Swimming with the Whale Sharks




Dear Diary

Kaum in Manila angekommen taten wir auch nichts anderes als schnell wieder zum Flughafen zu kommen. Wir nehmen eine Maschine in den Süden Luzons zu einer Stadt namens Legaspi. Schön im Anflug sahen wir das Wahrzeichen dieser Stadt 2500 m in ebenem Land in der Höhe Ragen, den Vulkan Mt Mayon.

This ausbruchsbereite und potentielle Feuerspucker kostete im Januar diesen Jahres schon einige deutsche Touristen das Leben, sterben mitsamt Führer offenbar von einer unsichtbaren und geruchslosen Kohlenmonixidwolke erwischt wurden. abgebrochen darf der Berg nur noch bis zur Hälfte bestiegen werden.



The real reason for our visit to this city was not mayon, but whale sharks. And there was no dying here, but in Donsol, a two-hour drive away, and that only during March and April. Allegedly, the giant fish at this time are apparently attracted by a large amount of krill, which is washed up from a deep-sea trench off the southwest coast of Luzon. It is relatively easy for people to encounter sharks near the coast if you look out from a boat and jump into the water in good time.

In order to save costs once again, we approached people who looked like tourists with bathing suits in their luggage. We came across a very nice German couple with an adventurous little daughter. With them we shared the driver of a minibus and an incredible view of the plain over which the volcanic cone towered at sunset.

The drive to Donsol was just as nice. By winding roads, the driver heated through the jungle and small villages. Only now and then did he also have to do with overtaking jeepneys and triycicles in secluded bends.

We had booked accommodation in Donsol through a web portal. However, no online map was able to give me precise information about where the accommodation I was looking for is exactly. Since there are often no real street names and certainly no house numbers, this is no wonder. Our driver was initially sure that he knew the location, but then had to ask a few times to finally take us to the wrong place. Where we were of course welcomed and the lady of the house introduced herself enthusiastically as Lola Erna. Everyone in the place should know them, as we later discovered.

The misunderstanding only cleared up when I wanted to make it clear that I had already paid a deposit. After a bit of confusion, it turned out that our actual hosts had their place of residence across the street and, unfortunately, were probably not there tonight, as the family was baptized. Of course we could stay in our room.




The room was simple but noisy. We made up for that by hiring a tricycle driver to take us to a fish restaurant by the water. No sooner said than done. We ended up in the “Barracuda”, an incredibly pretty open bamboo hut right on stilts on the beach. After an aperitif, we were presented with the catch of the day in a basket – including, of course, barracudas – which would be prepared in chilli, lemongrass, ginger and coconut.

We pecked the fish with the most beautiful eyes and bridged the waiting time with cocktails and fresh sashimi that melted on the tongue. It was very luxurious, admittedly, but we had deserved it at the moment and we enjoyed the atmosphere like the representatives of a colonial power – only that this power is now called the tourist industry. We should have a relapse in the coming days and come back here again.



The next morning we set out to go for a walk on the beach and possibly to find new, more comfortable accommodation. We had planned a few days here in case you need several attempts to see a shark. On the first day we still wanted to have some rest after all the hustle and bustle. And I wanted to teach Jani to snorkel. With acute fear of everything that could move in the water, not that easy.

Although it should be a tourist magnet here because of the whale sharks, you didn’t see any strangers here. The place was a small place on the coast, where fishermen went out to sea or repaired their ships on land or mended nets. The boats here in the Philippines look particularly picturesque. All vehicles are particularly narrow and have two outriggers. These “bankas” can still be found in the same form in records from two thousand years ago. Here they prove themselves perfectly, as these ships have hardly any draft and can therefore easily sail in shallow water. We strolled down the street, letting the trycicles clatter past us, until we turned onto a quiet coastal road. Only two little boys were flying their kites there. You could see that here a lot.

