A few days ago I went to Donsol in order to swim with the Whale Sharks, a creature synonymous with this plucky little coastal town on the South coast of Luzon.
Now, there are two sides to this story:
Side 1; This was an utterly incredible experience which will stay with me. On the first day I attempted it the guide was not able to find any of the big fish. The area is a breeding ground for them and each year from roughly February to May they are in the water just off the coast. In depths no more than 5-10 metres. A photographer captured them around 14 years ago and since then Donsol has never been the same. During the breeding season you are almost guaranteed to see them, and although I failed on my first day, I went back for one more go (no refund if you don’t see them!) and there were several out. We jumped in when the guide told us to and swam above it. There were many people there but with just a little dive below the surface, using the power of your fins, they all disappear and, if only for a few seconds, it is just you and the leviathon. The one we observed was approximately 8 metres long and swimming along merrily. With visibility in the water at around 5-7 metres you had to get close to see it, very close. The size and power of these creatures is phenomenal and truly worth the effort of going out to spy them.
Side 2; Each morning during peak season up to 180 tourists (although usually it is less, maybe 70-100) can hire special bangkas (boats) to take them to see the whale sharks. As a major plus this means there is massive scope for employment in the area and outside money has helped the locals of Donsol make a good, honest living. The tourists’ desire to see the whale sharks has also meant that preservation of the whale shark is more integral to the town than anything else. If they die, then the money dries up. So on the surface it seems that the program is set up as a win-win deal. However, the issue arises when we spot a whale shark and jump in. The rules at the centre state that only 6 people can swim alongside any one whale shark. But in the water it is different. All the boats descend upon the spotted shark like vultures and everyone jumps in. It is like a sporting melee as people jostle for position. Now, the water is not deep and although the whale shark can just swim away at speed, it can’t descend much deeper and this riot occurs every day of the breeding season, every year. It is only going to get more and more busy as time goes on.
I am not here to preach that the people of Donsol have got it wrong. They are going to try and make a buck any way they can. They know they must conserve the creatures’ habitat and protect them (you can’t scuba dive with them and you can’t touch them), but I still can’t help but think that all those people constantly around the whale sharks is going to have a negative effect on them. To have a haven where you go to breed change so drastically in the space of 15 years must have an effect on you. I feel it may push them away from the place they have been coming to for who knows how long. It requires far stricter regulations being properly enforced on a global level. This is a issue of us really acting to save the seas before its too late, if its not already. However, one guy on my boat disagreed, if they wanted to get away they could, he suggested, perhaps he is right, and perhaps the swimmers are no bother to them.
Whatever the score, I jumped in and I was part of the melee. I don’t know if it is a good thing or a bad thing. From a purely selfish perspective however, it was fantastic. (The photos aren’t mine)