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Snorkelling with whale sharks
Manila (Philippines), April 1st 2010

We travelled with huge expectations to the small fishing village of Donsol, on the southern tip of the Philippine island of Luzon. Donsol is one of the world’s best places to see the huge whale sharks in their natural habitat. And what’s even better; you can swim with them! Last year, we were also in this area, but at that time it wasn’t the right season. The whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) are mainly plankton eaters and come to the Donsol area every year in the period from February to April, when there is an abundance of plankton in the water.

The whale shark is the biggest shark and also the biggest fish of our seas. The average length is around eight meters, but the largest confirmed individual measures more than twelve metres. There are also unconfirmed claims that report much larger individuals, up to eighteen metres. Despite the fact that it is a shark, the whale sharks are not dangerous for humans. The animal is often called the gentle giant, because of his relaxed behaviour and that he can get along easily with swimmers and divers. The speed in the water is around five kilometres per hours, making it relatively easy to swim with them. An encounter with the gentle giants is so great because they often swim just below the sea level, which makes it possible to see them as swimmer, in stead of the necessity to be a diver. The reason is that whale sharks like the warmer upper layers of the sea and that they are depending for their food on the photosynthetic plankton that can also be found in these well-lit upper layers.

Snorkelling with a whale shark (photo source: www.dsc.discovery.com)

Today is hopefully the day that it is going to happen. We are on a small boat, together with four other travellers, a captain, a so-called whale shark encounter officer and a couple of assistants that have the assignment to help the whale shark encounter officer spotting the whale sharks. To protect the whale sharks, authorities have decided that only a maximum of thirty boats with six tourists each, can go on a daily basis to the Donsol Bay in search of the gentle giants. Another rule is that only one boat is allowed to be with a whale shark at a particular moment, to prevent that too many snorkellers stress the animal. We are one of the first boats that leave the harbour, which means that we have the bay in the beginning all for ourselves. The whale shark encounter officer stands on the front part of the boat, while scanning the sea surface in search of any signs of a whale shark, while the captain of the boat navigates us over the bay. It takes approximately twenty minutes before the captain yells ‘whale shark!’. The whale shark revealed himself by showing a tip of his huge tail fin. The captain navigates the boat to the area where he saw the animal, while the whale shark encounter officer urges us to prepare ourselves for the encounter. After putting on our masks and fins, we sit down on the edge of the boat, waiting for the signal to jump in the water. The captain encircles the area where the whale shark is seen, but after a couple of minutes the crew concludes that the animal left to deeper areas. Being a little bit disappointed, we put off our masks and fins, and take a seat again on the wooden benches of the boat.

Ten minutes later we see a fisherman who makes hasty arm movements to attract our attention. He just saw a whale shark passing by under his little fishing boat and points us in the direction where the whale shark is moving to. The whale shark encounter officer doesn’t need to urge us this time to get prepared. In less than no time we are ready again, sitting on the edge of the boat. The captain navigates us to the area that was pointed out to us by the fisherman, and when also the whale shark encounter officer puts on his mask, we know that the moment is approaching. ‘Enter the water and follow me’ is what he yells while jumping in the water. We drop ourselves in the water and follow him as he ordered us. We look around under the water, but see nothing. The visibility is bad because of the large quantity of plankton in the water. But soon thereafter, a huge dark spot is approaching us from beneath. It only takes a couple of seconds before we can identify the whale shark by his silver spots on the skin. The whale shark dived a little bit, but is now coming to the surface layer again. Ivonne is right above the giant shark and is afraid that she’s in the area where the whale shark wants to go. With a frightened expression on her face she looks to the whale shark encounter officer with the question: ‘what to do?’. He signals her not to be afraid and to swim in the same direction as the whale shark is moving. The giant animal stays neatly below Ivonne and after she swims a little bit to the side to make space for him, he ascends the last meter to just below the sea surface, to be exactly next to Ivonne.

Enjoying a Rum-Cola after a great day of snorkelling with whale sharks
We eventually swim twenty minutes with this beautiful creature, before he dives again and we lose sight of him. This was a unique experience. Because he swam so slowly, we had all the time to observe him very closely. Once in a while we slowed down a little bit to observe his huge tail fin, after which we swam to the front again to be amazed by his large mouth. Also the gill openings at the side of his body (five on each side) were easy to see. The whale shark feeds himself by swimming with an open mouth and to filter the sea water from plankton and small fish. He can filter up to six thousand litres per hour. The food stays behind, while the filtered water is carried off again through his gills. Once in a while we dived down a little bit to look him right in the eyes. We noticed that he is followed us with his eyes, but in no way he made the impression that he was disrupted by it. After twenty fabulous minutes, he said goodbye and disappeared in the deeper waters. The boat picked us up again, and everybody was very impressed by the experience we just had. The whale shark encounter officer tells us that the shark wasn’t really a big one (only 6 metres!), but the quality of the encounter was very high. It is not often that you can swim twenty minutes with a whale shark is what he tells us. Most encounters are only limited to a couple of minutes, or even less.

After this first great encounter, we see three more whale sharks that morning. Also the second encounter was impressive, because the whale shark was much bigger (up to ten metres). However, the encounter was partly ruined because more than one boat went to the whale shark, resulting in too many snorkellers. And because everybody wanted to have a good position near the whale shark, people started to flounder and pushing each other. After a minute, the whale shark wasn’t really comfortable anymore and decided to dive, ending the encounter. This event couldn’t spoil our day anymore, because we considered ourselves very lucky with the first encounter we had. This was one of our best wildlife encounters so far.

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