Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Whale shark tips

Arriving in Donsol, we were excited and hopeful that we would have the opportunity to encounter whale sharks, but were pretty ignorant of the procedure. Worries about obtaining permits, how long to stay and how to increase our chances were at the forefront of our mind. Having now been through the process, here’s my advice for making the most of it, and what I wish I’d known beforehand.

- You’ll probably never ever hear me say this again, but here we go: leave the camera behind. I’m the kind who regularly takes hundreds of photos in a day whilst travelling (to compensate for my poor long term memory!), but the decision to leave the camera in the boat was one of the best I’ve made. There are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, encounters can be brief, and you don’t want to spend most of the time fiddling with the camera and trying to line up a shot. Secondly, the visibility isn’t great anyway, and the water dark, so photos probably won’t come out very well without specialised underwater equipment. Lastly, there are lots of other people desperately attempting to take pictures. Without the need for this, we were able to move between people and actually swim alongside the sharks for longer, focusing on their beauty and grace. However, we aren’t completely without record. We did take our video camera down for a couple of the encounters, just letting it run and not worrying about focus or whether we actually got anything in shot, just in case. In one case, F got lucky – he managed to capture a few glimpses of a shark swimming by.

- Don’t worry about getting onto a boat. Visiting during peak season, with only 30 boats allowed out (and a maximum of 6 people in each), we were concerned that we might struggle to get a space. However, we needn’t have worried – we arrived in Donsol after 4pm, and were able to secure a boat for the following morning.

- Along the same vein, there’s no need to panic about filling your boat either. We booked and paid for a whole boat, then hung around the visitors centre for a few minutes until we found a group of four to fill the remaining spaces and pay us directly. Even if there is no-one else around at the time of booking, there were a number of people hanging around at the meet place in the morning hoping to get on a boat at the last minute.

- Don’t judge a guide by their cover! There were some guides (or BIOs – Butanding interaction officers) we saw greeting their groups with perfect English, chatting away happily. Our guide on the other hand, didn’t have much English and wasn’t too keen to crack a smile. In the water however, he was incredible. He knew where the sharks would surface, and helped me to swim alongside when everyone else around was trying to kick me out of the way. He was superb in every way.

- If you can, bring your own snorkel and mask. We rented locally, and whilst generally okay, the equipment was worn and the snorkel not very flexible, allowing a little too much saltwater to get down my throat for my liking! Renting is cheap and easy though if you can‘t bring your own.

- There is no ‘average’ number of encounters. One interaction where you can really see the shark, even swim alongside it is better than many frantic events where you spend most of the time eating other people’s bubbles. During our boat slot, there were some groups who had only one encounter, others many more. It’s the quality that counts.

- Do try to stick to the recommended distances from sharks, and respect its habitat. Sometimes its just impossible - if a shark suddenly emerges underneath you you may not have a choice, but the distances are there for a reason, and stop the shark feeling intimidated and diving down. If there are already a number of people in the water, chances are you won’t see much except their bubbles and flippers kicking you in the face anyway. Better to wait for a quieter encounter.

So that’s about it! Encountering the whale sharks was an amazing opportunity and well worth the trip to Donsol, and was an easy activity to organise and do.

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