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We caught a brief glimpse on our first day here: a tail longer than I am tall, disappearing into the murky water below me. But since then, nothing. Just 15 hours on the water, our boat crisscrossing Donsol Bay like an insect on the surface of a pond. Over
the course of five three-hour tours, we peered into the water and out at the horizon, hiding from the glare of the sun.
So we decide to try somewhere new, a little further offshore. Our scouts Carlos Tarog, Erwin Sacramento, and Jerome Añasco are in their usual positions, perched atop simple wooden masts at the front and rear of the boat, scanning the ocean surface for silhouettes of butanding—whale sharks. Our boat’s bamboo outriggers splash against the waves, beating time over the steady purr of the engine.
Suddenly Carlos bursts into action, pointing and shouting. Michael Radores and Alan Amanse, our BIOs (Butanding Interaction Officers), jump up too, grabbing snorkel masks and fins, urging us to the front of the boat.
I get my camera and sit next to Michael, waiting for his word. Meanwhile our captain maneuvers the boat into the whale shark’s path, using a mix of engine and oar to position us in the perfect spot. Then Alan shouts: “Rock and roll!”
Michael jumps in, and I—a bit shocked at the speed at which it’s all happening—follow. The current quickly drags us out behind the boat. Michael points ahead and flicks his wrist to indicate a direction and then dives under. I pause to get my bearings. Then I dive too.
I stop a couple of yards under the water, battling the buoyancy of my camera to stay below the surface. Nothing. Then suddenly it appears, a face at first, then a fin widening out into a body much larger than I’d imagined: a 30-foot whale shark, suspended, impossibly, like an airship in the water.
There’s an immeasurable presence that comes with marine life this size. The symbiotic cleaner fish attached to its sides are evidence of the rich ecosystem that exists in its orbit. It passes within inches of me, the little sunlight that has managed to penetrate the plankton-rich water shimmering across the pattern of spotted stripes on its back. Then it dives, and disappears, and the scouts climb back up to look for another opportunity to encounter the largest fish in the sea.
There are three dozen BIOs like Michael and Alan working in Donsol, all local men who swap between the boats that go out each morning of the butanding season—roughly December through May—guiding visitor interaction with the whale sharks. During peak season, sightings are almost guaranteed.
Stretching along and inland from the coast on the Philippine island of Luzon, Donsol is a large town made up of 51 smaller communities, or barangays. In recent years, it has become a poster town for inclusive, sustainable tourism. Unlike in some other parts of the islands, the tourism here is well managed.
“I hope that Donsol will be the role model for ecotourism here in the Philippines,” says Alan. “The way they do it in Cebu”— where whale sharks are fed buckets of shrimp to increase the likelihood of sightings—“is bad. It’s not nature.” Feeding is detrimental to the health of the whale sharks: Conditioned to expect food, they bump into the boats and sustain injuries. Such baiting may also be disruptive to migration and behavioral patterns.
In Donsol, whale shark interactions are carefully regulated; only 30 boats at a time, for a maximum of 3 hours. But despite the many rules in place (see above), the atmosphere is welcoming and convivial. Everyone is in this together, and the success of the system is a common source of pride. Alan tells me that people here recognize that “whale sharks are not only good for BIOs but also for the resorts, the shop owners, and the market vendors.” In Donsol, all but one of the resorts are owned by local families, as are the boats. “It’s good for us all,” Alan continues. “We have better transportation now. Better education.” Alan’s work as a BIO enabled him to send both daughters to college; one is studying to become a chemical engineer. Without the whale sharks and the reliable income generated by responsible, nature-driven tourism, he says, “maybe my daughters would stay at home, selling my fish.”
Twenty or so years ago, Alan was a tricycle, or pedicab, driver and a fisherman. Most people here were farmers and fishers, and the town was sleepy, without even a single road to bring visitors in.
Life changed in 1998 when a group of scuba divers arrived in Donsol to see if the anecdotes about frequent whale shark sightings were true. Their recreational dive turned into a rescue mission when they freed a whale shark stranded in a fish corral. The incident was reported to the WWF-Philippines office, kick-starting a nearly 20-year partnership with the government that has evolved from simply understanding the tourism potential of protecting whale sharks, to establishing systems for providing tourism services to visitors, to ongoing research that feeds into effective conservation planning and management.
