Asia/ Philippines/ Travel

Whale sharks and fireflies: a guide to Donsol

As we came into land on Luzon island, I marvelled at the exquisite views across an undulating landscape bathed in sunset’s gentle glow, reminiscent of the Chocolate Hills in Bohol. Later I found out their name; we’d had a birds eye view of the Quintinday Green Hills in Camalig, one of the must-see attractions in the region of Albay. Who needs an expensive scenic flight?

Looking up once more, I caught an unexpected glimpse of Mayon, the active volcano that towers strikingly over Legazpi city but in that moment, looked more like a cloud-swathed Mount Fuji in Japan. And then just like that, we were on the ground and it was time to explore.

View from flight to Legazpi

This guide to Donsol will cover how to get there, a great place to stay and the main things you can expect from a whale watching tour in the region. Want to read more about the Philippines? Keep reading until the end where I share links to my posts on Boracay, El Nido and more.

How to get to Donsol

With daily flights from Manila and regular departures from Cebu, the easiest way to get to Donsol is via Legazpi – although the journey isn’t over then. Head to the bus terminal to grab a shared van or book a transfer through your accommodation, something we’d done due to our plane touching down just as the sun was ducking behind the distant hills.

Within minutes of leaving the city centre’s relaxed streets lined with markets, I had the sense that we’d be seeing a different side of the Philippines altogether here. My friend agreed as we watched the changing sights out of the van window for the next hour, taking in young friends playing football at the roadside, families setting the table to dine by candlelight and even a high schol beauty pageant. As the skies darkened, then faded to black, the sun’s wake unfurled a blanket of stars unlike anything we’d witnessed so far.

Where to stay in Donsol

The unbelievable stargazing is arguably one of Donsol’s greatest assets. From the beachfront location of Elysia Beach Resort, we swung gently from hammocks and wandered close to the shore as we admired the most breathtakingly plentiful sky of lights. It comes close to the night I spent camping in New Zealand’s dark sky reserve, with the added swish of the sea meeting the shore adding to the tranquility of the evenings. I made a few valient attempts at astro photography but the results are too embarrassing for me to consider uploading.

Elysia Beach Resort Donsol

We were lucky to bag a spot in the town’s most coveted hotels: virtually every review online rhapsodised about how lovely Elysia Beach Resort was and as I type this from my beachside cabana, it’s impossible not to wholeheartedly agree. Right now, there’s just a pair of heavy cotton drapes and a few metres of dark volcanic sand between me and the ocean.

You may not get the luxuries of some of the most tourist-heavy regions of the Philippines – the WiFi is intermittent at best – but with comfortable rooms and a large pool set in the middle of them all, there’s a true back-to-nature feel here that I haven’t experienced anywhere else. From the tiny birds bathing in the pool shower to escape the midday scorching heat to banana milkshakes consumed gratefully from a bamboo hammock, this is the kind of place that just radiates relaxation. And to be honest, I’m happy about the WiFi thing.

Elysia Beach Resort grounds

What to do in Donsol

It’s not just the volcanic coastline’s laid back charm that draws visitors to Donsol. The Philippines is home to the world’s second largest population of whale sharks and this small town is famous for being one of the best places to see them in their natural habitat. While most tourists flock to Oslob, a town in Cebu also famous for whale shark tourism, the gentle giants here are fed copiously to keep them from leaving and I heard so many storie of questionable ethics that it almost put me off the idea of a whale shark interaction altogether. But when I read about Donsol, it swayed me back towards the idea again.

Whale shark in sand at Elysia Beach Resort

On the surface, Donsol appear committed to doing things differently. With whale shark merchandise scattered around the hotel (a sand sculpture decorated with shells, bamboo straws engraved with ‘save our whale sharks’ and some seriously cool lighting), these are people who really care about the environment they live in. On our trip out to see the whale sharks with Donsol Eco Tours, a short briefing video was played prior to boarding the boat with instructions for how to keep the whale sharks safe and happy during an encounter. At least 3 metres distance is recommended at all times with no touching allowed.

Everybody we passed wished us luck, a reminder that sightings aren’t guaranteed even though we were approaching peak season. Whale sharks sightings begin around November, ramping up towards peak season between March and May. During our visit in February there’d only been a couple of days with no shale shark sightings at all. You need a calm sea, plenty of sunshine and a sprinkle of luck as the talented boat crew, accompanied by a Butanding Interaction Officer (BIO), spot whale sharks by their shadows in the water.

