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Scuba Dive Guide: Donsol, Philippines

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Are you dreaming about swimming with whale sharks in the Philippines? Donsol is one of the best places to swim alongside these majestic creatures. In this scuba dive guide to Donsol, we’ll show you where to dive, how to plan, and what to expect

Image: Jeremiah del Mar

Planning your dive trip

How to get to Donsol: You might know the saying, “It’s not about the destination. It’s about the journey.” This phrase is highly applicable to Donsol. Located 504 kilometers (313 miles) southeast of Metro Manila, you have several ways to get to Donsol where the trip there is an adventure in itself.

  • 10-hour bus ride from Metro Manila. On this ride, you’ll see transformation from an urban metropolis in Manila to a provincial setting in Bicol where several towering mountains and volcanoes greet you as you enter the land of Bicolandia. Buses depart daily.
  • Fly from Metro Manila or from Cebu to Legazpi City. Once you touchdown at the tarmac, you will be greeted with the Majestic Mount Mayon, a perfect cone-shaped active volcano. From Legaspi, Donsol is just an hour ride via public transportation like a jeepney, bus, or an air-conditioned van.

How to get around Donsol: Hire a tricycle, jeepney, or motorbike.

Cost of scuba diving in Donsol: Expect to pay around $20-40 USD per dive> Most dive resorts in Donsol offer packages, where dives become cheaper the more you buy. Day trips typically include lunch, water, and snacks.

There are also scuba diving packages available, like liveaboard trips with dives, meals, and accommodation included.

Cost of swimming with whale sharks in Donsol: Each swimmer must pay 300 pesos (~$7 USD) to register their swim. Half-day trips cost about 3,500 pesos (~$73 USD) per person. The price is fixed and standard since whale swims are hosted by the local government.

The best time to see whale sharks in Donsol: Whale shark interaction and scuba diving in Donsol is seasonal and highly dependent on prevalent physical factors. For scuba diving, the waters of Ticao Pass (where Donsol is facing) can be rough during the onset of southwest monsoon which runs from June to August.

With the whale sharks, they are migratory and they are only spotted in Donsol from November to May. To experience the best water condition such as a 28°C (82°F) water temperature and visibility up to 30 meters (100 feet), it’s best to visit Donsol during the summer season from March to May.

Discover the best liveaboard trips near Donsol

Why go scuba diving in Donsol?

Donsol was once a quiet and laid-back fishing town in Sorsogon. This all changed when locals discovered tourism interaction with the biggest fish in the world, the whale shark.

Wildlife galore

Since then, tourists from all corners of the globe flock this part of the Bicol region to swim with whale sharks in their wild habitat. Scuba divers come to explore pristine reefs that are less explored and blow bubbles alongside the other gentle giants of the deep, manta rays. During your surface interval, you can embark on a tour of Firefly River and explore the small village of Barangay Dancalan. Tourists tend to be well looked after with an onsite police department dedicated to holidaymakers.

What you can expect to see in Donsol

Donsol is the home of the big boys. You have whale sharks, the largest fish in the world, and manta rays, the largest rays in the world. The reefs of your dive spots are some of the less-explored sites in the Philippines, many of which are pristine and undisturbed.

Snorkeling with whale sharks in Donsol

Location: Ground Zero; Barangay Dancalan, Donsol, Sorsogon
Level: Newbie and experienced Snorkelers
Max Depth: Surface only

Travelers are not allowed to scuba dive with whale sharks in Donsol–it’s strictly prohibited. Snorkeling with whale sharks is the only way to see them in the water–unless one swims by you by chance at another dive site.

When you arrive in Barangay Dancalan, head to the tourism office where you will need to register and undergo a short orientation before you go on a whle shark swim. After your orientation, you will be assigned with a boat that is manned by a boat captain, an assistant and a Butanding Interaction Officer (BIO). Butanding is the local name for whale sharks. You will then head out and search for whale sharks that are surfacing out of the water. Once spotted, you will enter the water together with your BIO and swim towards the whale sharks. Your interaction will usually last for a couple of minutes and will end the moment the whale sharks descends to the deep. You may need to go back to your boat and look for surfacing whale sharks, then repeat the procedure. If you are lucky, you may see up to 10 whale sharks in a single day!

Because Donsol has stricter guidelines than Oslob when it comes to interacting with whale sharks, Donsol is the better place to choose if you want to see a more genuine interaction. Dive guides in Donsol do not feed the whale sharks and have strict limits on how many people can interact with a whale shark at once (in theory).

Safety Note: If you are new to snorkelling, it’s best to wear a life jacket.

The best dive sites near Donsol

Manta Bowl

Location: 2 hour boat ride; southeast of Donsol
Level: Advanced
Max Depth: 30 meters (100 feet)

At Manta Bowl, you can drift dive at 3 knots (1.5 meters/second) along with the biggest ray species in the world! If that’s in your bucket list, then head out southeast of Donsol and visit an offshore reef that has become the refuge of giant manta rays. Locally known as Bontod-Tacdogan Reef, Manta Bowl is an offshore mound located in between mainland Sorsogon and Ticao Island. Since it is located right at the heart of Ticao Pass, expect that strong water current is prevalent and that its direction is dependent on the ebbing and flooding of tides.

Your dive profile in Manta Bowl usually starts with a negative entry where you need to directly descend to the reef crest that starts at 10.6 meters (35 feet). The current will take you to a gentle reef slope mostly filled with soft corals. Manta rays are often seen swimming against the current with their mouth wide open feeding on plankton. If you see manta rays at the reef crest or slope, your interaction will be limited to a few seconds, perhaps minutes. However, if your interaction occurs in mid water as you start your ascent, expect to be with this gentle giants for minutes or so as they display their graceful dancing when they come close near to your dive group.