The easy road followed the Donsol river of the same name to the mouth and turned into the beach and mangroves. Since the tide was out we could just follow the beach to the “real” beach of Donsol. And we were appalled by the state of the environment here. The garbage that had got caught there piled up around the mangroves. The beach was full of plastic. And the water was frothy and greasy. It didn’t get any better in front of the people’s huts. Children and dogs played in between. Going into the water was unthinkable.

The whole thing only got better when we reached a more touristy section. It was suddenly clean and I looked around. There was no hut here, but a small, covered table, at which a white woman was obviously sitting reading, and behind it a larger bamboo building. I spoke to the American who introduced herself as Toni from Idaho and explored the grounds, which turned out to be backpackers, and immediately took a room in the shape of a small hut. It was quiet, clean and cheap here. Perfect in everything!



At this point we could snorkel and splash around during the day and Jani got to know the wonderful fauna of the Philippines, consisting mainly of jellyfish and sea snakes.

Later on, a few other people found this quiet place, Rob from London and Bex from New Zealand, both traveling surfers. None of the guests here had been swimming with whale sharks or even knew that this was possible.

The place was magical. There were a few tables and a bar in the big bamboo building. It looked way too big for the few people who have it here. I couldn’t tell whether weddings were always held here.

While you stared at the water between the palm trees at sunset you could drink yourself through freshly squeezed juices of bukos (green coconuts), pineapple or mango until your stomach hurts. The paradise was underlined by the rushing water and the recurring “Ge-Ko” of the small and large



When night fell we went on a trip to Lola Erna. You could do a special night boat tour with her. Mangroves in particular grew along the river inland. But in between there are some special trees that magically attract fireflies. These happy little fliers live there for generations and never leave it. The earth must look something like this if you let all the satellites orbiting it shine. It was incredible to see these glowing swarms floating around trees in the darkness.

As in Manila, everything was covered with posters for candidates who were standing for the upcoming presidential and local elections. Given the Filippinos love for bright colors, the posters are of course brightly colored.


How do we also notice that this place is not a tourist town after all? There are no souvenir shops, no postcards, no pushy smugglers, and nowhere internet. Only in the “Conservation Center” a few minutes away along the beach did we suddenly experience a chilling revelation between whale shark costumes, whale shark T-shirts and whale shark plush toys and wondered where all these tourists had been hiding all the time. Here is the meeting point and departure point for the “shark hunt” at 7 am. We are assigned to a boat and already go out to sea. At Banka we are 8 tourists and 4 crew people.

One of them drives the boat, three keep an eye out for sharks and one of them jumps into the water with us when we get to a whale shark. It’s always a tense mood.

The adrenaline is high. What can you expect in the water? What is it like to suddenly be faced with such a gigantic animal? What is it like? You feel like a marine soldier who is about to storm from his landing craft onto the beach in Normandy. Or a parashooter just before the moment when the airplane’s flap opens.

We keep our masks and fins ready and wait, wait, and wait. Then the excitement. We spotted the first whale shark after just under twenty minutes and the boat is heading straight for it. It’s hectic. We are to get ready and quickly put on fins and masks. We wait again. And then the command: “Jump! Jump! Jump! “

We tumble around like a horde of chickens scared by a fox. Nobody has seen the shark and knows exactly which direction to swim in. We jump into the water. I see where the guide is swimming and put all my energy into moving my legs. It is always amazing how fast you can be with these fins. I passed the guide and looked around in the murky water. Then I noticed a huge tail fin a few meters in front of me, which drove a huge body that disappeared beyond recognition in the green-milky water. Given the size of the animal, it literally took my breath away, which I ignored at first. Oxygen is overrated. This is how one must have imagined the Leviathan. Then I thought of pointing my GoPro camera, which I was holding with a small float in my hand, at the giant fish.

I realized I had swum a long way and came back up to get my bearings. Our boat was already far behind me and I swam back again. Unfortunately the others hadn’t seen the shark yet. But we still had time and more opportunities: “Jump!” “Jump!”

