Donsol Whale Shark Encounter

By Teena Santiago


In 2004, the Time Magazine has identified the WWF-supported whale shark interaction program in the Philippines’ Donsol River as the “Best Place for an Animal Encounter”.

Donsol is known as the whale shark capital of the world because of the high number of whale sharks, locally known as butanding, found in its municipal waters. For decades, whale sharks have migrated to the mouth of the Donsol to feed on plankton. -- World Wildlife Fund Philippines -


Last April 24, my friends and I embarked on the first leg of our Donsol experience.  We made a lot of new friends along the way who shared the truly awesome butanding (what the whale shark is called locally) encounter.

Contrary to popular belief, it is not a whale.  The whale shark is the biggest shark and the biggest fish. It has a huge mouth which can be up to 4 feet (1.4 m) wide.  Its mouth is at the very front of its head (not on the underside of the head like in most sharks).  It has a wide, flat head, a rounded snout, small eyes, 5 very large gill slits, 2 dorsal fins (on its back) and 2 pectoral fins (on its sides).  The spiracle (a vestigial first gill slit used for breathing when the shark is resting on the sea floor) is located just behind the shark's eye.  Its tail has a top fin much larger than the lower fin.


The whole butanding encounter starts with your BIO (butanding interaction officer) and the rest of the boat crew looking out for these beautiful creatures.  As soon as one is spotted, you jump in the water and your BIO expertly guides you so that you are right in front of the butanding as it swims towards you.  Just when you think the shark will either open its mouth and devour you or knock you senseless from its pretty steady charge forward, the butanding slowly descends and you get to watch its entire body pass closely beneath you.

Seeing the whale sharks up close really gives the term “gentle giants” a whole new dimension in meaning.  On the way to Donsol I was anxious about having the courage to jump in with these enormous creatures and yet when I finally took the plunge for the first time, two things popped into my head:  1. being with the butandings is a truly peaceful (maybe not everyone will agree) experience and not at all scary as I first thought; and  2. whatever made me think that I could handle taking photos underwater when I couldn’t really swim to save my life!

Despite not being a swimmer, I found myself “swimming” with the butandings in 600 ft deep water.  Along the way, we even spotted a pawikan (sea turtle) as it gently surfaced to breathe.  And as if that wasn’t magical enough, that night we were treated to a show that can be enjoyed in Donsol even when whale shark season is over.

That night, along with our new friends, we made our way to the mangrove where our boatman silently maneuvered in the dark as we embarked on an uncomplicated yet truly rewarding activity of firefly watching.


Fireflies are good indicators of the balance of nature and the ecosystem.  With constant and uncontrolled development in urban areas, a lot of people are missing out on a truly visual and even spiritual way to experience nature.


When I was little, there were a lot of fireflies in our backyard and I would play with them and imagine they were tiny fairies bestowing magical gifts on me.  But not even that childhood memory prepared me for the hundreds and maybe even thousands of nature’s tiny blinkers that gently guided our trip downstream.

While on the trip, I would constantly look up to the clear night sky and behold the beautiful full moon perfectly framed by millions of blinking stars.  I would then look at the river before me and see the moon and stars mirrored on the glass-like river surface.  And on both sides of the boat, a myriad of blinking lights would gradually break the pitch-black surroundings in a luminous but silent display of fireflies as if on its own star-like parade.

Our boatman even maneuvered our banca several times through trees filled and lit by the fireflies.  The experience was so surreal because it just felt like we were on a tour of the galaxy with stars above, beneath and around us!

Looking back at my Donsol experience I replay the movie in my mind of the butandings, the fireflies and the warm hospitality of the Donsol locals and I can’t help but feel all choked up by emotions of utter humility and complete gratitude for the grace to have been given the chance to experience these truly magnificent events.  It certainly enhanced my perspective on life.

Now, whenever I feel the urge to drown in a glass of water with whatever mundane issue that crops up, I recall my experience of Donsol and I am reminded that I am just a really tiny part of a big beautiful whole and all my trivial everyday pet peeves melt away into nothingness as I find my consciousness flowing into everything… and nothing.

Take me back to Bundok's Ecotours  Page