Swimming with Spotty Monsters

By Michael Buckley

After building up an image of the world’s largest fish in his mind for decades, a traveler heads below the water surface for whale shark encounters in Donsol, the Philippines

Philippines snorkeling whale shark
Flickr photo by Kaz2.0

Once in a while, I go hunting for monsters. It’s an oddball sport: bizarre creatures can be tracked down all over the planet, from the Arctic to the Antarctic. The one I have in my sights right now is a marine monster: the whale shark. In 15 years of diving, I have never seen one. I’ve read about them, heard tales about them—to the point where they border on the mythical, in my mind.

We’re motoring along in a banca, a modified Filipino fishing vessel with bamboo outriggers. Six whale shark watchers from Canada, Denmark, Singapore, Australia—arrayed with outfit of mask and snorkel, dangling feet with fins over the side of the boat. At Gilbert’s command, we jump off the fishing vessel. I adjust my dive-mask and peer into the murky water. Nothing, zip. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I spot a huge fin languidly swishing below. It disappears into the depths. Gone. Have I seen the tail-end of a whale shark?


On the next drop, the head of the myth, not the tail. We launch into the water. Where is it? I suddenly realize that I am right on top of it, looking at a polka-dot vista below. White dots mottle the grey dorsal skin of this massive creature. It is moving slowly, a few meters down, with a swish of the powerful tail-fin propelling it effortlessly forward. It’s an adrenaline rush to be swimming close to something this big. Adrenaline because of fear: big usually means dangerous. Swimming at a fast clip, assisted by fins—and powered up on that adrenaline—I find I can keep pace with the monster below for what seems like a very long time. But is actually only ten minutes.

It’s the biggest shark in the world, the biggest fish period. Fortunately, the whale shark acts more like whale than shark: it is a docile filter feeder, mostly dining on microscopic plankton. And that is why we can sight the whale sharks. When it’s sunny, the plankton are drawn to the surface. The sharks follow the plankton, vacuuming them up.

But by the end of our three-hour sortie, we’ve encountered five of the creatures. From mythical to five sighted is a giant step for me. It’s an exhilarating experience. Myth laid to rest? Not quite. I’ve seen one whale shark open its huge mouth to ingest plankton: the tunnel-sized mouth could easily swallow a small boat. I’ve got a lot of questions for Gilbert, our BIO.

whale shark boat

BIO stands for Butanding Interaction Officer (butanding is “whale shark” in the local dialect). Gilbert used to be a fisherman. He still goes fishing, but only in the season when the whale sharks are not around. The whale shark won’t accidentally swallow you, says Gilbert, but there have been minor injuries caused by that big tail-fin coming into contact with snorkelers. The whale sharks we’ve spotted today are around 9 meters long and probably weighing in at 15 tons. Whale sharks can grow to double that size says Gilbert, just feeding on plankton, krill, and small fish near the surface.

In the course of the next few weeks, I have many snorkel encounters with these gentle leviathans. Some folks go out for two or three days. But I’m a glutton. I want to dive for ten days, to reassure myself that these monsters are real. The boats registered for whale shark viewing take a maximum of six swimmers. I team up with other travelers to cut costs on boats. Visitors run the gamut from thrill-seekers to divers, but the oddest are two women involved in some high-powered assignment in Jakarta, taking a long weekend break in the Philippines. No slouches on the action to be covered, their first stop in the Philippines has been to a crucifixion re-enactment, as part of holy week to the north of Manila. “They were flagellating themselves—there was blood everywhere! We stepped in blood!” they tell me, enthusiastically. First crucifixion, then whale sharks. One loves what she sees and the other is scared out of her wits: she surfaces quickly after her first swim.

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