Swim with Whale Sharks and Manta Rays in Donsol, The Philippines

Swimming with Whale sharks

DID YOU KNOW: The Philippines became one of the first countries (1988) to enact a law to protect whale sharks?

The ocean in the Philippines is fortunate to be filled with tons of plankton that lures the whale shark to feed naturally. So it’s no surprise snorkelers and divers come to the Philippines just to see these creatures!

Their are two very popular places to go to see whale sharks in the Philippines: Oslob and Donsol.

Snorkeling/diving in Cebu:

  • The diving/snorkeling companies in Oslob (a popular whale shark town in the southern Philippines) lure whale sharks to the tourist boats by feeding them. This causes negative, even devastating, impacts to their natural behaviors and the ecosystem.

Snorkeling/diving in Donsol:

  • A small fishing town on the coast of Sorsogon where whale sharks naturally come to feed. Companies bring travelers to search for these majestic creatures in their natural habitat, pretty much a one on one interaction, unless it’s one boat per three whale sharks..
Dive boats preparing for Manta Bowl
Bicol Diving loading up the boat with diving equipment

Swimming with Whale Sharks in the Philippines

The Philippines are the whale shark capital of the world. It’s an amazing place because of the plankton, so whale sharks come in dozens to feed and swim here.

However, not all companies are helping to sustain this precious fish. Unlike Oslob, Donsol is the perfect place to swim with whale sharks in their natural habitat.

Sure, if you want a nice and enjoyable, yet unsustainable, trip then go to Cebu and Oslob. It will be so much fun swimming with an animal that is fed to hangout with you. It’s your choice. Read here about how TripAdvisor is promoting sustainable travel.

Or you could take the journey to Donsol and swim with whale sharks in a free and sustainable way. They aren’t fed, instead boat guides search for the shadow in the water and instruct you to jump of to swim when they are spotted.

Oh, and that isn’t even the best part of Donsol:

Did you know you can also swim with whale sharks and scuba dive with manta rays in the same breath?

Scuba Diving Manta Bowl

Just so you feel a bit of diving envy:

On our first dive in Manta Bowl we spotted eight manta rays swimming within twenty feet of us. At the same time a whale shark (with two reef sharks swimming under it) swam above the manta rays. It wasn’t magical at all.

The next day, despite being a bit murky because of the plankton, my group saw a thresher shark and two more manta rays.

If you are a diver, Donsol has wayyy more than just snorkeling with whale sharks, Manta Bowl is filled with 20ft manta rays. Do you still want to go to Oslob?

Drone photo of Donsol dive boats
DJI Mavic drone picture from the beach — you can see us and two dive boats

Manta Bowl Diving Conditions

During our time there we had overcast skies, be prepared for some sun and some rain.

Manta Bowl has a strong current, you need at least an Open Water Certificate, but Advanced is better. The water was also pretty cold. We wore a long wetsuit and shoes. If you have a rash guard – bring it.

Visibility is between 5-7 meters if you are lucky. The masses of plankton disrupt the visibility underwater, but the pro is they bring the whale sharks.

Snorkeling with the Whale Shark Interaction Center

The Whale Shark interaction center is where you sign up to snorkel.

I signed up for the morning tour at 7:30am. They also run 11am and 2pm tours. Water is a bit rougher in the morning, but apparently there are more whale sharks.

My group of six (always maximum 6pax) met our guide, our spotters, and got on the boat. During the first hour or longer, we saw nothing. We cruised around and no whale sharks, it was a waiting game.

We were lucky, our boat eventually spotted a 4-5meter whale shark by it’s shadow. We were dropped off 10-15m in front of it and we waited. AMAZING. It swam right at us: I could see into its eyes and could count the spots on its skin.

Our boat (no others) swam with this whale shark 4 or 5 separate times, before other boats came. On the way into shore, we saw another one, but this time it was massive! It was easily 8meters, we dove off and swam next to it. It was so big I couldn’t see it’s tail!

We were fortunate, since these animals are wild and free, not fed, you are not guaranteed to see them. But, that is why swimming with a wild animal was so amazing.

Getting to Donsol

AIR: fly into Manila then take a short (2.5-3hr) connecting flight to Legazpi. I recommend spending a day in this town to see Mt. Mayon and to hire a driver to visit the Underground River, falls, and rainforest caves of Jovellar. After Legazpi you need to take a 1.5hr transfer to Donsol.

BUS: instead of taking a connecting flight to Legazpi airport, you can take a 12hr overnight bus (roughly $17USD) then the 1.5hr transfer to Donsol. I believe a private transfer costs $30USD, but the local bus, a jeepney, only costs $1.15. You decide.

Dive boats by Drone
Taken by DJI Mavic drone at the Manta Bowl site: three other dive boats

When to Go

For diving – manta rays are in Manta bowl all year round.

However, if you want to see whale sharks, December-February is isn’t so great. Come Mid march-May (we were there first week of May).

I recommend diving near a full moon if that happens to fall during your travels. The moon somehow affects the tide and plankton and whale sharks are everywhere.

Accomodations

Balay de La Rama (Bed and Breakfast in Legazpi): we absolutely loved our stay here. The room was huge, you have a view of Mt. Mayon, and breakfast was delicious. More importantly, the owner is a beautiful and kind Filippino woman who will help you with anything!

Amor Farm Beach Resort: Owned by a Filipino grandmother and her family, this property is huge. They are located on the beach and have a large property. The restaurant has a large seating area plus another covered area for dining, parties, or just hanging out. They have a basketball court and a variety of rooms: air-con, fan, double, and a family room. Say hi to Zaira (granddaughter) if you go there – she’s a sweetheart. 10min walk from the whale shark interaction center

Eliysia Beach Resort: More luxurious rooms located minutes for the whale shark interaction center. This property also has a pool, is located on the beach, and has a restaurant.

Vitton and Woodlands Beach Resort: Minutes from the whale shark center. This beachfront property is a great place for travelers of all ages, they offer large rooms, dining options, plus a pool and spa.

Dive Boat in Donsol
DJI Mavic aerial of the Donsol dive boat

Still unsure about Donsol? JUST GO – you won’t be disappointed

I whole-heartedly believe in sustainable tourism. If you want to see these majestic fish AND allow future generations to see them, we need to respect their natural habitat. Please snorkel with the intent of preserving and respecting the animal.

Five years from now other people will want to swim with them too.

It may be easier to get to Oslob.

But if are you looking to travel to a more authentic location and meet people who believe in the conservation of the whale shark, go to Donsol. AND dive with manta rays — ALL YEAR ROUND.

 

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My adventures and ramblings through Europe, Australia, and now back the United States. I generally write from daily inspirations or from random thoughts.

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