And I have grown used to the marine monsters. I am focused on freediving down for a closer look, coming eyeball to eyeball with the behemoths. On one of these underwater sorties, another diver not only goes down level with the whale shark, he goes right under it and up the other side. That takes considerable skill at freediving. I surface next to him.
"You got too close," he says, spitting out his snorkel.
"Yeah, and what about you—diving right under the shark?"
"Research," he says.
"It's the only way to sex the whale sharks. The males have two claspers underneath. The females do not."
Darren is a WWF volunteer. He has just ID-ed this whale shark by taking a photo near the gills. How does that work? "Dot imprint. No two whales have the same dot pattern."
Flickr photo by jayegirl99
Computers analyze the dot patterns for a match to a database of known whale sharks: up to 350 individuals have been sighted in the vicinity of Donsol. A number are returnees, coming back each season.
Divers "discovered" the wonders of Donsol in 1998 and quickly spread the word. The same year, the killing of whale sharks was outlawed in the Philippines. At the WWF office in Donsol, Gilbert explains the delicate balancing act of managing increasing numbers of tourists, yet ensuring that the whale sharks are not harassed: that they are respected as the major draw of Donsol's thriving eco-tourism venture.
Donsol is also a base for research on the whale sharks: they are tagged and monitored. He tells me that a tagged whale shark has been recorded diving to a depth of over 1500 meters. Why would a surface-loving whale shark dive to such an astonishing depth? Nobody knows, says Gilbert. Could be a desperate attempt to avoid a predator. Could be something to do with mating. Nobody has ever witnessed a mating or birthing. The mythical wrapping is gone, but deep mysteries remain.
They take their whale sharks seriously in Donsol. There was a time when they cursed them for tangling up their fishing nets. Or even hunted them for their large tail-fin, used as a display in sharkfin-soup restaurants. But now the fishermen of Donsol love the creatures and go all-out to protect them. They have transformed what was previously a simple fishing village into a world-class attraction for four months a year. And this has made the village prosperous.
The whale sharks start arriving in Donsol around December, and in greater numbers from February to April. They depart in May. There is even a grand farewell festival for them, held in late April. A contest is staged to see who can build the best replica. These are constructed from bamboo, grain-sacks, tarpaulins and paper-mache and are painted realistically. Points are awarded for imagination combined with anatomical correctness. If the whale shark replica is curved as if turning, for example, then more points are awarded.
The entire town turns out for the festival parade, either as spectators or participants. Groups in carnival dress work up a sweat with dance moves, supported by drummers to set the pace: they are plied with bottled water by on-lookers. And there are whale shark-themed groups: boys daubed in grey and painted with white spots; girls in polkadot costumes, bearing conchs. A girl in a mermaid costume is wheeled along. A big hit with the crowd is a figure strolling around inside a whale shark outfit. The parade is followed by various contests. The winner of best replica is awarded a large cash prize. There's a karaoke contest. Partying and carousing continues into the night.
This three-day festival marks the tail-end of the tourist season. When the whale sharks leave in May, so do the tourists. And the folks of Donsol go back to farming and fishing. And crooning in karaoke bars.
Where to see whale sharks
Donsol is located on the southeast side of the island of Luzon. Getting there entails a one-hour plane-ride from Manila to Legazpi, and another hour's drive by minivan to Donsol. The prime whale shark watching season is mid-February to end of April.
Whale sharks cruise the oceans, keeping to warm temperate zones. They have been spotted in coastal waters from Honduras to Australia: eco-tour outfitters organize trips in a number of locations. Sightings are seasonal: hundreds of whale sharks aggregate in July and August at Isla Mujeres and Isla Holbox off Mexico's Yucatan peninsula. For more on whale shark awareness and research, check out whaleshark.org.
Michael Buckley is author of several books on Tibet (listed at www.himmies.com) and filmmaker for several short documentaries about Tibet (www.WildYakFilms.com). He is a keen diver, kayaker and wildlife enthusiast. Other unusual creatures he has tracked down include the takin (Bhutan), the greater adjutant (Cambodia), and the proboscis monkey (Borneo). See a recent travel writing interview with Michael Buckley here.
All photos by Michael Buckley except where indicated. YouTube video by Michael Buckley, using a GoPro camera set at wide-angle.
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