Whalesharks are big in Donsol. Also in Donsol, Jesus is black.
We had gone to see the whalesharks, but got mixed up with Jesus. It’s that kind of place.
The largest recorded whaleshark (that’s butanding in Tagalog) came in at a squeak under 19m long, and was estimated to weigh about 40 tonnes. We decided to go and find some and have a swim with them.
The nearest spot we could access these monsters was in a special bay outside Donsol in the province of Luzon, the Philippines. Leave out the unusual religious icon business; just getting to Donsol demanded a seriously high degree of single-mindedness.
It involved flying Lion Air (uh-oh!), taking a Jeepney (blimey!) and then risking everything in a tricycle taxi (where’s my insurance?). But despite the numerous challenges we arrived safely, just in time to witness a procession of penitents following an enormous Black Jesus up the road in the wake of an oompah band complete with clashing cymbals, drum majors, sailor’s hats and glow-sticks. Donsol is definitely not mainstream.
After catching up with the local butanding expert, Joel, we were gutted to hear that despite being touted as the whaleshark hangout of choice for undersea leviathans across all of southeast Asia, Donsol had dropped out of favour in recent times. For the last couple of years, locals reported that only one or two sharks had been seen in an average week. And that was in season. Out of season: no sharks and extremely disappointed visitors. Like us.
Despondent, we walked into town and ate some pig offal floating in fat, followed by fried pastry, also floating in fat but slathered with cream to top it off. A man nearby muttered abusively as he hammered a reluctant tap with a brick. That kind of mood was in the air.
The next day we glumly got our things ready anyway, slipped into swimming gear under our travel shorts, popped goggles and fins into shoulder bags and walked out to the Donsol Butanding Centre. Listless locals stood around smoking cigarettes and bemoaning the lack of butandings and tourists. A rack of boats bobbed on the bay next to the pier, empty of fee-paying visitors — and hope. It wasn’t looking good.
But Joel, who was previously a fisherman before he became a butanding conservationist and expert, decided to perk us up by telling us the history of the massive fish.
“In the old days, the fishermen used to hate the butanding,” he explained. “We thought they ate all the fish and spoiled the catches. When I was a fisherman we didn’t like them because of that; we would see them, and chase them away.” Some fishermen went further. They would kill any that they saw.
It still happens. Only a few years ago, five whale sharks were found dead near Donsol. They had all been shot at close range. One had a brutal 13 bullet wounds to its head. “If you ask the right people in the village markets today, you can still buy whaleshark meat,” admitted Joel.
Sadly, the truth is that the gentle giants don’t eat fish at all. They are not even a tiny threat to the fishermen. They do swallow the occasional squid or crab — but that’s as far as they go. Spoiling the catch? An old wives’ tale, said Joel. They are filter-feeders, and just suck up plankton.
Which is why they feed in plankton-rich waters, and are often obscured by millions of the tiny fishy blobs which cut underwater visibility down to near-zero. So the butandings often crept up unnoticed on superstitious fishermen who were looking the other way. Being crept up on by a 40-tonne monster would make anybody scared, and likely to hit out. It’s an understandable reaction.
The butanding continued being chased off or worse for decades, until the first nature tourists arrived in Donsol. They, amazingly, paid more for one look at a whaleshark than the fishermen usually made in a week hauling nets. The newly-awakened fishermen realised it was time to safeguard the whalesharks, not butcher them.
The Donsol Butanding Interaction Association was duly formed, a swanky pavilion erected, scientists bussed in, plankton conditions optimised and natty lifecycle whiteboards erected to show how the whalesharks lived. It was all very jolly.
A local bylaw was even passed that restricted boat numbers to 30 at one time so as to not scare the beasts. And another regulation decreed that only six swimmers should approach any single butanding, and no nearer than two metres. All this was designed to protect the leviathan animals from getting spooked and swimming off somewhere else.
When we arrived all this effort seemed to have been in vain. There hadn’t been any butanding around for weeks. We began to suspect they had all been shot, or fried in fat. Bummer.
Then, out of nowhere, one of Joel’s mates, Marvin, who had been looking out to sea in a knowing and Ancient Mariner kind of way, suggested we “just go out and have a look”. We boarded the boat, were instructed how to climb out on the outriggers and slip into the sea in an unscary (to butandings) way, donned snorkels and masks just in case, and looked over the side of the boat into an uninterrupted grey soup of plankton. No butandings to 20 fathoms. Even the seagulls looked disinterested.
Then, from the top of the mast, Marvin shouted and pointed. “There’s something over there,” he said. We motored slowly over and saw what looked like a thicker cloud of plankton slide by.
“Let’s go in,” said Joel, non-commitally. We slipped into the soup, keeping close to each other so as not to get lost in the murk. After a few seconds of paddling aimlessly about, the murk solidified. Into tiny eyes. A ginormous mouth. A vast expanse of grey spotted skin. It was a real, live, huge butanding, and we were right next to it.
Out of the gloom, the shape that almost defied belief materialised, then slid silently by. It was just so, so big; like a living Zeppelin, all grey-white camouflage and imperceptibly slow fin waving. The gob-smacking thing was how long it took to swim by — several seconds passed until its tail came into view. You could almost hear us shouting with delight under the water.
By the end of our three hour snorkelling session, we had dived in over a dozen times, and every single time we saw, swam with and were overawed by at least one of these massive creatures; sometimes two — a mother and its calf.
We swam and swam until we were utterly exhausted, then slumped back in the boat babbling like six-year olds about what we had seen. It was utterly astonishing.
“We were very, very lucky today,” grinned Joel. “They seem to have come back.”