On the outside, I gasped into my snorkel at the pure majesty of what was below me. On the inside, I screamed with delight. I was swimming on top of an eight metre whale shark (Butanding), the largest fish in the ocean.
The bay off the tiny coastal fishing town of Donsol is home to schools of whale sharks and is a great place to interact with these creatures during their migratory period when they gorge themselves on the concentrated food supply. Unfortunately this year has been a terrible season for sightings due to the water temperature and the lack of plankton, their sole source of food.
My expectations had been managed and I knew chances of sightings were slim and swimming with one, even slimmer. Even during this peak season, there had been many days without a single sighting.
Each whale sharking boat takes a maximum of six people only and each boat has a dedicated spotter, whose job it is to look for the discoloured patch in the water indicating the presence of a whale shark. It's got me completely beat how they could see anything under the water without polarised sunglasses, but these are highly experienced experts.
Up to fifteen boats are out cruising at one time, all keen for the elusive sighting and interaction. Thankfully there are lots of rules to protect the whale sharks - no touching, no diving underneath and stay behind the fins (not near its mouth).
We had been cruising for three hours with no sighting and then...... it all happened so quickly and there was no time for photos. The Butanding was sighted, the boat pulled in to the general vicinity and our BIO (Butanding Interaction Officer) was shouting at us to be ready to jump in. Everyone else on my boat was a non-swimmer and messing about with life vests. Before I knew it, our BIO had grabbed my hand and we were in the water.
Somehow (and I still don't know how it happened with all the other people in the water), we ended up alone with the whale shark - just the two of us, swimming madly to keep up with it (they are fast). Just hovering above, I was in disbelief that I was so close to such a prehistoric looking and truly magnificent creature of the sea. We stayed with it until it started to dive deeper and with low visibility, it soon disappeared into the depths.
It was just a single Butanding but it had given me one of the most unforgettable ten minutes of my life.