By Danny O. Calleja
DONSOL, Sorsogon (06-April-2012/PNA) – Local advocates are banking on the success story of this coastal town’s whale shark conservation efforts in offering to other local government units (LGUs) help towards the proper treatment of the “gentle giants of the sea” that brought fame to this once lowly municipality in the ecotourism world.
“Perhaps, other LGUs that are beginning to establish butanding ecotourism projects need to learn from our over 14 years of experience in the proper handling of this endangered marine treasure for them to be successful also,” Allan Amanse, the butanding (local name for whale shark) interaction officer here said over the week.
He was referring to a widely publicized photograph of a stranded butanding in Cebu taken while the animal was surrounded by villagers along the coastline, one of them riding on its back that shows a complete absence of information on how to handle this marine giant, the biggest in the world.
Amanse heads the group that oversee here the town government’s butanding conservation efforts by firmly enforcing its Whale Shark Code of Conduct (WSCC) formulated to ensure the protection of whale sharks as well as the safety of people, mostly tourists fascinated by having close underwater encounters with them.
He, along with about 30 other local fisher folks was trained by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF Philippines) way back in 1998 to become Butanding Interaction Officers (BIOs) tasked to guide tourists in swimming with the butandings.
To become a certified BIO that offers a stable job here, Amanse said one must be a skilled swimmer and a resident of the municipality.
Before its ecotourism industry was born in the late 1998, this town used to be a drowsy fifth-class fishing and farming municipality. Today, it is already classified as first class with most revenues derived from the multi-million peso butanding tourism trade.
“I can still recall the old time when our fishermen would shoo away the swimming giants that bump into their boats and even considered them as pests for scaring away smaller fishes they intend to catch,” Amanse said.
There were even reported incidents of butanding slaughtering here during those days and it was in 1998 when the locals were introduced to community-based ecotourism and the important role of the butandings as nature’s barometers of ocean health which totally reversed that attitude of the fisher folks against the sea giant, he said.
This town has since then become popular as the “Whale shark Capital of the World”.
“Now, we have the WSCC which is inspired by international policies and actual experiences here and apart from the ‘dos and don’ts’ in dealing with the whale sharks, the code also carries with it the Standard Operating Protocol (SOP) in responding to standing incidents of the endangered giant marine mammal and similar species.
The Protocol was put together during past conferences among representatives from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF)-Philippines, Fisheries Regional Emergency Stranding Response Team, Department of Tourism (DOT), Regional Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Management Council (RFARMC) and the municipal government.
According to Donsol Mayor Jerome Alcantara, “diving with whale sharks in their natural environment is a breathtaking and rewarding experience as this world’s biggest fish glides slowly but gracefully past, resplendent in its dappled skin, within touching distance and impassive to the presence of the onlooker.”
Thousands of divers from all over the world seek out this opportunity here annually and the newly formulated WSCC would guide them how for their own safety and that of the “gentle giants”, he said.
“While butandings are passive creatures, they can be agitated by any form of aggression such as being touched or chased that is why in the Code, these behaviors are strictly forbidden,” Alcantara said.
Inasmuch as it is a diver’s responsibility as anyone’s to ensure the survival of whale sharks for future generations, causing minimal disturbance to the sharks when approaching it by boat or when diving should also be observed according to the Code.
The WSCC also warns that although whale sharks are harmless, their sheer size makes it necessary for the divers to exercise caution around them especially at the tail end.
Among the other specific instructions of the WSCC are: swimmers or divers must not attempt to interfere with the natural activities of the shark like blocking it from its chosen direction of movement and “flash” photography should be used with discretion.
The use of dive scooters or any motorized propulsion aid with the contact zone of a whale shark is also prohibited while the maximum of swimmers in the water with a whale shark at any one time is limited to 10 persons.
Contact zone is defined by the WSCC as all water within 150 meters of any whale shark.
All vessel operators are also advised by the Code to take care within the contact zone to avoid physically impacting the whale sharks or scaring them away and only one vessel is allowed within the area at any one time to avoid overcrowding.
Vessels or their tenders may not approach within 30 meters of a whale shark and shall move at a slow speed of less than five knots within the contact zone, according to the WSCC.
These code of conduct, Amanse said, could also be adopted by other LGUs and “we, in Donsol, are very much willing to share our experiences to them”. (PNA)