Swimming with giants

26 Jan 2005 by business traveller

It's a cloudless summer morning and the sea is a dazzling blue-green.

The perfect peak of majestic Mayon Volcano hovers imperiously on the horizon. Not far away, a sprinkling of small islands with brilliant golden beaches glisten in the morning sun. The beauty of this place is almost too perfect.

For a long time, people thought that nothing much happened in the town of Donsol, on the southernmost tip of the Philippines' main island of Luzon. It was
like any other sleepy fishing town in this part of the country: battered by typhoons for half the year, awash in golden sunshine the other. Too far off the tourist track, it seemed destined to stay anonymous, an ageless and undiscovered gem.

Then, in 1997, divers and researchers discovered what was common knowledge in the town all along: that a group of butanding, or whale sharks, were spending at least half the year in the waters just off Donsol. For years, local fishermen had enjoyed a love-hate relationship with these animals, chasing them away from their fishing nets and sometimes swimming alongside them. But media reports about these huge, placid, plankton-eating giants drew the attention of fishermen from elsewhere in the Philippines, keen to hunt the whale shark for its meat, which is considered a delicacy in some parts of Asia.

Fortunately, after an outcry, legislation was hastily passed to protect the butanding, and to nature lovers the world over Donsol became an overnight sensation, ecotourism providing a new source of income to replace livelihoods dependent on dwindling fishing stocks. Today its place on the tourist map is secure.

The whale shark can grow up to 20m and weigh up to 40 tonnes, making it the largest known fish in the world. The surface-feeding sharks are viewed from bancas (fishing boats with bamboo outriggers), and prospective shark-watchers are accompanied by Donsol fishermen who now spend half the year working as ?spotters? and guides or, in the words of the local tourism office, ?Butanding Interaction Officers?.

So it was that I found myself in the grip of one such officer, the bronze-skinned Eric, who guided our banca to where he had sighted a shark and showed us where to dive. That meant hurriedly donning snorkel and mask and nervously diving to where the blue-grey shark was visible.

Eric held my hand and guided me toward the animals. We swam alongside the sharks, sometimes for several minutes at a time, and it was pure delight. Swimming alongside one of nature's biggest creatures must be the closest you can get to a religious experience.

The first sight was a little daunting ? the shark's mouth alone is two metres long, with a row of gleaming, white teeth. It was a comfort to know they preferred shrimps to humans. In the course of four hours, we sighted nearly a dozen sharks, and they seemed totally blasé about the tiny, gangly humans going gaga over them nearby. They didn't seem the least perturbed by us, tolerating our intrusion into their world.

Fact File

One sight of the whale shark is enough to make the long land trip ? Donsol is 540km south and a 12-hour ride from Manila ?worth every minute. The seemingly interminable ride past stretches of rice fields along the southern Luzon coastline seems to heighten the anticipation. Alternatively, you can take a 45-minute plane ride from Manila to Legazpi City and then drive an hour to Donsol.

A number of resorts have been built in Donsol since 1998. They do not claim to be fancy affairs ? mainly cottages with thatch roofs , although many are air-conditioned ? and they offer rooms for four people for 1,500 pesos (around £14). But people don't come to Donsol for the luxury. They come for the singular awe of swimming with the world's biggest shark, which has been saved from the threat of overfishing by this booming ecotourism industry ? long may it continue.

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