Nothing really prepares you for your first glimpse of a whaleshark. We’d talked about it the entire lead-up to the trip and saw the pictures and the cute wooden model. Sure, we’d also seen the video and sat through the briefing. At Donsol, south Luzon, the whaleshark is known as butanding. We were divided into various outrigger boats in groups of six, each boat with two spotters who stood high up on the masts and a butanding interaction officer (BIO) who instructed us to don our fins, masks and snorkels when the spotters saw a suitable shadow.
Once the BIO gave the signal, we would all drop into the water and paddle after him to snorkel with the butanding. We were to stay at least 3m away from the head and body and at least 4m away from the powerful tail.
The first trip into the water was a false alarm. The butanding went too deep to be seen in the blue water, murky from the large amounts of plankton that they feed on. In some ways it was a blessing in disguise because we now knew how hard we had to paddle to keep up with our BIO. We also had time to fix a fin strap. K was almost in tears when the foot strap broke just as she was hurriedly donning her fins.
We sat at the edge of the boat, staring expectantly up at the two spotters balanced high on the bamboo masts, almost biting our nails. Then the signal came. Jump! Jump! Splash! And we were all in the water, paddling hard to get away from the boat and keep up with the group.
Suddenly, a blue-grey head with characteristic markings of white spots and lines loomed up from the deep. This was a 10m long beauty, its flat nose going past us almost too quickly. We all screamed with delight and the sheer wonder of seeing such a large and gentle creature up close. It came up closer to the surface, so much so that I felt I could just dive down and touch it. Paddling a bit harder, I got in front and looked down to see its mouth opening slightly, head tilted upwards to let water gush in, trapping plankton and other goodies for lunch. Then I hung back to the side and its tiny round eyes blinked placidly at me. I felt that its eyes were twinkling at me as if I was a friend. I then admired its gills and how they flapped slightly in the current.
After a few minutes of this, it started diving deeper and we couldn’t keep up anymore. Its tail swept slowly, effortlessly as it glided away, its outline blurring in the deep.
We were lucky this trip: eight sightings in two days. Of course, some were so brief that we only saw the shake of a tail. Others involved swimming in one direction of one, then changing course only to see another surface. Each interaction lasted between a few seconds to a good 10 minutes where some of us got exhausted by the constant paddling to keep up.
Seeing these beautiful creatures touched something deep inside me and I know for sure that I want everyone to have a chance to see this. It’s a bit silly to admit, but only on seeing a whaleshark up close did I realise that big fins must come from big fish, so the giant fins you see displayed at shops and restaurants must come from the whale shark, the biggest fish on earth. I’d already stopped eating shark fin and this strengthened my resolve to go a bit further by telling people at Chinese dinners why I don’t eat it. I’ve since persuaded a few just from my butanding story not to eat shark fins. Even the smallest number makes a difference.
[No photos because I still hadn’t bought an underwater camera at this point. Pris has some great photos on Facebook. Check them out!]