Cebu, Philippines – “For two years now, whale shark sightings in Donsol have been scant during the normal December to May season. In October 2012 however, we noticed they came early. This November 2013, we have been posting more and more interactions,” beams Donsol boat association president Lambert Avisado. “It seems that our Butandings have returned – but that they have changed their schedules.”
For years, Donsol has been identified as a Butanding hotspot, hosting one of the largest aggregations of whale sharks on Earth. Jumps and dips in the number of sharks have dictated the success and failure of tourism.
“We saw this drop in numbers once before – about 12 or 13 years ago,” shares Butanding Interaction Officer (BIO) association president Joel Briones. “Since there were few whale sharks that year, tourist numbers plummeted. Since early November however, we have recorded almost daily sightings. Word is getting around. Tourists are starting to arrive.”
Historically, Donsol’s whale shark season coincides with planktonic blooms, spurred by its still-healthy rivers. Each summer, plankton and swarms of tiny shrimp lure the giant filter feeders to linger near the surface – well within range of most skin divers and snorkelers. Under normal circumstances, peak season tours promise from four to six assured interactions per trip, prompting TIME Magazine to dub Donsol as the Best Animal Encounter in Asia in 2004.
WWF: Looking for the Sharks
“Whale sharks congregate in Donsol because of all the food,” explains WWF-Philippines Project Manager Raul Burce. “Plankton blooms occur when nutrients are discharged by Donsol’s rivers. To ensure that the Bay remains healthy, we must protect Donsol’s rivers.”
WWF is also studying the composition and range of food in and around the Bay. Extensive plankton and water parameter studies are being regularly conducted in strategic stations. This is being done to break away from ‘guessing games’ and more firmly anchor whale shark tourism on scientific information. The spatial distribution of food is also monitored by examining the gut contents of major pelagic fish species caught in the area.
Lastly, computer-assisted whale shark photo identification, as well as satellite tagging, which WWF has been spearheading since 2008, shall be continued to establish the number of sharks visiting Donsol, and to better understand where they go, and when. Five years of research has already identified 380 whale sharks in Donsol.
“The habits of migratory pelagic creatures like whale sharks are naturally dynamic and hard to predict,” adds Burce. “Given the volatility of depending on migratory creatures, Donsol and the greater area of the Ticao Pass, must find alternative ways to attract and retain visitors.”
More to Offer Than Whale Sharks?
Though famed for its whale sharks, the region boasts of other attractions – including afternoon mangrove tours and evening firefly cruises.
“We should not solely rely on the whale sharks. Already we’re exploring alternative tourist destinations and are seeking sustainable livelihood programmes,” says Donsol Mayor Jo Alcantara-Cruz. “Whether guests see whale sharks or not, our aim is to have visitors leave our little town with a smile.”
Across the Ticao Pass, the nearby province of Masbate hosts the Tacdugan Reef Manta Bowl – one of the country’s largest seasonal manta ray aggregations. Strong currents from the San Bernardino Strait funnel plankton and fish to lure in many top marine species – including dolphins, whales and wraith-like thresher sharks. The Island of Burias is also renowned for this. On 30 March 2009, fishermen trawling for mackerel along its east coast accidentally caught the world’s 41st megamouth shark, a species so elusive that only 55 have ever been encountered.
The beaches of nearby Monreal are top-notch, featuring ivory shores, towering cliffs and rich coral reefs. Drawing on the lessons on Donsol, WWF has partnered with Banco de Oro Unibank (BDO) to explore similar ecotourism and conservation opportunities for Masbate.
“While still offering whale shark tours, WWF is looking into how Donsol can position itself as a jump-off point to explore Masbate, and the other attractions of the Ticao Pass,” says Burce. “Tourists will have the best of both worlds – whale sharks, manta rays, firefly and mangrove tours, plus island-hopping. Ticao Pass and Donsol are part of an ecosystem that WWF has decided to invest in, and integrating management maximizes benefits for both areas, and for its people.”
Largest of all Fish – Discovered off the coast of South Africa in 1828, strikingly-patterned whale sharks can grow longer than a passenger bus and weigh more than six adult elephants. Ponderous and slow moving, their massive five-foot wide mouths help them gulp down more than two-tonnes of plankton and krill daily. Protected under Philippine Republic Act 8550, these harmless sharks can be sporadically encountered throughout the country. Donsol remains the country’s hotbed for whale sharks.
For further information:
Mr. Raul Burce
Donsol Project Manager, WWF-Philippines
Mr. Gregg Yan
Communications and Media Manager, WWF-Philippines