Monday, May 15, 2006
Where are all the whale sharks?
Donsol, Philippines: Whale shark capital of the world.
At the beginning of May I had heard from a fellow hiker and diver that between March and May the biggest congregation of whale sharks anywhere in the world appear in the waters off a tiny village in the Philippines. With the Philippines being so close to Hong Kong and nearing the end of the whale shark season I scrambled to put together a last minute weekend to Donsol.
If you are not familiar with whale sharks, they are the largest fish in the ocean (whales are mammals) and can be over 40' long and weigh up to 15 tons. They are highly protected by governments with a US$20,000 fine for touching one, nevermind how much trouble you would be in for catching one. They are incredibly docile and gentle. From what I had read about the whale shark season in Donsol, I had come to learn that there is a huge probability of seeing anywhere from 8-15 of them in a single day and being able to snorkel (no diving allowed) with them for as long as they stayed around which could be up to 45 minutes at each sighting. They come very close to the surface for the suns warmth so you are able to get within a few feet of them (but remember touching is a no no). Seeing one whale shark is quite rare but to see several is even more miraculous. These creatures are what diving stories are made of and what everyone hopes to see.
For those that are not too fond of the idea of being in the water with a 40' shark, they are completely harmless to humans. They are not like a hammerhead or a Great White. Even though they have over 300 teeth the largest thing they eat are tiny little shrimp. They are
filter feeders which means water is drawn into the humungous mouth and passed through the gill rakers. Whatever plankton or small fish are caught are swallowed. The worst thing that can happen to a person is getting whacked upside the head by the tail of this multi-ton fish.
Anyways...hopefully you have an understanding of why we wanted to do this so bad. But, we are sorry to say, it was a bust! A violent tropical storm had blown through the area on Thursday and for some reason caused the whale sharks to leave the area. Either the storm itself scared off the sharks or the storm blew the plankton to another region, causing the sharks to follow the food supply.
We arrived Saturday morning in Donsol but were not able to go out on the boat because the water was too rough and not ideal for spotting them. Sunday was better. But we spent 5 hours on the boat only to spot a small one (about 9' long) and to see it for about 4.5 seconds. The whole process of getting in the water was quite comical though. We thought the boat would stop and we would slide in the water and then swim around with the shark until it dove into deeper waters. Not so! Troy and I are half asleep when the next thing we know the boat crew is yelling at us to get our fins and mask on and get in the water. And no, the boat didn't stop. We just jumped straight in with our mask and fins half on and tried to keep up with our guide who was swimming as fast as he could after the shark. Because the shark was a juvenile, he was scared and fast, hence the 4.5 second encounter. We both had our cameras but they were useless. Troy did get a picture of a tail but that was about it. It was very disappointing considering we could have seen several whale sharks and had expected the encounter to last longer then it took for us to get our mask and fins on! By this time in the day the water was getting rough so our time was up. We wish we could say we took these pictures, but we didn't. We stole them from the internet. We just wanted to show you what we had the possibility of seeing. So instead, we'll show you a picture of the only wildlife that was slow enough for us to photograph: a lone water oxen.
It was a relaxing weekend though (for Troy anyways, I am on perma-relax mode). The hotel we stayed at was ran by a huge family who were incredibly nice. The owner dotted on us like we were her children. She has 26 grand children so I think it is very hard for her to not want to take care of people. It was just a little too much when we couldn't eat our dinner or breakfast alone. She felt bad that we had such a disappointing whale shark encounter so she sent us over to her daughters beach resort where they served us free food and beers.
We are hoping to see the whale sharks in Belize next March when we start our year trip around the world, so we're keeping our fingers crossed that one day we'll see them for a little longer then 4.5 seconds.