Also in 1998, Donsol declared itself the country’s first municipal sanctuary for the butanding, in response to the threat of increasingly high demand for whale shark parts in Asian markets. That same year, the hunting and sale of whale sharks was banned throughout the Philippines.
Although there are regular sightings and interactions in places like Donsol, not much is known about the biology of the world’s largest fish. Whale sharks are elusive, transient foragers, on the move for an average of 14 to 16 miles each day, with populations appearing in the warm, circumtropical waters that hug the globe. Estimates say whale sharks may live to be 100 years old, producing offspring only after 25 or more years—a life span and maturation process that make them especially vulnerable to human interference. Globally, the species is assessed as endangered, with threats including habitat loss; marine pollution; vessel strikes; trade in the species’ flesh, liver oil, and fins; and irresponsible tourism.
As of 2016, WWF researchers had identified 469 individual whale sharks in Donsol Bay. Further, despite the research done on whale shark biology, habitat, and migratory routes, no breeding ground has ever been conclusively identified. So when the smallest juvenile ever recorded was found in Donsol Bay, the area gained even more prominence as one of potentially great importance to the species.
Talking to the people here reveals a key change in attitude toward the butanding over the past two decades, one that Donsol’s mayor, Josephine Alcantara-Cruz, makes clear: “Before, it was just one of those sea creatures. Fishermen would see them as a competitor. Now everything has changed, because now it is their partner in life.” Having once thought of the butanding as a tiresome if accidental destroyer of fishing nets, people here now understand that the big fish can offer benefits so great that they are variously described as a lifeline and the backbone of the economy. The butanding, the mayor says, are “like part of the family”—and as such, worthy of protection and love.
So we have to ask: Why do they come? And what will make them stay?
To find out, Ronnel Dioneda, director of research at Bicol University, and Andrea Pimentel, research assistant for plankton and water quality assessment at WWF-Philippines, are sampling the waters here as part of the Donsol Integrated Conservation Management Project. Funded by Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. and conducted with help from WWF project manager Raul Burce, the monitoring initiative is part of that company’s $200,000 commitment to WWF’s conservation programs in Donsol—and part of a broader five-year partnership designed to reduce the company’s environmental impact, increase the ecological sustainability of tour activities in coastal communities, and support WWF’s global ocean conservation work.
Each month, Ronnel and his WWF colleagues make the rounds to 14 sites in the bay. I watch as they lower a column of fine mesh into the water, to between 30 and 90 feet deep, before pulling the net out and straining its contents into a sample cup.
The coastal water in Donsol Bay, in all its shifting green, blue, and gray glory, is not clear like the water in the Caribbean, or even in other parts of the Philippines better known for snorkeling and diving. Once in the sample bottle, you can see it is dense, like pulpy orange juice or a just-shaken snow globe.
Back in the lab, Andrea connects her laptop to the microscope’s camera feed. The sample expands into a universe of alien-looking creatures. Ronnel trains his vision on the slides and begins to reel off the names and counts of different organisms in a roll call encompassing phytoplankton, adult zooplankton, larval zooplankton, and other microalgal elements. These tiny organisms have a lot to do with the presence of the largest fish in these waters: For all their 300-plus teeth per jaw, whale sharks are filter feeders, taking little more into their wide mouths than plankton and other microscopic bits and bobs.
Donsol is unique within the entire stretch of the Philippines archipelago for being the first meeting place of the South China Sea and the Pacific Ocean. As a result, the waters here are super salty. “But we have a savior: the rivers,” says Ronnel. Three of the sites monitored each month are where one of three rivers—the Donsol, Ogod, and Sibagoow into the sea.
“The rivers provide a mix of everything you want, creating the optimal levels of salinity, nutrients, temperature, pH—everything,” says Ronnel. Optimal, he says, “for growth of microscopic organisms like phytoplankton, fish, and crustacean eggs, and the larvae of many marine organisms.” The water off Donsol is a delicious, nutritious soup. No wonder the butanding stop here to feed.
Every month, the team correlates its findings with the appearance of whale sharks. In addition to assessing plankton density, they carry out chemical analyses, and send samples to a laboratory in Manila that assesses the nutrients and biochemical oxygen in the water. These tests pick up on traces of any activities or disturbances upriver affecting the balance of nutrients in the water: poison fishing, erosion of riverbanks, increasing sediment, and agricultural and other runoff, including phosphate from fertilizing rice fields and washing clothes.
