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Back to Palawan and the magnificent whale sharks.

Although sleep was elusive during my first few days back in Palawan, it was nice to just close my eyes and bathe in the ambience of colourful sounds suffusing the little detached community of houses where I live amongst the trees at the end of the main road to the city centre of Puerto Princesa, just a stone’s throw away from the sea. Apart from the usual staccato sounds of chickens and dogs, laced with the jollity of children and soothing eloquence of melodious rainbow-coloured birds, there is now the addition of the bleating of goats. My neighbour’s little energetic boy, Kobe, was wide-eyed with enthusiasm to see me again, and kept repeating my name and showing me his strange little toys through the window of my little house. Apparently there has been an unusually dry spell but the exotic tropical lushness of the vegetation has now been fully restored with shimmering intensity.

My little native house had been transformed into a ghost house with the accumulation of many months of dust and cobwebs. Native construction with palm leaf roofs and bamboo walls serves the most important function in the tropics as far as I’m concerned, and that is coolness. It’s certainly not the best choice for those of the anal cleanliness and dust-free persuasion. It took me a day or two to get my house back into a fully-functioning state. I also had the unexpected surprise of being thrust straight into adopting a litter of puppies on my doorstep delivered by the abandoned bitch that I had been feeding the last time that I was here. It was very nice to see the smiling faces of all of my neighbours again, including the shopkeepers of the little shops out on the main road that provide me with most of my immediate basic needs. I really feel like an integral part of the local furniture now rather than an alien invader, even though I’m still the only foreigner living in this neck of the woods. Although I’m living on the periphery of the provincial capital city it feels very rural out here. I have electricity, which is essential for my most indulgent luxury, a fan, but there are frequent power cuts. I get my water from a nearby communal pump and live by the bucket rather than the tap, which I love. I can either have a scoop shower in my basic bathroom or wash in public.

Getting settled back into my simple but busy routine here was quickly followed by my desire to see whale sharks again, and I had already been made aware of how unusually prevalent they have been this year. My good friend Toto who organises the whale shark trips informed me that the next trip would be on my first Sunday back, but unfortunately I had completely lost track of what day it was, and it wasn’t until about 8pm on Saturday night that I realised what day it was! I hadn’t prepared any of my gear so I had to rush back to my house from the city centre to get ready for a 5am start the next morning. My state of unpreparedness was further aggravated by not having any power when I got back to my house and having to make the extensive preparations of equipment by headlight, so mistakes and oversights were inevitable!

I didn’t sleep very well, but nevertheless as always I arrived early at the dock, and even had time to walk back to the market to buy a potato for starching my glass dome port for split-photos. That high-tech application always intrigues everybody when they try to guess exactly why I need a potato to take underwater photos. Well actually it’s only needed for half-in and half-out, or split photos as they are called, which I love doing. The starch makes the water slide off the glass, literally like water off a duck’s back, so that no water remains to distort the image. I flooded my underwater housing last year with the consequent loss of a camera body and lens because I was in too much of a hurry to get into the water for scuba diving without first testing it, so I wanted to test it right away this time, although if my mind had been fully activated earlier I would have tested it in a bowl of FRESH water at home before I left. Much to my surprise the dreaded stream of tiny bubbles appeared as soon as I immersed the housing in the sea but at least I hadn’t accompanied it into the sea this time, and was able to quickly withdraw it and keep it inverted to prevent the water flooding the camera and lens. I rinsed it with fresh water but it was not going to be possible to completely dry the interior to prevent that most annoying bane of underwater photography – condensation ! It’s not like on land where you can simply keep wiping it away…..it’s well and truly sealed inside the housing when it’s fully immersed, and getting in and out of the water is not straightforward on a boat with outriggers. The outriggers and supporting framework of bamboo has to be gingerly and hazardously negotiated whilst wearing flippers and carrying a bulky 5 kilo underwater housing and camera in one hand; I feel like a hippo trying to negotiate a minefield.

