Diving with Giants at Donsol

After another delayed flight with Philippine Airlines (I think they misplaced a plane) I arrived in Legaspi and reached the transport terminal to find a UV Express van service to Donsol. We left at 4pm. It’s a good day to travel because the weather is overcast and miserable.

I am staying at Woodlands Resort and the dorms have three beds and cost 500 Pesos per night with a private bathroom. Amazing. Plus there’s a pool…

The weather took two days to clear but on Monday, after a huge storm at 3am, the dawn was a bit brighter and the rain stopped.

I walked to Bicol Divers for 7am and then went for a coffee across the road because I’m not needed right away.

The staff are not bad at English but they have a habit of talking about you and pointing at you so they just don’t come across as particularly nice or friendly and the briefing was a little unclear. I am always impressed by beginner divers who aren’t nervous after crappy briefings.

We had to wade through waist deep waves to get to the boat, which sucked. I’ve not had to do that before and my bag isn’t waterproof. The ladder is tiny so it’s like a comedy sketch with everyone trying to get up there.

The boat is quite small and exposed, so our journey to San Miguel was quite cold but there’s a very small cabin that I lay in above the engine to keep warm.

Our first dive site, an hour boat ride from Donsol was San Miguel Wall, a fairly protected site to allow us to do buoyancy checks and kit checks. The place was absolutely covered in tiny yellow sea slugs – thousands of them!!!

The reef was quite nice and I saw a huge clown triggerfish which was cute. I also saw a juvenile barramundi, which I think are beautiful.

We didn’t stay down long because there was a beginner in our group and we all came up when Elysia reached 70 bar of pressure in her tank.

We had another 45 minute ride to reach Manta Bowl, an underwater table between 15 and 23 metres depth which is a cleaning and feeding station for pelagics including giant manta rays, whale sharks and other smaller sharks.

The current here is variable but usually fairly strong, and it’s a drift dive. You have to get down to the underwater island fairly quickly so you don’t get washed over the other side into the blue and miss the bowl. Each diver has a hook to anchor down into the rock to hold on and wait for the mantas.

As we approached Manta Bowl I spotted a large devil ray beside the boat (it looked like soggy cardboard so I went for a closer look) and then a manta shot up out of the water to welcome us!

Our first dive at Manta Bowl was really nice and the current wasn’t too strong. As we reached the bottom, I could see a white tip reef shark swimming around which was a good start!

We found a decent spot to anchor and I had a great view of the manta ray which passed us at a leisurely pace. He was magnificent.

Moments later there was a big shadow as a whale shark passed in the blue. It was like a bus moving slowly through the water, and that TAIL!

As we were ascending in the open water, an even larger whale shark emerged from the blue at almost the same level as me. It was quite a shock really to see something that huge swimming towards me. I’d love to get used to it so that I didn’t feel so surprised for the first few seconds.

But what an experience!! I was very lucky too as the rest of my group had already ascended quite far so they couldn’t believe how close the shark was to me.

The surface interval was a waiting game; if the sharks came up to feed then we could snorkel with them (they go much slower at the surface than when they swam past underwater in that current). Sadly there weren’t any sharks, but the weather turned and there was a huge shower, driving us all into the tiny cabin.

Our second dive at Manta Bowl was not good! The current was by far the strongest I’ve ever been in, making the Galapagos drift dives seem totally tame. It was quite worrying really to be hunkering down on the bottom with water flowing by in gusts like a storm above the surface. The sand and coral was being blown around too so the visibility deteriorated. Because none of us could really move without risking being blown away we hunkered there for twenty minutes and didn’t see anything except sand and fishes being blown around. It was even hard to keep my air supply in my mouth at times because the current was trying to rip it away. And turning my face away from the flow meant that I had to hold my mask on so that it didn’t get swiped off.

I was out in front of the group but behind Elysia and her guide so I could see that her air was getting low because her guide signalled to the dive leader Marvin. It was a relief to let go and be washed away into the blue.

As we were racing away from Manta Bowl, a whale shark materialised in front of us and it was nice to see another gentle giant even after the tough dive.