Sunset in Donsol bay

We were among the lucky ones. Within the first hour, we’d been in the water four times and I’d spotted the shark cruising along gently at least twice before it submerged itself deeper. While the sight alone was breathtaking, the experience wasn’t as serene was you’d imagine. The six passengers per shark (in context, that’s one full boat) rule was broken immediately as multiple boatloads entered the water simultaneously. Some guides were less prudent about rotating their group out, resulting in 15-20 people at a time chasing one shark. Enter the fray and prepare for a few kicks in the stomach while you’re out there.

After these encounters, we were equally amazed at the majestic creature we’d seen but fed up of the scrum of boats all jostling each other for position and chasing the same poor whale shark across the bay. We asked our BIO Rolly whether we could head out in another direction to look elsewhere and we spent another hour lapping the bay with only the sun and a few flying fish for company. Until suddenly, with just under an hour left of our trip, we felt our boat accelerate slightly as the crew flocked to the front of the boat chatting excitedly. Wihout having to be told, we donned our masks and fins again, wondering whether this was really it: would we get to see a whale shark with no other boats even remotely close by?

When we first entered the cool water, I looked down through my mask and saw only cloudy water until I felt Rolly tug my arm. Jerking around 180 degrees, I exclaimed through my snorkel as an eight metre whale shark came directly towards me, mouth open to collect plankton as it basked just two metres below the surface. It was so close that all I could do was jerk my fins out of the way and paddle along above it, watching as its spotted body powerfully cut through the water. To experience this with only four other people in the water, all swimming unobtrusively so not to disturb it, was awe-inspiring. As it dove deeper again a couple of other boats pulled up to await when it next surfaced but we climbed out of the water, elated and high fiving out of sheer excitement.

Whale shark sighting Donsol
It’s not the best picture I’ve ever taken but…it’s a freaking whale shark.

Based on what I’ve seen, I’d recommend that snorkellers who are remotely concerned with the ethical treatment of animals hire a private boat if you have the means and steer the crew away from following every other boat out on the water. If you see anything concerning, you can also express it to the local tourism authority who are extremely protective over Donsol’s sustainable reputation. I’ve also heard that scuba diving trips follow more stringent ethical standards so this is something to check out if you’re able to dive.

With many other activities to draw visitors in, you’d be mistaken to spend a day out at sea and moving on from Donsol immediately. In a fittingly spellbinding end to my trip to the Philippines, a boat cruise among thousands of fireflies on the Ogod River was an unforgettable way to round off our final night. Expect a chilled and tranquil experience, with tiny lights surrounding you in almost all directions as you turn between the fireflies and that amazing night sky.

We also booked this through Donsol Eco Tour and our guide Jason was awesome. His knowledge of the area added so much to our experience as he chatted about recent sustainability drives in Donsol, Boracay and even in Manila Bay. We also discovered that the bridge between Donsol and the next town was fairly new – before then, locals had to take a raft across the river clutching their bicycles to get to work or school. We were lucky enough to just hop in a tricycle for a 15 minute ride!

Tricycle in the Philippines

In Donsol, you’re so much more secluded than in other parts of the Philippines that it’s also an amazing place to kick back and relax. With jet lag still fiercely clinging to my sleep-deprived body, I woke up at 6am each morning and wandered barefoot through the grounds to the beach in the soft morning light. I’d often end up in one of the beachside hammocks that became my favourite place, devouring a book as I wanted until an acceptable time to order pancakes from the restaurant. I ended up back here at sunset often too, when scorching red and orange shades took over the sky.

Our time in Donsol was possibly the most relaxed of any destination within the Philippines. We grabbed the opportunity to switch off with both hands, favouring beach cover ups and bare feet over jumping into a van to explore some of the many natural wonders that Donsol has to offer. If we’d have had more time, checking out waterfalls, mountains and all the things in between would have definitely been an option. But if you’re in the market to kick back and relax, this is the perfect place to do it.

I hope this guide to Donsol has inspired you to visit one day, or helped you out if you’re planning a trip soon. As ever, I’m always happy to help if you have any questions so leave a comment or find me on social media!

Laura x

More on the Philippines

How much to budget for two weeks in the Philippines
Sustainable tourism in El Nido
El Nido Resorts: Miniloc Island review
What’s it like to visit Boracay in 2019?

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