‘Whale’ see what we can do

A municipality in Sorsogon serves its bragging rights for having the largest whale sharks in the Philippines – a home for biodiversity, eco-tourism, and sustainability all at one spot. 

Donsol shelters whale sharks, locally known as ‘butanding’ in its thriving waters rich in consumable food by these large sharks.

During its peak season, at around the months of December to May every year, consecutive amounts of sightings and encounters are recorded as proof that these creatures are still in the municipal waters of Donsol despite the restrictions caused for the past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now that the restrictions have eased and the eco-tourism is slowly sprouting back to normal, the local government of Donsol officially launches its comeback for its renowned Butanding Festival – a rich celebration and thanksgiving for whale sharks that brings pride and prosperity to Donsolanons.

Making Donsol the whale shark capital of PH

As part of the opening program of the festival last April 26, Sorsogon 1st District Congresswoman Dette Escudero announced that she will file a bill to make Donsol the official whale shark capital of the Philippines.

This serves as a tribute for the efforts made by the municipality to appreciate and conserve these animals as part of their community’s eagerness in terms of preservation and tourism. 

“Natuwa ako kasi meron na nga tayong kasama nga dito sa turismo sa Donsol, especially the butanding. Ito po talaga, ang hindrance sa amin – kung paano totally marecognize ng buong Pilipinas and at the same time, the world,” Donsol Mayor Ted De Guzman said in an interview with BicoldotPH.

The efforts of making Donsol one of the most known tourist spots for whale shark interactions are contributed by the local communities and their endeavors to make this tourism factor into a hand-made connection between the environmental enthusiasts and marine life. 

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Quadripartite commitment

Along with the opening program and inspirational speeches laid by several government officials of Sorsogon, a quadripartite agreement is also signed as a binding movement to conserve and protect the whale sharks along with promoting sustainable tourism.

According to Donsol Mayor De Guzman, this quadripartite commitment is signed as part of strengthening the connections not just between the government of Sorsogon, but also to their partner non-government office – the World Wide Fund (WWF) for Nature.

“An pinakang importance sani sa residents didi na maprotehiran an satuyang kadagatan, an samuyang mga residente tanganing maging sustainable an samuyang mga whale sharks. An ekonomiya namo, ma-boost ninda through this conservation of marine waters, municipal waters,” Mayor De Guzman added.

Trans: “The importance of this to the residents is that, it helps us protect our waters and to make it sustainable to the whale sharks. Our economy will boost through this conservation of marine waters, municipal waters.”

For the LGU of Donsol, it is a great start for them that there are already involved partners that could also assist them in supplementing the needs and promoting eco-tourism through this initiative. 

“Kasi ngayon, meron nang magi-support sa amin – iyong province. Mabibigyan and maiincrease na ang aming pondo para madevelop ang aming tourism industry dito sa aming bayan. Pangalawa, meron na po kaming katulong na mga ahensya para mapalago namin itong turismo sa aming bayan.”

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Fewer whale shark sightings in peak months

As the tourism industry was previously put into halt by the pandemic, whale shark interactions are also lessened and gradually stopped due to the decrease of tourists – now, the comeback of the festival opens great opportunities to reopen these sightings. 

Hence, the effects of climate change are foreseen as one of the reasons why Donsol’s whale shark sightings are getting less and less each year, and this year the rising heat index has added up to it. 

“If you’re asking about the impact of the climate change in general into our oceans, of course it has many impacts, so ‘yung warming, and also the changes na nadudulot ng warming na yun sa acidification and then ‘yung palit ng mga organisms that rely on a particular micro-organisms din,” Katherine Custodio, executive director of WWF Philippines said in an interview with BicoldotPH. 

During the month of December last 2022, the increase of whale shark sightings in Donsol have been recorded, compared to the previous months this year. 

“Wala pang recommendation, this is still part of the season, we are still monitoring the numbers and there’s still are sightings that are happening. So, as of now, the season stays the same it is – few of a data point to conclude,” Custodio added, pertaining to the comparison of December and peak season sightings. 

Aside from this, Custodio also emphasized the need to constantly monitor the water quality in Donsol and observe whether it will give off drastic changes to the whale sharks in the surrounding waters. 

“Kasi hindi lang naman porket may incident na maraming nagpunta nung December na whale shark eh papalitan na natin ‘yung season, so this has to be studied in a scientific way and then ‘yung magiging policy recommendation based on science,” Custodio explained.

Aside from water quality, the weather condition according to Mayor De Guzman, is also a factor that affects whale shark sightings – this is why the Municipal Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office (MDRRMO) has enhanced their equipment for keeping constant track of the weather. 

“Talagang kung maganda, very normal ang panahon, talagang dami na nila dito. Pero kung talagang medyo rough ang dagat, talagang ‘di mo makikita sila pero nanjan lang sila sa lugar,” Mayor De Guzman added.

As these problems continue to arise, the affected marine biodiversity is slowly appearing to be visible to everyone, including Miao Wang, a Chinese designer and diver that has already visited Donsol several times for whale shark interaction.

“When I was diving, I can see the decline of the environment where you’re supposed to see a lot of sharks, they are no longer that many numbers. So, you do see the impact of human action on the ocean and on the animal that I love so much,” she said.

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Sustainable eco-tourism

Despite these changes, there are particular positive factors that initially brings impact to the local communities around the area – and that is having sustainable eco-tourism for all. 

Wang shares in an interview that compared to other diving areas she visited, Donsol is on a different level. 

“One of the things I’m also exploring is work more closely with sustainable eco-tourism as a way to support local communities. I think the most special thing about swimming with sharks in Donsol, the whole interaction experience is it tell a very complete story, how you swim with the sharks, the scientific sight of it, like what that shark is all about, but also what sustainable tourism and coming here to swim with sharks,” she added.

For her, the way to preserve these fishes starts with preserving culture and the people in the local community.

“It’s to empower the local people to do what they think is the right thing to do what’s the best for the ocean.” | via Danica Roselyn Lim, Aireen Perol-Jaymalin

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Photo by WWF
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