Season begins early for Donsol’s whale sharks

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Whaleshark "Butanding" in Donsol, Sorsogon. DOT Photo
Whaleshark “Butanding” in Donsol, Sorsogon. Photo courtesy of Dept. of Tourism

MANILA, 7Dec2013 (PNA) – “For two years now, whale shark sightings in Donsol, Sorsogon 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,” said Donsol boat association president Lambert Avisado. “It seems that our Butandingshave 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 dictated the success and failure of tourism.

“We saw this drop in numbers once before – about 12 or 13 years ago,” shared Butanding Interaction Officer association president Joel Briones. “Since there were few whale sharks that year, tourist numbers plummeted. Since early November however, we have recorded almost dailysightings. 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.

“Whale sharks congregate in Donsol because of all the food,” explained World Wide Fund for Nature (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 already identified 380 whale sharks in Donsol.

“The habits of migratory pelagic creatures like whale sharks are naturally dynamic and hard to predict,” noted 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.”

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 programs,” said 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 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 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 March 30, 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 lessons on Donsol, WWF partnered with Banco de Oro Unibank 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,” said 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.” (PNA)

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