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The Whale Sharks of Donsol

Article contributed by: Dive Elite International

It was just like the proverbial game of "chicken". I positioned myself directly in front of the approaching behemoth, determined to stand my ground and not give way. Pressing my eye to the viewfinder of my underwater video camera I see the wide, horizontal mouth coming closer and closer. My thumb moves to the record trigger and pushes it forward. The viewfinder fills with the huge mouth. In fact, the mouth is so huge that I am not able to capture it all with my wide-angle lens. Am I too close? Trust me, it is very hard to stay calm when an animal as large as this is swimming toward you. My camera shakes at the moment of impact so I fin like crazy to get out of its way.

The animal was the elusive Whale Shark (Rhincodon Typus), truly beloved but so rarely seen by divers. The place was Donsol, a sleepy seaside town located in Sorsogon, 600 kilometers from Manila. We had been receiving reports that there were several whale shark sightings in the area so we hurriedly assembled a team and drove there to verify all these reports. Little did we know that we would be in for a surprise of the unbelievable kind, We were not prepared for what we would see.

The eleven members of our exploratory team met up at 5:00 AM on Monday morning, the 21st of March, 1998, as it was going to be a long drive (12 hours) to the town of Sorsogon in Sorsogon province.

It was quite a drive, passing through several towns while admiring the scenic roadside view. In the town of Albay, majestic Mayon volcano comes into view.

We arrived at Sorsogon at 5:30 PM. After checking in at the inn where we where to be quartered for the duration of our three-day stay we had a sumptuous dinner, after which we were treated to a presentation of rules and regulations to be observed in the whale shark interaction program (such as; no underwater flash photography, no scuba, no underwater scooters, keep away from the tail and no riding or harassment of the animals).

We received our wake-up calls at 5:00 AM. We all rolled out of our beds, ready for our 1st day of interaction with the whale sharks. Arriving at the seaside town of Donsol an hour later we were divided into two groups, with each group assigned to a bangka (A versatile motorized outrigger motorized canoe commonly used in the Philippine Islands. On the bangka were a crew of two, a guide charged with water safety, and a designated whale shark "spotter". We started our engine and headed towards the sea, pulling out of the Donsol port at 8:30 AM.

After 15 minutes our spotter shouts WHALE SHARK! WHALE SHARK! and points off to our left. We all turn as one, eager to catch our first glimpse of a whale shark.

Shouts of Where? Where? echo in the boat, as we couldn't see anything. Our guide, Lito, smiles casually and points to a large, dark shape just under the water's surface. The bangka crew expertly maneuvers alongside the dark shape and Lito shouts GO! GO! GO! Go where? Jump into the water with that dark shape? Apprehension reigned. We weren't so sure if the dark shape was really a whale shark or the largest tiger shark known to man.

Lito slides into the water with nary a splash. Finning rapidly, he sets off toward the dark shape. That was our cue. Pandemonium reigned as the 6 of us exited the bangka and jockeyed to position behind Lito. As if by magic, a long, dark, gray shape materializes out of the murky water, the spots slowly coming into sharp focus. This one is not fully-grown, maybe around 15 feet in length. With our snorkels, we follow the animal, keeping a respectable distance from the large, weaving tail, looking like a group of extremely large remoras. Finally tiring of the game, the giant slowly descends into the deep.

We climb back on our bangka and find our next whale shark after only 7 minutes. This one is big, maybe 25-30 feet in length.

The procedure is to wear all your skin diving gear on the bangka. As soon as a whale shark is spotted the bangka crew maneuvers the bangka as close to the whale shark as possible, after which everyone jumps off, preferably at the same time. There is a maximum time of maybe 30 seconds from the time the shark is spotted to jumping in the water. (Remember that even if whale sharks look slow, they can swim much faster than humans can). This is a no-contact interaction activity. Hanging on for rides is not allowed.