“The ocean is affected by whatever we do upstream; it captures and absorbs everything we do,” says Andrea. Maintaining the precise ecological balance that is so attractive to whale sharks requires an approach to conservation that acknowledges the interconnectedness of marine and terrestrial environments and the impact of human activities on each.
That integrated approach to conservation is the reason Kim Marcelo, of WWF’s Environmental Education team, is clutching a microphone and a giant plush sea turtle as she elicits a cacophony of songs and shouts from a teeming crowd of third- and fourth-grade kids.
Their classroom here in Donsol East Central School is painted a warm, buttery yellow, and the high ceilings and a breeze coming through a wall of windows give the place a cool, shady feel despite the energy filling the room. Kim and her manager, Ruel Bate, are environmental education teachers; together they create an atmosphere that is generous and gregarious, teasing excitement from shy students and rallying enthusiastic sing-alongs. Kids call out answers, mimic a dolphin’s breathing, and wave bright-blue ocean-themed nature workbooks—developed by WWF and Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.—in the air.
After learning about dugongs (cousins of the Western Hemisphere’s manatee), the kids connect the dots on a page in their workbooks and reveal...seagrass! A shout goes up as the students realize what dugongs eat, and make the connection to a marine ecosystem they can help protect. When they move on to threats, like trash, the solution of “reduce, reuse, recycle” becomes a chant.
In the space of a week, Kim and Ruel visit 12 schools, including San Jose Elementary, a much smaller school 18 miles upstream, on a curve in the slow, clear Donsol River. The dynamic duo is on a mission to visit all 47 elementary schools in the Donsol area, and although they have to take a narrow bamboo raft to reach the school, Kim and Ruel are undeterred.
Reaching out to different sectors of the community—teachers and students, barangay leaders, and the BIOs, boat operators, resort owners, and other operators of the tourism sector—is key to WWF’s inclusive approach to developing a strong and self- sufficient program in Donsol. In addition to the whale shark work and environmental education programs, WWF facilitates river and coastal cleanups, mangrove plantings, trainings, and other regular community programs each year, all designed to cultivate an understanding of local conservation that takes the needs of the community into account.
It turns out that the mix of people involved in conservation here is just as important as the mix of organisms in the water itself.
Although whale sharks are the charismatic megafauna on which Donsol’s recent fame and fortune are founded, locals are sanguine about the possibility that the world’s biggest fish may not always return. The 2013 and 2014 seasons, for instance, saw sharp declines in both sharks and the tourists vying for the opportunity to see them. So, in addition to helping Donsol be as friendly as possible to the butanding, WWF also supports the wider community in diversifying ecotourism offerings.
Chrisma Salao, the vice president for conservation programs at WWF-Philippines, believes that Donsol is a “shining example” of community tourism because local families are benefiting from the whale shark industry “not just in terms of material things, but also in terms of the partnerships that it has built around this community.”
While the management of the butanding industry has largely passed into the hands of Donsol’s tourism service providers, the continuing collaboration among WWF, the national department of tourism, funders like Royal Caribbean, and the local government is helping barangays further inland and upstream develop their own opportunities for tourism and sustainable economic development.
In addition to the many proposed activities (cave and waterfall tours, organic farming, bird-watching, town tours), the people of Donsol offer another adventure for visitors: the chance to take a short nighttime ride upriver to see fireflies. On a dark night in February, just a five-minute ride up the small river Ogod, a canopy of fireflies, draped like a netting of lights over the trees, undulates and flares in unison. Watching the natural light show, it is easy to feel optimistic about the potential for everyone in Donsol, upstream and downstream, to work together to protect the diverse creatures, environments, and livelihoods that are so intimately interconnected.
Back in Donsol, we gather for dinner with Michael, our BIO from this morning. His wife, Maria, home from the dive center where she works during the day, is preparing fried fish and rice, while their daughter Kaye tells us she has been learning about marine life in school, and what she and her family can do to protect it. In the background, Michael is feeding the pigs and ducks while Kaye’s grandmother keeps an eye on the youngest kids.
It is a harmonious, peaceful scene, with everyone blessed in some way by the presence of the whale sharks. I learn over dinner that “butanding” translates as “the blind giant.” It seems a surprisingly apt epithet for creatures that see nothing of the coastal lives their underwater migrations have helped transform.