We luckily got the last two seats on an 11-hour overnight bus from Manila to Legazpi, where we would take 1.5 hr van ride to Donsol for one reason only – the whale sharks. Our outdated Lonely Planet guide reported that hundreds of whale sharks could be seen this time of year and how could we miss such an opportunity to snorkel with such huge creatures.
Our first stop was the Tourist Information Center to look up the number of recent sightings and to buy tickets for snorkeling. We were highly disappointed to see that since January, only one or two whale sharks were spotted every few days, a far cry from the hundreds our guide book raved about. We sadly made the decision not to go on the snorkeling excursion as the chances of seeing even one were not guaranteed.
Why did the Donsol whale sharks leave and where’d they all go?
In speaking with several of the locals, including a dive master and a hotel employee as well as a volunteer diver doing research on tracking the whale sharks, there seems to be several theories of why the whale sharks left and where they went. Some believe it has to do with the weather: it had been raining during the dry season and even rained while we were there. Others said it was due to tour companies chumming the waters in other parts of the Philippines, and still others said the food they like to eat is diminishing in this particular area. Perhaps the reason is a mixture of all of the above.
What else is there to do in Donsol?
Explore the town: Often times, places in the world like Donsol largely get overlooked by tourists and travellers, as visitors are preoccupied with the main attraction. However, without the pressure of trying to spot whale sharks, we thoroughly enjoyed walking through non-touristy parts of Donsol. We saw how farmers dried their rice, taking up half the road. We bought fresh buko juice in a bag for mere pennies from a wonderfully nice woman out front of her home.
Go on a firefly tour: Take a boat tour at dusk on the river to view fireflies making the shoreline look lined with Christmas trees. At 150 Pisos per person the tour lasts about an hour and your guide will tell you more than you ever thought there was to know about fireflies. The tour is more dramatic the darker it is, so try to go on a cloudy night or when the moonlight is at its lowest. The boarding area is just next to the bridge. Be sure to bring bug spray.
Go scuba diving: There are two scuba diving companies in Donsol and their offices are right across the street from the Tourism Office. Both companies offer the same 3-tank dive package and for the same prices, which vary depending on how many divers there are on the boat. Ligeia chose Bicol Dive Center because they were the original dive center and the dive master had 12 years experience in the area and it is Filipino run. We saw many beautiful coral that day and amazing fish but the highlight was seeing two HUGE manta rays measuring about 12 feet (4 meters) across.
Lay back in a hammock and relax: This might be a good point in your trip, especially if you’ve been go go go, to take some time to relax a bit. Lay in a hammock near the shore and listen to the waves while you read a book. Pay a local to climb a palm tree nearby to pick a fresh coconut and enjoy sipping a delicious buko. It’s not bad with rum, either! 😉
Climb Lingon Hill in nearby Legazpi: Only a 1-1.5 van ride away (depending on how bold the driver is) is neighboring Legazpi. In fact, if you came to Donsol via bus or plane from Manila, you passed through Legazpi.
Mt. Mayon, featured on the back of the 100 Piso bill, can be seen from virtually anywhere in the city but the best views are from Lingon Hill. For a small heritage fee you can climb the very steep winding road and get great pictures from the top. If you want more of a thrill there are zip-line tours available.