The Truth About the Donsol Butanding Encounter

Whale Shark
Whale Shark (Photo credit: fishgirl7)

I should have written this post ages ago – while my experience was still fresh; my emotions still raw. But nevertheless, the emotions remain as the memories are still etched in my mind.

It was in April 2012 when our company decided to send all middle and top management managers to an all-expense paid vacation to Donsol, Sorsogon. Of course the highlight of this trip was the Butanding Interaction for which Donsol was so famous of. We were all excited. I was doubly excited since my biologist nature was craving for some nature interaction. I guess receiving a biology training makes you excited for anything bio-related.

The trip started great. During the first day, we were scheduled to do the side itinerary which was the Firefly watching. Although there was not as many fireflies as I imagined, I was still amazed at the solitude of the entire river that night, the vast view of the starry sky and of course, the glory of the fireflies surrounding trees in huge swarms. I got more excited for the next day which was the time we were scheduled to go out and interact with the famed gentle giants.

My excitement kept bubbling as we went about the motions of selecting our gears, watching the interaction guidelines video, meeting Allan Amanse who was our BIO (Butanding Interaction Officer) [later I found out that he was “the BIO” who has served all famous persons from local celebrities and politicians to international royalty] and boarding the boat which would take us out to the open sea. I was beside myself with excitement.

As the minutes turned into hours and we were still left at sea searching and searching for the butandings, my excitement slowly dissipated as hope slowly vanished. I was afraid we would be like the many other tourists Allan said was unfortunate enough not to see any butandings. I suggested that perhaps we can go snorkeling at some coral reef point just so we can at least get ourselves wet and then perhaps the trip won’t be such a waste. As it turned out, that was their common practice – to bring guests to some snorkeling point just so the guests could still feel that their trip to the middle of the ocean was not in vain. Sadly enough, there was no great diving points. The coral reefs in the area were severely damaged by illegal fishing methods that it was a pain to see the dead corals. Having witnessed real, live coral reefs which were protected and as thus, healthy and living, I can’t help but pity the place for having no real coral reefs.

I was not yet over my sorrow for their dead coral reefs but we already got word that the whale sharks have been spotted. We went back to our boats and the race – and horror – began.

Our boat started pushing its engine faster. Beside us, several more boats did the same. At first I found the scene amazing. It was like the scenes from Amazing Race. But then as we got closer to the site, I saw the most horrific scene ever imaginable. Close to a hundred people were swimming in the open sea surrounded by close to 30 boats. In the middle was a solitary whale shark – not even fully grown. I managed to see its fins rise up from the surface of the water then it was gone. The people looked like fishes caught in a net – they were all swimming frantically. Trying their best to catch a glimpse of the creature who was, as Allan Amanse informed us, was already looking for a way out of the entire mayhem.

I took a picture of the mayhem but it was with my officemate’s camera. I haven’t retrieved it yet so I used this pic from the net. Take this scene and multiply it 30x. You’ll eventually get the mayhem picture. Source is via the link.

At that point, I cried. I cried for the creature. I cried for the lost future of that small town if they continue this kind of practice. When the Allan asked us if we want to go down, I refused. My conscience couldn’t take it.

I imagined the young whale shark.

He was hungry and craving for food. His mother told him to remain in the deep waters so that the pesky tourists couldn’t bother him. But he was so hungry. He needed to go up. Maybe just quickly. Maybe for just a second. He just needed to eat something. And so he went up.

He swam up. He was so excited to see the clear waters. Finally, he could feed on the floating plankton. He started eating. It was great. No one was around. He hoped no one would spot him. But luck was not by his side.

Soon he was spotted. And then the boats came. One by one they came. Until all 30 boats or so were surrounding him. He felt like a caged animal. Surrounded from all sides. But instead of spears hitting his back, tourists jumped from the boats and swam towards him. He didn’t know what was happening.

Why are they crowding him? Did they want his food? He tried to swim away but it was just so crowded. Soon tourists were near him – near his tail, near his body. He tried to escape. He swam up but fins collided with his body. His body hurt with the impact.

I should have listened to mom, he thought. How will I escape now? And then he saw it. A deep part of the ocean – his ticket to hope. He dived down. Never will he hit the shallow waters at daytime again.

They say butandings are gentle giants because they don’t attack people and let them swim by peacefully. But they remain a wild creature. They may not attack people but this does not mean they are used to people. They are just as curious about humans – and to their disadvantage as trusting – but they know when they are threatened. And once they feel that, since they are gentle creatures, instead of attacking, they retreat.

The Butanding Interaction in Donsol is strictly regulated by rules on what is the most ecological way of interacting with nature. The rules state that only a maximum of 6 persons are allowed to interact with the whale shark. There were 30 boats each with 6 persons interacting with a single whale shark that time. The rules also stated that a min of 4m (from the tail) and 3m (from the body) should be maintained when interacting with the giant creatures. This was obviously disregarded since when the creature rose to the surface, there were hordes of people around it whose fins clearly touched its body. Later I learned that it had bruises all over its body due to close encounters with fins and other foreign objects.

Obviously an edited picture but depicting a very wrong practice. Click the picture to view the source.

