WHAT’S A WHALE SHARK?
Called the butanding in Filipino (which translates into English as "gentle giants"), this massive but harmless creature can grow up to 13 or 14 meters long and weigh 1500 kilos or more, according to this page on whale sharks in the Philippines. The locals originally thought they were dangerous because of their size and appearance, but all this changed in 1998 when a group of SCUBA divers captured their friendly butanding encounter on video.
Is the butanding a whale or a shark? The Rhincodon typus, as it is known scientifically, is actually a shark and not a whale, though its large size and gentleness have many people making the mistake of believing the opposite. The whale shark is a filter feeding shark and is the largest living species of fish. According to this Wikipedia entry, this species can be found in tropical and warm oceans, has been around for 60 million years or so, and lives to be about 70 years old.
The sharks may look threatening, but these creatures prey on small marine life like plankton, microscopic plants and animals, and occasionally small fish. Indeed, a human swimming with these giants has more to fear from their heavy tails than their mouths, which is why swimmers are instructed to maintain a respectful (and safe) distance at all times.
Whale sharks have been classified as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Wikipedia defines a vulnerable species as “a species which is likely to become endangered unless the circumstances threatening its survival and reproduction improve.”
GETTING THERE AND GETTING GEARED UP
An officemate’s amazing experience with these whale sharks convinced my circle of friends to head out to Sorsogon in 2008 with this goal in mind: spot as many butandings and swim as fast as we could beside them.
After an early hour-long drive from Legaspi City in Albay, Bicol, to Donsol in Sorsogon, we proceeded to the Tourism Office to register (it cost us P300 per head) and make the necessary arrangements for our boat (P3,500 per boat of seven). We were instructed to watch the 15-minute video orientation that briefed us on how to swim with the butandings properly. My heart raced when I realized how small I would be compared to the creature I was about to come face to face with. If you can’t picture how big they can get, then just imagine swimming beside a huge bus!
Depending on the weather (the sun must be out for higher visibility) and water conditions (you should be there as early as 8:00 AM because the sea water is calmer then), you’ll be able to interact with whale sharks that come close to the water’s surface. While riding the boat, you’ll be instructed to put on your life vest, fins, and snorkeling gear (you can bring your own or rent a set for P150) and wait for the spotter to find a whale shark. The challenge is being the first boat to spot the creature’s shadow underwater since only one boat is allowed to approach the butanding at a time.
The boat is then positioned to allow you to go face to face with the gentle giant. When the Butanding Interaction Officer (BIO) gives his signal, you jump off the boat, wait for it to approach you, and then scramble to swim alongside it as fast as you can. As long as you don’t disturb the water or impede the animal’s natural course, interactions can take as long as a few minutes. If you’re not a strong swimmer and are concerned that you won’t be able to keep up with these surprisingly fast animals, you can request the BIO to pull you.
A WHALE SHARK OF AN EXPERIENCE
To be honest, the first few interactions were both disorienting and overwhelming for me. When you jump off the boat, all you’ll see are bubbles, and all you’ll hear is the sound of your breathing. As the water clears, you’ll suddenly see the white spots and stripes commonly found on the blue-gray skin of these underwater marvels. Sometimes, you’ll even be caught by surprise because, although they are gigantic, these whale sharks are very silent creatures.
Once, I remember screaming “Oh my God!” under the sea (yes, it’s quite possible!) because I was amazed at how enormous the being looming underneath me was. I was worried that its tail would accidentally hit me, or it would fail to see me and unknowingly gobble me up with its huge mouth, which was almost two meters wide. But of course that fear is groundless since the thousands of tiny teeth lining a whale shark’s gaping mouth are used for neither chewing nor biting.
It’s only after the first few encounters that you’ll start relaxing and really enjoy what you see, so ask your spotter to find as many butandings as he can. Can you believe one playful whale shark even turned on its side as we were taking pictures? Perhaps he wanted us to get a shot of his “good side,” but honestly these creatures are so beautiful that they look amazing from the front, behind, above, below, or any side!
TIPS FOR WHALE SHARK ADVENTURERS
Keep the following tips in mind when you head off to swim with these giant-sized fish:
- A maximum of seven people are allowed to ride a boat. Each boat includes a boat navigator, spotter, and Butanding Interaction Officer. In our case, the boat rental cost us a total of P3,500.
- Bring food, water, sunscreen, and snorkeling gear.
- You can take pictures underwater, so bring an underwater camera or get waterproof casing for your digicam. You will be prohibited from using your flash, though, so make sure to turn it off before diving in.
- For your own safety as well as the shark’s, maintain a distance of three meters from the head or body of the whale shark and four meters from its tail.
- Don’t touch or ride the whale shark, restrict its movement, or impede its natural path.
- Don’t use SCUBA gear, scooters, jet skis, or motorized underwater propulsion machines in the waters.
From April 28 to May 5, the municipal of Donsol honors the arrival of these friendly visitors with its Butanding Festival. Expect a musical parade, beauty pageants, and butanding floats of all sizes!