By Anna Valmero
DONSOL, SORSOGON – Hailed as one of the ultimate nature experiences, travelers from all over the world visit this once-sleepy town to tick off swimming with these gentle giants on their bucket list.
Back in the 1990s, Donsol used to be a fifth-class municipality whose residents derive their income from fishing and farming. Fishermen would usually shoo away the butandings or whale sharks ((Rhincodon typus) that bump into their boats and even considered them as pests because they drive away the smaller fish they intend to catch.
It was around 1998 when the locals were introduced to community-based ecotourism and the important role of the butandings as nature’s barometers of ocean health.
Much like the canary in a coal mine, the presence of butandings indicate that seas can support life or not, said Raul Burce, WWF-Philippines whale shark project manager.
The whale shark is a unique sea creature that can grow up to 20 meters long and weigh 34 tons—making it the biggest fish and living shark in the world.
Despite its enormous size, they are dubbed gentle giants because they do not harm people and only feed on microscopic planktons that bloom during hot summer months between December to May.
Like other animals, whale sharks rely on food for their migration patterns and the presence of planktons in Donsol Bay is the reason they are in the area.
Funded by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Butanding Ecotourism Development Project was implemented in 2008, the same year the Fisheries Administrative Order 193 (FAO 193) was enacted.
Some 28 fisher folks, including Allan Amanse, were trained by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF Philippines) in 1998 to become Butanding Interaction Officers (BIOs) and guide tourists to swim with the butandings.
To become a certified BIO, one must be a skilled swimmer and a resident of Donsol. To date, there are 40 certified BIOs who take turns to man the 30 trips scheduled daily for butanding interaction, according to Allan Amanse, founder of the BIO Association in Donsol.
Compared to fishing, BIOs can earn better at P550 for every three-hour trip of guided whale watching. During the peak season, the 30 trips are doubled to accommodate the influx of guests, thus BIOs can earn at least a thousand pesos.
Instead of spending days out into the sea, BIOs can get a second job and spend more time with their family, says Allan, who also sidelines as a carpenter, tour operator and singer-guitarist for occasions.
He adds that aside from the family of the BIOs, three other families earn from each butanding watching trip – including the families of the boat captain, machinist and “spotter”, who signals the sighting of the butanding when it surfaces to feed.
Overall, a guided trip for six passengers costs P3,500 – divided among the three. The cost includes the P100 contribution to the revolving fund of the BIO Association and the five-percent tax paid to the local government.
Allan admits he went and stayed abroad for work but ended up coming back to his hometown because of his love for the butandings.
“I have earned more money working abroad but I came back because of the butandings. Letting other people share that experience is the best job in the world for me,” he says.
With over a decade of experience under his belt, Allan is also resource speaker in BIO training sessions for towns that are beginning to establish butanding ecotourism projects. He highlights the responsibility of BIOs to guide guests on proper whale shark interaction and to prevent them from touching the butandings.
At the start of every trip, he explains to guests that an interaction with the butandings may or may not happen because the butandings are observed in the wild and not in zoos.
“Tourists are only guests in the marine habitat, the home of the whale sharks and so, we cannot always guarantee an interaction. This is the difference of ecotourism to mass tourism wherein you have the animals taken out of their natural home,” he tells our group as we were setting out to sea.
“For conservation efforts to become sustainable like that of Donsol, it must give the local communities livelihood and inculcate in them a sense of accountability to care for the environment and wildlife,” says WWF Philippines chief executive Lory Tan.
Efforts to protect Donsol’s gentle giants show how ecotourism is “transformational” in terms of changing the attitude of locals toward the butandings and their environment.
Locals have also started reforesting the mangrove areas in Donsol bay, which also created another revenue stream for firefly watching trips at night.
“The butandings go to Donsol between December and May because of the plankton, their main food. Now, the butandings attract tourists to Donsol, which provides better income for the people. It makes sense for the community to care for these gentle giants because it is a win-win situation,” said Tan.
In a span of just a decade, Donsol has become the butanding capital of the world with 258 individual butandings identified via photo-identification, according to WWF-Philippines communications manager Gregg Yan.
Aside from the massive number of butandings recorded in the area, the resident and migratory butandings of Donsol swim just a kilometer away from the shore, which makes the giants unique from those seen in Australia and the coast of Zanzibar in Tanzania.
(Butanding photo by WWF Philippines wildlife photographer Jurgen Freund)
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