Donsol was once a sleepy seaside village until the discovery of Butandin (AKA the whale shark) by a group of SCUBA divers in 1998 started making waves.
Now from the months of November to May Filipinos and foreigners alike flock to this site to get up close and personal to these gentle giants. One of the reasons that the experience is so popular is because to swim with these creatures, you don’t even need a dive tank. The whale sharks conveniently enjoy cruising along on the surface of the water and with a simple mask and snorkel, you too can swim along beside.
Ethical Concerns of Snorkelling with Whale Sharks
There have been many concerns in recent years that the practice of diving and snorkelling with whale sharks is unethical.
There are two popular places in the Philippines to snorkel with whale sharks, Donsol and Oslob. While Oslob has been heavily criticised for being a whale shark ‘Disneyland’, Donsol had pitched itself as the more eco-friendly experience, as this article in Aljazeera describes.
However, many reports on TripAdvisor talk about instances where boatloads of people, sometimes up to 70 people, surround one whale shark, touching and petting it, in a situation which could clearly be distressing for the animal. One reviewer said: “This should be called eco-terrorism, not tourism.”
Apparently, before you get on the boat, tourists are given a long list of rules that are supposed to be adhered to upon entering the water, for example, everyone must stay 3 metres away from the whale shark at all times. However, as soon as tourists take the plunge, the rules are completely forgotten and total chaos ensues. The guides do nothing to prevent this from happening and there is a complete disregard for the wellbeing of the whale shark.
Perhaps the only ethical way to spot whale sharks are whilst diving? What do you think?
Where to stay in Donsol?
A range of accommodation is scattered along the coastal strip. In peak season it is worth noting that accommodation fills up fast, so book ahead! If you want something cheap and cheerful there are a few homestays available, just have a thorough search around on the net before you go.
Donsol Aguluz Homestay is one of the best and friendliest budget options in town. It’s a family run place with clean, basic rooms and excellent home-cooked food. You’ll feel like you’re staying in an authentic Filipino house and feel like part of the family here, which is a nice alternative to some of the colder large resorts. Rooms here cost $30 USD.
Vitton & Woodlands Beach Resort is located right next to the visitor’s centre. There’s a pool, lounge chairs, a restaurant/ bar and budget-friendly 5 hours of happy hour drink specialities per day! What more could you ask for? The staff are also super friendly and there are plenty of other travellers to see the sights and hang out with. The “backpacker” dorm room costs 500 PHP/ bed per night. There are three beds to a room and each room has a bathroom.
Giddy’s is another popular choice located in Donsol town, however, you will have to travel slightly further to get from here to the whale shark interaction centre.
Things to do in Donsol
Snorkel with whale sharks:
If you want to try this experience (reading all the ethical concerns above). then arrive at the whale shark interaction centre between 7 am and 2 pm (avoid going before 9 am to avoid the crowds). When you arrive you will get into a boat, each boat can hold 6 people and costs 3,500 PHP per person. (Obviously, if you prefer to go with fewer people, you can, it will just cost you more). The boat trip lasts around three hours and you can jump in and swim with the whale sharks whenever you like.
Take a trike to ‘the bridge’ for a firefly tour (trike 15 PHP per person, tour 250 PHP per person). You get an hour long river tour with a guide and you will see glowing trees full of fireflies! The tours start at 5pm and finish at 9 pm, and we recommend to go when it’s fully dark so you can see all the fireflies in all their glory!
As is common in the Philippines, there are some great dive sites around! It’s not a bad place to relax on the beach for a while either!
Grab yourself some really tasty fish and pasta from Barracuda owned by a fantastic Filipino lady who has spent time as a chef overseas. She’ll bring prawns and fish to your table so you can choose whatever takes your fancy. This place also has some of the cheaper rooms (with shared bathrooms) along the Donsol strip and is only a short walk from the whale shark area.
Hang out with other backpackers!
After an adventurous day, grab a beer and head to the beach to discuss your travel stories of the day!
Getting to Donsol
By Road: From Legazpi take a private van to Donsol which takes about one and a half hours and will cost you around 1500 php or you can take a trike to the bus terminal (50 php) and get a seat in a shared van for 75 php.The shared van (a UV express) will leave when the van is full so you may have to wait up to an hour. Vans will await you at the airport, or for a less touristy price try the van terminal in Legazpi town. Or if you’re a fan of the lengthier South East Asian bus trip, get a bus all the way from Manila.
Fly: You can fly from Manila (and other locations) into the Legazpi airport.
Where to go next?
Naga/Bagasbas: (2 hours from Legaspi) for some surf and beach time.
Cam Sur Wakeboard Park: Only 5 minutes from Naga airport, Camarines Sur is actually the number one tourist destination in the Philippines, despite the fact that Boracay gets more foreign tourists. The area has made a real effort to support the development and the results really show!
Caramoan: The set of US hit show ‘Survivor’, the Caramoan Islands are making their way onto the backpacker map and epitomise the idea of island hopping.
Article updated in 2015 by Jennifer Poole of No Address Nomad.