I decided to book a second day of diving because I managed to agree with the manager that we could take one boat straight to Manta Bowl for three dives while they take a second boat with more new people to San Miguel for their check dive.

Manta Bowl Day Two

We left quite late today because the two Chinese guys I’m diving with overslept but we left at 7:45am to head straight to Manta Bowl. The weather is ok. Still cloudy but the sea isn’t too rough. I’m amused by the BBQ on the deck.

I spoke too soon and the waves picked up, making the boat feel very tiny in a big, big sea. But we made it!

The captain made me laugh. I have no idea how he was navigating; just eyeballing it, but it looked like he was following a patch of sunshine on the water, or perhaps he was using whale sharks to navigate??

Two hours later we were in the water at Manta Bowl. The current for the first dive was really mild (lower chances of seeing the big stuff) and we saw a manta quite a way off and a distant whale shark but not a huge amount else. That’s the thing with Manta Bowl; if the mantas and whale sharks aren’t around then there is very little to see on the sparse sandy bed. We found two blue spotted stingray and a few boxy shaped fish (I wonder why cowfish and trunkfish like it here), including a humpback turretfish – finally I managed to identify a fish that I’d seen a few times in the Philippines.

The second dive had stronger current but still almost nothing to see. Until… A huge manta ray swam around in a big loop and came past. I swam up to find another place to hook on but the ray stopped almost exactly where I was going to stop, so we ended up eye to eye for almost a minute as he stopped and turned and the faced into the current while the fish gave him a clean. It was absolutely breathtaking that he just stayed so close for that long.

My favourite Manta Ray

I was giddy about it for the rest of the day and I made the crew laugh because I’d just start giggling to myself about it when I was on the boat. As we were ascending we saw two whale sharks at a fair distance but the enormity is unmistakable! One was heading down to the depths and the other was cruising along at about 12 metres.

The third dive had strong currents again and I struggled to get down because I couldn’t clear the pressure in my left ear. Once I did manage to get down there I immediately saw a manta ray but then we didn’t see anything else until a huge whale shark shadow passed over us when we were anchored.

So I really didn’t see many different things today but I couldn’t care less; I made friends with a magnificent manta ray.

From my hotel tonight I saw one of the best sunsets of my life!

Interacting with Whale Sharks

At 7:30am I joined a Whale Shark snorkeling trip with the help of Sheila at Bicol Dive Centre and paid 1,000 Pesos (plus 300 Pesos to rent the snorkelling gear) so the trip cost £20 in total. I visited the Butanding Interaction Centre to watch the orientation video. I am a bit confused because the video gloats about the eco-tourism of Donsol and talks a lot about how they are protecting the whale sharks. I don’t really understand how this is protecting them – is it simply because local people aren’t allowed to kill them any more (only since 1998)? I’ll put my skeptical thoughts aside now. The boats are limited to 6 passengers, and the 3500 Peso boat hire is split between the passengers. On my boat this morning we are five with a guide called Daren.

Butanding is the local name for the whale shark and the guides are called Butanding Interaction Officers. We cast off at 8:15 and turned north along the coast. Close to shore the water is flat.

We cruised around for three hours looking for whale sharks. There was a false alarm where we thought we had found one but then we hadn’t. The water is pretty cold without a wetsuit so I’m glad we didn’t jump in without seeing one. We were heading slowly back to Donsol when another boat spotted one so the four boats all descended on the single whale shark, with the “maximum six people to a shark” rule going out of the window.

So I got to see a whale shark motoring past and it was nice, but I’m so privileged to have seen them while diving – they seemed so much more relaxed!

We arrived back at the shore really late, so I had to scoot back and check out of my hotel really quickly.

I took a trike to the Donsol transport terminal and then a van to the airport at Legaspi, arriving in an incredible downpour. I didn’t realise that there is no food at all in the terminal and the ATM is out of order so I ended up sooo hungry that I practically inhaled the snack on the delayed flight. I had one day in Manila to go and buy my Christmas present – a Mares Smart dive watch.

Then it was time for my flight to Kazakhstan to meet my travelling buddy Kat for two weeks adventuring for Christmas!

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