Philippines: searching for the whale shark

I departed Singapore late on Sunday night so didn’t arrive in Angeles, Philippines until close to midnight so would have to stay there.  The city is two hours north of Manila and home to Clark airport which is a hub for several low-cost airlines.  I found some accommodation and got some sleep.

The next day I was up early to have a look around Angeles but I soon found it has very little to offer other than two huge American-style malls (which are all over the place in the Philippines, which has been heavily influenced by the American colonial rule between 1946 and 1968).  Other than that it is famous as being the sex industry capital of the Philippines (which again was largely a result of the thousands of US service men based nearby during the  colonial rule and afterwards when a military presence was retained vis-a-vis the Vietnam war).  As this was not my cup of tea I travelled to Subic, a popular beach getaway for Manila residents about an hour further north from Angeles.  Subic  had an awesome beach and I took the opportunity to have a snorkel with the fishes and back on dry land we were treated to a show by a group of cheeky monkeys.

On the way to Subic Bay there were several monkeys loitering in the road:

The white sands of Subic bay beach:

And by night:

The large male monkey was a greedy so-and-so.  He wouldn’t allow any of the other monkeys any of the food some local guys were feeding them.  If the locals tried throwing the food to other monkeys the big bully would dash over to the food screeching out a warning that the food was his:

Back in Angeles I finally got my mop chopped as it was starting to get in my eyes.  That was quite an experience in itself as the hairdresser was an extremely camp gay man who kept on making inappropriate comments about me and my hair!  However, it was all tongue-in-cheek and as he didn’t want me to leave he spent a lot of time on my hair and did  a very good job (for the pricely sum of £2).  Over the coming weeks I was to learn that there appears to be little to no stigma or taboo around homosexuality in the Philippines which meant that these type of interactions were to become a regular occurrence.  It seemed to fit with the laid-back, fun-loving, whatever-will-be-will-be attitude carried by most Filipinos I met.

After the haircut I caught an evening bus to Manila, and from there jumped on an overnight bus to Legazpi, a city about 10 hours south-east of the capital.

The bus ride was thoroughly un-enjoyable and sleep evaded me for the vast majority of the ten hours; a result of the air-con being set at an arctic 17 degrees (after 9 months I had learned to dress in warmest clothes when boarding night buses, but even my trousers and warm hoody were no match for this temperature).  Arriving bleary-eyed and knackered in Legazpi I waited for a shuttle bus to fill up to the required amount of people; at which point we set of on the hour-long trip to the whale shark capital of Donsol.

Arriving in Donsol (well actually neighbouring settlement Dancalan, the two of which are collectively known as Donsol) I soon found some budget accommodation and spent the afternoon checking out my options for swimming with some whale sharks the next day.  Before arriving in Donsol I had read on the internet in a normal three-hour boat trip, lucky punters could often view and swim with 15, 20 and even 30 whale sharks!  What a treat!  However, on arrival and speaking to several locals I found that recently this had dropped to 3 or 4 which was still splendid.

To commute the 3km between Donsol and Dancalan required procuring the services of a tricycle (roofed motorbike and sidecar).  These, along with Jeepneys , are an institution in the Philippines and usually carry 7-9 locals unless they are being chartered by a tourist in which case you get it all to yourself.  Cost was about 15p:

The next morning I was up early and on the boat with 5 other hopefuls, the crew and our personal BIO (Butanding [whale shark] Interaction Officer).  The rest of the guys had already been out a couple of days previously and having only seen between 1 and 2 whale sharks they had wanted another chance to catch a glimpse of these majestic creatures.  Well after 5 hours of sitting on the tiny boat with nothing to do but chat with the others and stare at the waves we returned to shore having seen zero, zilch, nada, nothing, NO WHALE SHARKS!  I was pretty gutted as my real expectation of seeing between 15-30 whale sharks had turned into a reality of none in the space of 24 hours.

We set off in fine weather.  The crew and BIO eagerly spy for shadows beneath the waves:

Clouds coming in, making it hard to spot the fish:

The story was that the current had taken the plankton to the depths keeping the gentle giants from attempting to come to the surface.  The advise was that the next day may bring a fortuitous change of conditions.  No good for me as I had booked a flight from Legazpi for lunch-time the next day.  The only remaining option was to try it in the afternoon, with the knowledge that the conditions can’t have changed much.  It was worth a go I thought, and returned to my hotel to pick up a book and iPod after having been thoroughly bored on the morning trip.

With a fraction of the hope I had had in the morning we set off in the afternoon and an hour and a half in the clouds came in and it started to pour, making viewing the sharks very hard indeed and made the passengers cold and even more miserable.   Then suddenly out of no-where there were several excited shouts and we were firing across the waves to where a few other boats seemed to be congregating.  We waited with bated breath in the eery silence as the engines were cut and we drifted nearby the other boats until finally more frantic and excited shouts came from the various crews and 20-30 tourists were throwing themselves into the water.  My heart was racing and adrenaline pumping as I frantically kicked my legs to keep up with our BIO until looking down I saw this huge beast emerge into my sight below.  After several seconds it started to drift deeper and the feeling of disappointment started to return, until surprisingly it started to come back to the surface, and in fact started to turn towards me, until I was no further than a metre from its huge head!  At one point I had to kick away from it through fear it was going to swim into me!  I followed the 10 metre giant for about 3 minutes until it had finally had enough an effortlessly glided to the depths.

You can’t tell from this but the whale shark was moving forward at quite a pace and so I was finning hard to keep up/ahead of it and hence the shaky camera work:

Last ride in.  After waiting all day I finally got to swim with the whale shark and can afford myself a smile:

Model of the whale shark back at the tourist centre:

So in the end after 8 hours of shark watching I hadn’t seen the expected 30, instead just  the one, but what an exciting and amazing experience it was nonetheless.

The next day I headed to the bus terminal in town to catch the bus to Legazpi for my onward flight.  Whilst waiting for the bus to fill I got coerced into singing some karaoke by some locals!

Bryan Adams, Everything I Do (I Do It For You):

Legazpi airport offers a cracking view of the 2,492m active Mayon volcano. The area around Legazpi is very flat which makes the view even more striking:

In the early afternoon sun I boarded the plane to my next destination, the southern island of Cebu.


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