Your dive will usually end far from the reef and having a surface marker buoy will come in handy so that you can easily be spotted and picked up by your boat.

Note: Technically, Manta Bowl is not in Donsol. It is under the jurisdiction of San Jacinto in Masbate. Since most of the tourism and dive facilities are located in Donsol, it has become one of Donsol’s adopted dive sites. In any case, it’s a prime dive spot.

San Miguel Island

Location: 1.5 hour boat ride; southeast of Donsol
Level: All levels of certification
Max Depth: 30 meters (100 feet)

Located at the northern end of Ticao island is the small and picturesque San Miguel Island where 4 unique, pristine and seldom explored dive sites awaits your presence. For newbies, we highly recommend you explore the reefs at the northern and southern coast. While you are required to hire a boat from Donsol going to San Miguel Island, you can do shore entry in the northern and southern reefs where your boat will usually dock at the white sandy beach. Your entry point is a shallow sandy area with a gentle slope filled with patches of corals and algae. After a few minutes of swimming, you will arrive at the coral garden starting at 10 meters (30 feet) where the reef is covered with several coral species.

The eastern and western reefs are suited for advanced divers where their drift diving skills will be put to the test. Hovering along 1 to 2 knots (0.5 to 1 meter/second) of water current speed, you will drift above a garden of soft and hard corals with a thriving population of tropical reef fish like damselfish, snappers, groupers, moray eels and small pelagics like the Spanish mackerel.

Note: Aside from sleeping on the boat or returning to Donsol, you can spend the night at San Miguel Island since there is a nature resort operating within the island, Halea Nature Park and Resort. Many divers who have been to Halea say they loved eating breakfast on top of a limestone plateau overlooking Ticao Pass.

Where to stay in Donsol

Amor Farm Beach Resort

Address: Dancalan, Donsol, Sorsogon

Tucked away in a garden, Amor Farm Beach Resort is one of the best places to relax after a long day of swimming with whale sharks in Donsol Sorsogon. It has 23 villa-type rooms each with its own veranda. Choose between fan or air conditioning. The best thing about Amor Farm Beach Resort is its proximity to the tourism office.

Book your stay

Vitton Beach Resort

Address: Dancalan, Donsol, Sorsogon

Just a few steps away from the tourism office is the coconut palm laden Vitton Beach Resort. They have air-conditioned villa-inspired rooms with traditional wooden furnishings and a private balcony. Your room choices include a basic single room with shared bathroom as well as a range of double and family rooms with ensuite bathrooms. The property also has an an outdoor swimming pool–a great place to dip after your whale shark interaction out in the wild.

Book your stay

Elysia Beach Resort

Address: Pangpang, Donsol, Sorsogon

Owned by a former visitor to Donsol who instantly fell in love with the whale sharks and the coastal area, Elysia Beach Resort is a beachfront property right at the heart of Donsol’s ecotourism hub. It has 15 air-conditioned rooms that are designed using a mixture of tropical and contemporary styles. Your room choices include the double and triple occupancy configurations.

Book your stay

The best dive schools in Donsol

Bicol Dive Center

Certifying Agency: PADI
Address: Dancalan, Donsol, Sorsogon

Bicol Dive Center is an accredited dive shop by the Philippine Commission on Sports Scuba Diving and the Department of Tourism. They offer PADI certification courses from open water up to divemaster level. They are known for their fully equipped dive boat that specializes in dive tours to Manta Bowl and San Miguel Island in Ticao Pass.

Giddy’s Place Dive Center

Certifying Agency: PADI
Address: Clemente Street, DOnsol, Sorsogon

Being the in-house dive shop of Giddy’s Place, Giddy’s Place Dive Center is one of the few dive schools in Donsol that offers scuba lessons and dive trips to Donsol’s top dive spot. They offer the PADI Bubble Maker Program and full certification courses such as open water diver, advanced diver, rescue diver, divemaster and assistant instructor. When you sign-up for a dive tour with Giddy’s Place, your dive site will include Donsol’s top diving sites like Manta Bowl and San Miguel Island.

Freediving in Donsol

Unfortunately, there are no freediving certification schools in Donsol. But this does not mean that freediving is non-existent. In fact, it is a big hit in Donsol as it is the only way you can come close to the whale sharks. Remember that scuba diving with the whales harks is prohibited and only snorkeling is permitted. In other words, everybody is freediving in Donsol.

At the end of your Donsol trip and after seeing the gentle giants of the deep, do not forget to say your big thank you to the locals and guide who had accompanied you in this wild yet exciting journey. There is no other way to express your gratitude but to say “salamatonon” which means thank you very much.

FAQs about swimming with whale sharks in Donsol

Is swimming with whale sharks safe?

Swimming with whale sharks can be very safe if you take a few precautions. First, always tell your boat captain when you are going into the water and stay close to your guide. Always keep away from boat propellers in the water–avoid diving down and surfacing without looking above you. Wear a life jacket, which will help you stay safe and spotted by other boat drivers in the water.

How much does it cost to swim with whale sharks in Donsol?

Swimming with whale sharks in Donsol costs a registration fee of 300 PHP and 3,500 PHP for a half-day excursion, which translates into roughly $85 USD.

Is Oslob or Donsol better for swimming with whale sharks?

We recommend Donsol over Oslob if you want to swim with whale sharks, as Donsol has stricter eco-tourism guidelines and it is a more natural experience.

Ready to explore more of the Philippines?

We’ve got you covered! Check out our guide to the best dive sites in the Philippines (plus what you need to know). We also have guides on incredible dive spots like Apo Island, Bohol, Mindoro, Anilao Batangas, Palawan, and Cebu. Plus, don’t miss our top picks for Tubbataha Reef liveaboard trips!