon his signal “ GO”, we have to jump in the water with him and start swimming towards the fish as fast as we can! My heart was thumping and my fingers went numb.
Only myself and Ajoy, Peter’s son, prepared to go for the first encounter. As we approached the fish, we saw a huge dark patch in the water. My wife, Smita was holding the Video Camera but all that she could capture was a giant black patch. We closed in and then I heard Alan shout, go .. go…. go. This was the moment of truth! Also this was my first time to swim in deep see without any life jacket as it impedes the swimming speed. It was Ajoy who jumped first. I jumped after him and started swimming in the direction indicated by Alan. Alan was swimming very fast and I also applied all of my force to approach the mammoth fish. With my mask, and thanks to the power lens that it had, I already had a corrected vision even inside the waters, I saw the huge mouth from the side. My hands and legs stopped. Swim, swim, Alan shouted and he forced us on the sides of the Butanding. That was a magnificent site. I still vividly remember the swift motion and elegant stokes of the tail. The gills were huge and so was the dorsal fin. We were hardly 10 feet away from it and were swimming parallel to its body. The encounter lasted for about 30 seconds and then it changed the trajectory and glided past us in the deeper waters. The tail was huge with a small cut at the tip. I was stunned by the size and felt that it must have been at least 40 feet long. Alan remarked casually, “That one was small, just 22 feet!"
We swam back to the boat but meanwhile Jun spotted another one. Alan asked us to hold on to the balancing bamboo on the side and the boat moved, dragging us along. Soon we approached another one. This was almost of the same size but I could see only the middle part and the tail. Then we climbed back again.
Now everybody was charged up. Another one was spotted in a short while. Peter joined us and we three were sitting on the side of the boat, waiting for Alan’s signal. In the excitement, I jumped prematurely. Wait! Wait! Alan shouted. I was scared and just hung on the bamboo praying that this doesn’t turn out to be a disaster. Soon everybody jumped in the water and we started swimming rapidly as guided by Alan. There it was. I was right in front of it. It was swimming towards me. This time I saw the gaping mouth. It was open and I could feel the chill going up my spine! Trust me, it is very difficult to stay calm when such a giant beast is swimming towards you. It was just 6 to 8 feet below me. We changed direction and started following it. This was about 25 feet long. Our companion soon got tired of us and speeded up in the deep waters.
Now every body was charged up. I urged Smita to join us and not lose this rare opportunity. Soon Smita joined us in the next encounter followed by my 11 year daughter Shruti and Peter’s wife Sylvia. Even my 6-year-old, younger daughter, Shivani gathered her courage and jumped in. With Jun’s help, she approached the Butanding and saw the middle part of the huge body. That scared the hell out of her and she froze at the same spot, urging Jun to take her back. I guess this much encounter was already a great achievement for her age.
In about four hours, we were able to see about 20 Whale Sharks but eight of them were moving away. The other 12 spotted were approached by us, with Ajoy participating in all encounter and myself in 11 out of these 12. The largest one I saw was about 35 feet long. I viewed it from the front at the beginning. The mouth was at least 5 feet wide, continuously moving to gulp tons of water, with thousands of small teeth working as filters to find plankton and small fish as food. Then I moved on the side and started swimming with it. This time Jun was with me. This encounter lasted for about a minute. The fish seemed to be swimming very gently but still I was out of by breath while attempting to keep up with it. Then I was right on top of the dorsal fin, and Jun pointed it to me, asking me to grab it! I shivered and shook my head under the water. He urged me to do so and assured me with a nod that it is safe. I gathered all my courage and moved my fingers to hold the dorsal fin. It was about 2” thick even at the tip and was slippery. I held it for a moment and then let it go. I guess the fish got disturbed and glided in the depths. On it’s way, the giant tail moved past me at a very close distance.
Shruti and Ajoy were the luckiest one, when they had the longest encounter with one of the Butandings, lasting more than a minute.
It was already close to noon and everybody was tired. Every part of my body was aching. Although I swim very regularly, this was not swimming. It was like short bursts of sprints. As the fish is in wild, it won’t wait for you. You have to speed up and swim very fast till you reach it. That consumed all of our energy. In addition, climbing back on the boat is also a hard work with no hard support for the ladder. That day, I really wished I were at least 10 years younger.
Although everybody was tired, we still wanted more. The sun was up and it was difficult to spot more Whales on the shining water surface. Still we spent another hour to have two more encounters. By 1:30 PM, we had no more energy to even look around and returned back to our resort.
The experience was unforgettable. For a couple of days, every time I closed my eyes, I dreamed about Buntandings. I remember the majestic swift movements like a ballet artist.
I also felt sad as same Whale Sharks are also found around coastal Gujrath, in India but they are hunted in huge numbers. Last year, more than 100 were killed just in one month. The oil extracted from the lever is in demand and so is the meat. We cannot blame the poachers and fisherman who hunt them, as that is their bread and butter. But the actions taken by Philippines government not only protected these “Gentle Giants” but also generated revenue for the local people. From February to June, this small, otherwise sleepy town is flooded with tourists. This generates income for local fisherman, who works as spotters and BIOs. Other people get income from offering home stays, lodging and food to the visitors. This fish has a life span of 100 years but it breeds very slowly. So it could soon become extinct if the killing is not stopped. Hunters may earn quick money but for a short time. On the contrary, if this hunting is stopped and Eco-tourism is developed like what Philippines government did in Donsol, local community can thrive on the tourism for generations to come.
Vijay Phadke, April 22, 2003, Manila