I quickly discovered why it had flooded this time. It was similar to the last time because I hadn’t removed something that prevents the back from being fully flush with the housing. I thought I had, just as before, and once again suspected the interference of mischievous gremlins. The housing is actually for a Canon EOS 5D Mk2, which is the body that was wrecked last year, but soon after I discovered that it can be adapted to fit my EOS 6D, which is a new camera that delivers better images. That’s great as long as I remember to keep the adaptations! Last year it was the rubber eyecup on the camera and this time it was a small metal plate in the housing that butts up against the front of the camera. The other adaptations I implemented were some surgical tape and blutack to make contact between the housing and camera controls; I never travel anywhere without blutack because it has so many uses for either sticking or plugging.

It was by chance in 2007 that I was able to join the first official whale shark trip from Puerto Princesa conducted by Angelo Cayabo, better known to everyone as “Toto”. It was another watershed moment in my life when I discovered another infatuation with a beautiful animal. I was fortunate enough to capture a striking photo of another one of the guests swimming with a whale shark and it was subsequently published with an article on the front page of the Sunday Inquirer, the most widely read broadsheet newspaper in the Philippines. That brought me a lot of attention here in Puerto Princesa, including from the mayor at the time, Ed Hagedorn. Since then I have established a very mutually beneficial relationship with Toto, being invited to go on his whale shark and dolphin-watching trips, and taking photos to help to promote his tour business, Dolphin and Whales Travel and Tours/Facebook.

I usually occupy the front bench of the boat so that I can spread all of my gear out, and I'm also nearly a pensioner. Joining me this time was my new travelling companion, Shrek, looking resplendent in his bright orange Bermuda shorts and always ready for underwater action in his flippers and mask. I've always been a big fan of Shrek ever since I saw the first film in the USA in 2000. I like to think that he's one of my alter egos.

I usually occupy the front bench of the boat so that I can spread all of my gear out, and I’m also nearly a pensioner. Joining me this time was my new travelling companion, Shrek, looking resplendent in his bright orange Bermuda shorts and always ready for underwater action in his flippers and mask. I’ve always been a big fan of Shrek ever since I saw the first film in the USA in 2000. I like to think that he’s one of my alter egos.


My first day back with the whale sharks aboard one of Toto’s Aegel Ivan banca boats was a beautiful day with perfect sea conditions, and we quickly found whale sharks accompanied by the usual telltale signs of their presence, an area often as big as a tennis court boiling with tuna catching the same small fish, with a flock of attendant terns dancing overhead. It was good to get my lungs back into action with a mask and snorkel again. My lung capacity was quite badly impaired in 2013 when I had a pulmonary embolus, but they seem to have made a good recovery now after plenty of uphill cycling back in England. There were eight guests onboard, and as usual divided between each side of the boat, and entering the water alternately so as not to overcrowd the whale shark or the guests themselves, which makes for a much better experience. I adopted a fairly passive position because I have seen them many times before and have more than enough good photos now, but as with my many years photographing humpback whales in Alaska, the whale sharks are so photogenic along with the variable lighting that I’m always aware that there is always potentially another unique image to be captured. I didn’t see them last year, and was quite content to just see them again and take more of a back seat whilst other’s flippers kicked up a maelstrom around me. I was also using a new mask and I hadn’t yet adjusted the straps enough to prevent having a nose full of water all the time.

This is a juvenile that like a lot of juveniles appeared to be quite inquisitive about the boat and the swimmers. It had a remora perched on top of its head like a hat. I haven't identified this species yet but it is very different from the commoner ones that are streamlined like a torpedo.

This is a juvenile that like a lot of juveniles appeared to be quite inquisitive about the boat and the swimmers. It had a remora perched on top of its head like a hat. I haven’t identified this species yet but it is very different from the commoner ones that are streamlined like a torpedo.


As well as the remora perched on top of the whale shark's head there are some tiny cleaner fish swimming right in front of its mouth that evidently feed on any parasites around the mouth of their much bigger host. It appears to be quite a precarious situation but cleaner fish are much appreciated by their hosts.

As well as the remora perched on top of the whale shark’s head there are some tiny cleaner fish swimming right in front of its mouth that evidently feed on any parasites around the mouth of their much bigger host. It appears to be quite a precarious situation but cleaner fish are much appreciated by their hosts.