Sure enough, every one of the 24 dark patches that we saw in a four hour period turned out to be a whale shark. Most were clean, exhibiting no scars or fresh wounds from contact with surface vessels. Others, however, showed some signs of injury. One large (30) ft individual had a thick hemp rope tied around the base of its tail with more than 20 feet of the same rope trailing behind. The rope had cut deeply into its flesh, leaving a deep circumferential wound. Another animal had 4 deep propeller gashes on its upper caudal fin. Still others had propeller gashes on different parts of the body. These whale sharks stay so close to the surface that collisions between animal and boats are commonplace. The local community is presently considering attaching propeller shrouds to prevent further injury to these animals. Funding is the problem.

By the second day we had seen 57...

The high incidence of Whale Shark sightings in the area stems from the plankton-rich municipal waters off the town of Donsol. News of this amazing phenomenon has already spread to the international scientific community, with researchers coming in droves to study these elusive animals.

Known as Butanding in the local dialect, these whale sharks have always put in a yearly appearance, with numbers peaking during the summer months of February to May. They can easily be seen from bangkas. In other parts of the world where whale shark tours are offered aircraft are used to identify the whale sharks, after which the coordinates are communicated to a surface vessel, which then heads toward the area.

Donsol fishermen have never hunted these Butandings. Whale shark hunters have come from other areas of the Philippines to prey on these helpless giants of the sea. Certain individuals have been behind a whale shark fishery to catch and slaughter whale sharks for export predominantly for the Taiwanese market. Once plentiful off the waters of Pamilacan Island in Bohol, whale sharks had been hunted there to such a degree where they are now considered rare in that area. These hunters, after having received news of the whale sharks in Donsol had shifted their operations there, catching and slaughtering 6 whale sharks, with some of those killings occurring as recently as the 23rd of March, 1998. These actions prompted the Donsol Town Council, upon the urging of the Sorsogon Provincial Tourism Council to propose an ordinance banning whale shark fisheries. Efforts from concerned individuals and environmental groups such as the Kabang Kalikasan ng Pilipinas or KKP (the Philippine arm of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) were able to drum up a clamor that resulted in the media and national government taking notice. Former President Fidel V. Ramos himself had directed several government agencies to look into the plight of these whale sharks. In view of all the interest generated by this, several steps have been implemented to protect and preserve the butandings of Donsol.

Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) Director Dennis Araullo recommended a ban on the harvest of whale sharks and manta rays.

Agriculture Secretary Salvador Escudero II signed Fisheries and Administrative Order (FAO) 193, series of 1998, thereby making it unlawful to catch, sell, purchase, posses, transport and/or export whale shark and manta ray meat and related byproducts.

This was a complete reversal from the BFAR's earlier stand that the government agency was helpless to stop the slaughter as there was no law against the export or trading of whale shark meat as technically, the whale shark is considered a fish, albeit an extremely large one. Whale sharks have not been officially declared as an endangered species, although their numbers have significantly declined in recent years.

Under FAO 193, violators now face the following penalties: a fine of not less than P500.00 (USD 13.16) and not more than P5000.00 (USD 131.58) and/or imprisonment from 6 months to 4 years.

The BFAR may invoke the permit or license of a trader found to have caught and slaughtered whale sharks and/or manta rays. An administrative fine of P5000.00 may also be levied on the guilty party.

While conducting fishing operations it is considered unlawful and illegal to catch whale sharks and/or mantas. Any caught accidentally must be released unharmed.

The BFAR may request assistance from the Philippine Navy, Coast Guard and the Philippine National Police Maritime Command, as well as from other government agencies to stop the slaughter and preserve these animals

Under the local fisheries code, local governments have the power to enforce regulations on its municipal waters, which extend to 15 kms. offshore.

Even after the signing of FAO 193 some unscrupulous traders had offered bounties of as high as P200,000.00 (USD 5,263.16) per whale shark in order to tempt the fishermen. This is a sure sign that there are huge profits to be made from such a venture.

The Whale Sharks are there!

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