Allan Amanse was very interactive. He explained to us the reality of the situation in Donsol. Years ago, when the interactions started, there were many butandings in the area that it was common to have 3-5 sightings in the 3 hours boat ride. Now, if you are lucky if you get to see at least 1. Allan also mentioned that they have observed that the whales now fed at night. Instead of rising to the surface to feed in the morning, it seems their biological clocks were altered so that they now feed at night – when there are no boats or tourists to disturb them.

I asked Allan if he sees what is happening to their community. He acknowledges that he knows that their practices are not sustainable. That if they push through with what is happening, they will soon lose their source of income. The butanding was a blessing for their town. Because of these creatures there was a boom in their economy as manifested by the various resorts that opened and the number of people who gained jobs. Because of eco-tourism, the once sleepy town became prosperous and famous.

But because of greed, their prosperity will be short lived. Allan, who was once president of the BIO association, had already raised his concerns on the sustainability of their practices to the local officials. But he has been scoffed at. For the local government, the more tourist that come to Donsol, the more money they earn. They are not even concerned about regulating the number of boats they send out to the open sea. If they continue with this kind of practices, the time will come when they would lose all tourists all together and their source of livelihood would dwindle. Why? Because time will come that the butandings would no longer show themselves. Either they will find a more peaceful place or they will feed at night when no one can bother them. And without butandings the place loses all tourist attraction. That’s the trade-off with eco-tourism. Fail to take care of nature and your income will slowly but surely be gone.

Nature has already been generous in lending us her resources so that we as people could survive. How greedy can we get that we would choose to blindly abuse this blessing without even thinking of the future? In the end, if we do not take care of what has been generously given to us, it would just be as quickly taken away and we would be worse off than when we first begin. If Donsol doesn’t start taking conservation measures in their eco-tourism practices, these would exactly be the case for them.

Author: elleica

Jesus Lover. Writer. Blogger. Biologist turned marketer. Child of Learning. Thrill Seeker. I long for my next adventure.

9 thoughts on “The Truth About the Donsol Butanding Encounter”

  1. Oh My!!
    I share your sentiments here. That is a fact that in 2012 season, the sightings are rare for reasons even as native donsolano’s really dont know why..

    Here are list of possible causes.
    this is an honest to goodness, straightforward opinion.

    1. WWF was blamed by the locals for tagging the sharks, some says it hurts the shark..Probably Yes! but i understand that this is done worldwide, even in other species for scientific and conservation purposes.
    2. Whalesharks are entangled in the nets of BIG TRAWLERS, and according to some fisherman, butandings that are caught in the net are being shot with a high-powered rifle.
    3. This rumors just arrived last november and december 2013, that a big-time drug dealer from Manila are dumping the waste of shabu’s in our waters that contaminated our waters and endangering the marine resources.
    4. Of course, irresponsible tourism. Boats are too many, swimmers that scare away the sharks, just what the author of this blog suggested.. I was moved by the way it is written.
    5. WWF asserted that its global warming. The planktons are down below because of the heat in the surface. Pretty possible. !
    6. Pollution, we dont have yet a concrete step in alleviating this.

    This are the reasons shared by the locals and tourists alike., In this 6 lists, will drive Donsol back to it’s so-called sleepy coastal fishing village. We don’t know’, no one knows. As a donsolano, we are still hopeful that this will not happen.
    in behalf of the people, i would like to solicit any help form marine biologists and specialist around the world to help us.
    We are going to do our share by waste segregation and proper disposal. Sana ganon ang gawin ng aming local Government..

    Ok naman sa ngayon..2013 is better than 2012.
    Sightings today are better than last year..

    For your tour and travel inquiries mail me 63-908-273-5747
    ty for the blogger who brought this up.


  2. This is really very sad. I wanted to go back to Donsol to take my girlfriend to see the Butandings. Back then in 2007, I went there with 3 of my friends. It was mid-May already & we knew that it was already the tail end of the whaleshark season. Before that we knew the best time was February – April. Still on that morning we easily saw/had 12 interactions with the Butandings. That time I remember, there was a 30 boat limit on the sea & 1 boat per whaleshark since Butandings showed up in good numbers. I asked the BIOs what their source of livelihood was during the off-season & they gladly answered they were fishermen.

    Sadly, the local community may have abused this blessing. With the recent bad reviews & the downturn in the number of sightings, I doubt I will not be going there again. As for the local community, I hope they find a way to get their acts together so that this eco-tourism will be sustainable & more tourists will have a chance to see the gentle giants.


  3. this article is very informative…i have not seen a butanding yet but i would want to learn more about them first before i go see one…by the way, do you have any contact information of Allan Amanse? his a friend but we lost contact…id appreciate it very much if you culd email me if you have any information on where to contact him…here is my email address thanks and god bless!


    1. Hi! I don’t have his contact number or details, I’m afraid. But he is an active BIO at Donsol so perhaps you can try to reach him thru their office. Thanks for reading my blog!


    1. Hey thanks! I knew the creature was a fish and not really a whale despite the name. I’ve corrected my office mates about that. So when I wrote this article I did my best to proof read it for that specific common error. When you pointed it out, I had to read all over again to see where I got it wrong. I’ve seen the error now. 🙂 Thanks for pointing it out!


  4. I really wanted to see them. I really did. I was so sad I wasn’t able to do so. But I was more alarmed and sad that the wonderful experience that so many raved about might be lost in the future if Donsol doesn’t do anything about it.


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