As if in a chord we jumped into the water again and again. The next time the whale shark was right below us and I was able to follow it with heavy thrusts of my fins. The water became clear and you could see the full size of the whale shark and also every single one of the pilot fish, who like to cling to large animals and let themselves be carried through the seas.



“Jump!” I just jumped pretty stupidly into the water and hit my head against one of the Banka’s outriggers. I orient myself, feel the guide next to me and see that he is pointing in one direction. I paddle there and suddenly an even larger specimen of a whale shark comes out of the blue nothing towards me. And I notice: It comes DIRECTLY towards me with its mouth wide open. There is not much more adrenaline left and the initial urge to move forward immediately turns into a countermovement.

My fins turn into ship’s propellers that turn into reverse gear at full thrust and save me a hair’s breadth from a collision with the monster. We were told to keep a distance of three meters from the body and four meters from the caudal fin. But the shark doesn’t know that. At that moment it was a hydroacrobatic masterpiece not to touch the animal, neither on the mouth, the dorsal or the caudal fin. As much as I was tempted to touch the whale shark and feel its skin, the more I didn’t want to disturb its natural behavior. No animal in the world likes to be distracted while eating

While swimming next to the shark, I enjoy the splendor of the sight. From above, the light shines bundled into rays on the leopard-like piebald surface of the fish, the body snakes elegantly through the water, white meter-long pilot fish cling to the side and under the whale shark five huge manta rays dive along. Wait a moment, you are so beautiful …

It should be days before the feeling of altitude should slowly subside. For me it was as much adrenaline as jumping off the plane last summer, but in a more pleasant form..

In the afternoon of the same day we had nothing yet to do. A tricycle driver suggested a trip to a waterfall and an underground river some distance away. We agreed and the good man got himself a sturdier Trycicle, with which he trusted the distance.



In the narrow vehicle, however, the ride was only moderately enjoyable. It is nice to drive through the beautiful landscape in the warm air, but after half an hour at the latest, your own body notices how hard and tight the little sidecar actually is, in which you have to hold on constantly to avoid the shocks to bump against.

The waterfall and underground river turned out to be very popular and heavily frequented. Not with the westerners, but with the local tourists. As Easter was approaching, the Filippinos now had time to leave Manila and go to other, more beautiful places. The brave gathered on a cliff to jump seven meters into the water, while a long snake reached over the rocks to a cave where it came up

Too much for us, we were grim with our driver, who noticed the mood and scouted out what he can do with us. He suggested splashing around the waterfall first until the line got shorter. This waterfall wasn’t impressive, but the river had found its way through a bizarre cavernous shape. One had to be careful not to accidentally hit a stalagmite protruding under water. We took a shower from the cool water of the thundering waterfall.

In fact, a little later the line to the cave had already disappeared. A few fillipinos were still there, who greeted us effusively and offered their hands for balance. We were led to the raft that was being pulled through the cave by two people on a rope while one sat on it and could shine a flashlight on it.

Apart from that, there was no light. The raft was not on the surface of the water, as thought by landlubbers spoiled by westerners. Maybe we’re just too fat, but the raft was floating about ten centimeters UNDER the water, which at least didn’t matter as far as we always wore bathing suits anyway. It was scary in the dark anyway, especially because our driver had told us beforehand that the cave was teeming with snakes during the rainy season, which are washed in by the rain from the trees.

The best feeling of the trip crept in slowly now. The water was close, whether sea or river, it was always warm. You didn’t wear a lot on your body, always something light and quick-drying, and jumped into the water whenever you wanted. It’s almost like a feeling of being naked, but not in the sense of having nothing, but of needing nothing. And that’s luck.

The next day we went back to Legaspi and Manila. Easter was just around the corner and with it our stay with my dear relatives, whom we had criminally delayed the whole time.

The time in Donsol was fantastic, but unfortunately not without a price. To my shock I had to realize that on the way from the waterfall back to our accommodation I must have lost the GoPro with our wonderful recordings.


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