My first breathtaking moment was whilst still being on the outrigger, and a juvenile whale shark suddenly swimming past the boat just beneath the surface so that it’s beautiful geometric markings, spots and swirls were vividly resplendent. Like all inquisitive juveniles it swam around the boat and snorkelers a few times and I was able to dive alongside it and get a few good photos. It had a large remora perched prominently on its head like a hat. Apparently the same juvenile had been seen a few days prior with the same hitchhiker onboard. The anticipated condensation inside the glass dome port hampered my photography as anticipated, and I had to keep returning to the boat to open the housing to wipe it off.

This one had quite a large flotilla of fish swimming with it. This is an aspect of the whale sharks that really fascinates me; there are many species of fish that have some kind of a relationship with the whale sharks, which doesn't include being eaten by them.

This one had quite a large flotilla of fish swimming with it. This is an aspect of the whale sharks that really fascinates me; there are many species of fish that have some kind of a relationship with the whale sharks, which doesn’t include being eaten by them.


This is my favourite view of a whale shark, from directly above with its body gracefully undulating from side to side and its spots gleaming like city lights at night.

This is my favourite view of a whale shark, from directly above with its body gracefully undulating from side to side and its spots gleaming like city lights at night.


Apart from experiencing the whale sharks on these wonderful day trips, which incidentally I never have to pay for because I’m working in partnership with Toto to help promote his very well run operation with my photos, blog and website, it’s always a pleasure to meet the foreign, and indeed local Filipino guests on board, for whom this is a very special experience. My enjoyment of seeing the whale sharks remains undiminished, but I can still vividly remember my undiluted euphoria of seeing them the first few times. On this trip there was a nice family group with several young girls, and I’m sure that it provided memories that will remain with them forever. The fun and joy generated by the whale sharks and a lovely day out on the water is infectious, and that includes all of the local crew, who really have a dream job, but it’s evidently more than just a job to them….it’s a blast!

It's easy to work up a whale of an appetite swimming with whale sharks, and the delicious lunch served onboard never fails to satisfy it! One of my favourites is the crushed eggplant marinaded in vinegar and soya sauce front left.

It’s easy to work up a whale of an appetite swimming with whale sharks, and the delicious lunch served onboard never fails to satisfy it! One of my favourites is the crushed eggplant marinaded in vinegar and soya sauce front left.


This is my plateful of tropical goodies. The cook even prepares a separate vegetarian dish of vegetables for me.

This is my plateful of tropical goodies. The cook even prepares a separate vegetarian dish of vegetables for me.


And as if the day is not complete enough with memorable encounters with such magnificent sea creatures it is consummated with a well earned break and a delicious lunch of local food including succulent barbecued fresh fish, fruit and one of my favourites, seaweed to dip in vinegar and spicy soy sauce. I cannot imagine a better value, better ecotourism experience anywhere in the world than a day out with the whale sharks in Honda Bay, Puerto Princesa, Palawan, the Philippines. Well done to Toto for creating this special opportunity for tourists, and also for keeping it special by doing it the right way for both the tourists and whale sharks. Customer satisfaction is always paramount but so is the welfare of the whale sharks, and the authenticity of the experience. What is the point of feeding the whale sharks to attract them for the tourists as they are controversially doing off the island of Oslob near Cebu when that negates their natural feeding behaviour, which is so spectacular in Honda Bay. It not only dilutes the tourists’ experience of wildness and an awareness of their natural feeding behaviour, but most crucially corrupts the natural behaviour of the whale sharks. Whichever way you look at it, it’s wrong and should be stopped. If Toto can do it the right way, then surely the people doing it there can too. And the tourists who support this unnatural practice are also culpable. Shouldn’t they care about the long-term consequences for the whale sharks, and the potential for a growing dependency on being artificially fed and attracted to potentially harmful boats?

I absolutely love doing split-shots especially when there are a lot of different elements to include. Sometimes it's quite hit or miss, and the water level can affect the image in an instant. This is a good one because it captures both the activity and the enjoyment of these trips by the visitors and the crew.

I absolutely love doing split-shots especially when there are a lot of different elements to include. Sometimes it’s quite hit or miss, and the water level can affect the image in an instant. This is a good one because it captures both the activity and the enjoyment of these trips by the visitors and the crew.

For more information about these great whale shark trips please contact Toto at Dolphin and Whales Travel and Tour/Facebook.

Tel +63 915 263 2105 – email totodolphin@yahoo.com or dwhalestraveltours@yahoo.com

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