Like many divers, I have been on the trail of whale sharks. From Malapascua to Ticao Island, Apo Reef (Occidental Mindoro) and Sogod Bay, I took Travel Dive Connect where there was the possibility of a whale shark encounter in the wild. I had imagined such encounter to be one of those gasp-inducing wow moments. And, true enough, it was.
Donsol 2017 – which I now call “my best dive trip, so far” – was my lucky turn, a first encounter with whale sharks that’s also a bitter-sweet glimpse of an idyllic municipality built around ecotourism.
Donsol, Sorsogon, dubbed as a “prime example of whale shark ecotourism,” is the perfect getaway for people who dream of whale shark encounters in the wild. You don’t need to be a diver to swim with one. Just make sure you’re brave enough to jump into the water when your BIO (Butanding Interaction Officer) tells you to. Take your snorkel, mask, fins, and GoPro along; it’s going to be amazing!
Donsol is also a tourism-dependent municipality being swept by change. From commercial challenges brought by a shift in tourist preferences to climate change, some strains are apparent.
Kuya Omar and the Butandings
Omar Nepumuceno, one of the longest-serving BIO in the area, is passionate about whale sharks and his work. A whale shark tour boat with him as guide is a special one. He does more than the regular spiel, entertaining his guests with whale shark tidbits and demos (yes, he has miniature whale sharks and a whale shark tooth) as the boat makes its way along Donsol Bay. Even during our happy-hour drinking sessions, he would regale us with his butanding stories and how working as BIO changed his life. You feel his gratefulness and love.
However, like a few others I’ve talked to during this trip, he has been feeling a bit frustrated. Whale shark encounters during the previous weeks were scarce. The last they saw whale sharks was a couple of days before I arrived. And, on the day I joined a tour, only 2 boats were able to interact with that day’s lone whale shark. I was on the third boat – we didn’t make it in time.
We discussed what might be happening as he downed shots of his favorite Empe Light. “I really don’t know. The water might be too cold right now and there is no food… There’s nothing I can do.” He talked about leaving, and listed opportunities he passed up in the past. He said that, like others, his income has decreased in recent whale shark seasons.
Omar vented a little about some Filipinos too. He noticed a decline in local tourists and attributed this to the popularity of Oslob. “That’s what’s wrong with us,” he said. “We want the sure thing, regardless of the environmental cost.”
Whale Shark Ecotourism and Donsol
Since it was discovered as a whale shark haven in 1998, Donsol has moved up from fifth-class to become a first-class municipality. Central to this development is the long-standing cooperation between the local government and WWF-Philippines in the implementation of a holistic conservation program. Efforts range from whale shark photo-identification and tagging to community-based environmental education and livelihood programs.
Donsol’s “democratized” community-based whale shark ecotourism has been a success, generating more than Php35 million in yearly revenue, as of 2005. Kuya Omar is one of its beneficiaries. In past seasons, BIOs have collectively logged more than Php3 million in yearly income, outside of tips. Omar uses his share to maintain a good home and take care of his family. He has bought essentials, like the motorbike he uses daily.
Alan Amanse, another long-serving BIO, said: “I sent my four children to college.” Then, there’s Jasmine Yanson, mother of seven and boatman’s wife, who said: “Tourism gave us a big boost…. We were able to buy an outrigger boat and household appliances – plus my children were able to finish school.”
Raul Burce, WWF-Philippines Donsol Project Manager, explained further: “The economic benefits of embracing conservation cannot be denied…. A simple decision to protect whale sharks has greatly improved Donsolano lives. This is the local economy that whale sharks built.”
First Time In Donsol
As a first-time visitor, I got a good sense of what they all claimed. Life is good in Donsol – for everyone.
Travelers get a laid-back easy tourist experience. There are accommodation options for a range of budgets. Transactions are clear-cut and fair, from bike rides to whale shark tours. You don’t feel like you get hustled into anything.
Everything is conveniently organized too. Like, if you wanted to swim with whale sharks, you go to the Whale Shark Center at set times (7AM, 11AM and 2PM) to book a tour. Local officials assign the boat, boatman and BIO. They even get other travelers on your boat so you don’t pay the whole fare (Php 3,500 per boat, maximum of 6 people). The same goes for the firefly cruise, as well as day trips to nearby falls and beaches.
At night, you can go into town for some karaoke or cheaper eats. Or, head to the popular Barracuda for drinks and dancing. I chose to stay at my resort to take advantage of their happy hour. Kuya Omar brought his girlfriend and tubs of pulutan a little later in the evening for our kwentuhan.
The couple seemed – to me, at least – to embody the comfortable life afforded by ecotourism. They both have dependents they are able to support. They can travel in and out of the province when necessary. Both work in tourism but without the competitiveness (or desperation) I sometimes see in their counterparts in other regions. They are giving to visitors and their peers.
Kuya Omar, in particular, had been very generous. It wasn’t just the food he cooked and brought to us; nor the time he took to talk to me and see that I was alright. He so wanted our group to see a whale shark that our boat cruised Donsol Bay almost two hours longer. He showed his appreciation to the boatmen by giving them more than half of his BIO fee. When I tried to add to his fee, he refused and said he’d be insulted if I insist on tipping him.
What Happens When Circumstances Change?
For someone who vented nightly about wanting to leave because of diminished incomes, Kuya Omar’s actions were contrary. I teased: “Is it really about your earnings?” That’s when he revealed a deep-seated anxiety over changing circumstances, something that possibly began a couple of whale shark seasons ago.
According to WWF-Philippines, there was a decline in the number of whale sharks that visited Donsol in recent years. This translated to just one or two whale shark sightings on lucky days, over stretches when there were zero sightings. Tourist arrivals also reflected this trend, with decreases by as much as 35% annually.
BIO Elmer Quizon said: “There was a time when we had a 90% to 95% interaction rate. When our boats returned to shore, visitors were ecstatic to share stories about their six or more whale shark sightings. The last two years were difficult – there were days without any sightings at all.”
While some said that whale sharks were back, my Donsol experience reflected the innate unpredictability of whale shark tourism, especially when you are trying to uphold sustainable practices.
Whale sharks are migratory by nature, and go through long-term migration paths. They come to Donsol mainly because its waters are seasonally rich in planktons, the butanding’s main food, as well as fish eggs and small fish. The discharges of municipality’s river are food for these planktons.
Climate change, as well as contrarian whale shark tourism practices elsewhere, indirectly affects their migration patterns.
According to WWF-Philippines’ Burce: “Though climate change has no direct impact on whale sharks as it has on coral reefs and oceanic acidity levels, it alters sea temperatures which affect the food sources of apex predators like whale sharks.”
The practices in Oslob, Cebu may also be indirectly blamed for the altered migration path towards Donsol. The Cebu municipality’s whale shark feeding is said to have changed the whale shark’s wandering ways. Because humans have intervened, making food available year-round for whale sharks, they have stayed longer than Oslob’s natural whale shark season of just 60 days. The longest-staying whale shark as of 2013, named Mr. Bean, was in the area for more than a year.
This kind of human intervention, on top of documented violations of Republic Act 9147 protecting whale sharks from harassment, not only affects whale shark tourism elsewhere. It also has negative effects on whale sharks, in terms of their food diversity, nutrition, breeding cycles, behavior and survival.
And thus, my Donsol 2017 visit is bitter-sweet. I was one of the lucky ones as I had the option to dive when interactions via whale shark tours were unsuccessful. I came back ecstatic, vowing to come back to Donsol next season. Others, however, had their hopes dashed by limitations in budget and vacation days, and nature’s unpredictability.
There are other reasons to visit Donsol, of course. As changing patterns continue to affect the municipality’s tourism industry, the community has diversified their tourism offerings. AA Yaptinchay, DVM, MSc and Director of Marine Wildlife Watch of the Philippines, said: “It is good that whale shark tourism is seasonal in Donsol; the community does not need to rely on it 100%. They have diversified with other tourism offerings such as island hopping, agri-tourismo, SCUBA diving etc. As (in) all tourism destinations, change is expected. They would have to evolve with the times.”
But, what if you really wanted to see a whale shark? This is a real dilemma faced by travelers, especially when you need to consider your budget and time. That’s when a conscious choice has to be made.
According to Yaptinchay: “Whale shark interaction in their natural state is a wonderful experience. Tourism provides this opportunity. But if not done well, tourism could also be a threat to these protected endangered animals. That is why it has to be done responsibly (follow guidelines) and managed well (sustainability). The former is more up to us, including choosing the sustainable sites like Donsol, Puerto Princesa, and Sogod Bay…. We have no control of media and public interest. We can just inform them of the truth and impacts and conservation issues for them to make the right choice.”
I write my piece with this thought in mind. I am still on the trail of whale sharks. My Donsol experience has affirmed my fascination with these majestic sea creatures. But, like many, I am not immune to time and budget constraints. I told AA during our chat that I was thinking of visiting Oslob in the near future. I am now rethinking my plans.
Whale shark tourism is a lucrative industry. Just look at Donsol, and its predecessor Ningaloo Coast, Western Australia. And now, look at Oslob, which is currently monopolizing the tourism limelight at the cost of long-term repercussions on the very creature it depends on. If my travel budget and words were votes, I would cast them wisely and support places that put whale shark conservation first.
Whale Sharks of Donsol March 1 to 15, 2008
The Case of Donsol’s Disappearing Butanding. Rouchelle R. Dinglasan. April 26, 2013.
Why We Do Not Swim With Whale Sharks In Oslob. February 11, 2015.
Donsol, The Town Whale Sharks Built.. November 16, 2012.
Whale Sharks Back in Donsol. Sophia Dedace. January 12, 2016.
Online interview with AA Yaptinchay, DVM, MSc – Director
Marine Wildlife Watch of the Philippines