For years, Donsol in the Philippine province of Sorsogon has been identified as a whale shark hotspot – hosting one of the largest aggregations of whale sharks on Earth. Other large aggregations include Ningaloo Reef in Australia, Mexico, and Mozambique.
Through continued partnership with the Donsol local government and key tourism stakeholders, top environmental solutions provider World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF-Philippines) implements a Community-based Whale Shark Ecotourism Program to sustainably manage whale shark interactions. The initiative also aims to generate a better understanding of the country’s migratory and resident whale shark population.
Donsol, Sleepy Town No More
Fifteen years ago, WWF-Philippines partnered with Donsol and other tourism stakeholders to develop the Community-based Whale Shark Ecotourism Program and establish guidelines for whale shark interactions in the area.
Taking on a science-based approach, WWF-Philippines’ reserchers identify individual whale sharks by capturing images of their unique spot patterns. The photos are uploaded onto a global database for cataloguing. Researchers and experts also attached satellite and sonar tags on whale sharks to track their movements and migration patterns.
The program has generated jobs for locals – many of whom are now tour guides, Butanding Interaction Officers, boat crew members, captains, homestay owners, resort staff and associated service providers.
With its economy continuously being fueled by the butanding, Donsol has risen from a fifth-class to a first-class municipality.
Where Have The Whale Sharks Gone?
Whale sharks congregate in Donsol Bay because of the large concentrations of plankton that feed on the nutrients discharged by the town’s rivers. The gentle giants can usually be seen from December to May, with sightings peaking between February and May when plankton levels are highest. Interaction rates can reach about 90% to 95%, with six or more whale shark sightings per trip.
However, whale shark numbers plummeted over the past two seasons. There were stretches when Butanding Interaction Officersonly saw one to two whale sharks per week. In 2013, the maximum number of whale shark sightings per day was just two, rising to four the following year.
Tourist arrivals echoed this slump. In 2013, there were 17,300 tourist visits recorded – a decline of 35% from the prior season. In 2014, the numbers slumped further to 13,000 – a 25% decline.
WWF-Philippines’ sonar arrays revealed the presence of whale sharks and plankton in the deeper portions of Donsol Bay, where water is colder. The change in sea temperatures affected the food sources of apex predators like whale sharks.
With ecotourism as the town’s primary lifeblood, Donsol aimed to improve revenue and revive slumping visitor arrivals by leveraging other activities like firefly watching plus tours to nearby isles like pristine Ticao Island.
After enjoying a steady stream of tourists for over two decades, Donsol learned to diversify its tourism menu and the value of not placing all its eggs in one basket.
The Gentle Giants Are Back
Today, WWF-Philippines’ data validates the return of the butanding to Donsol’s waters.
A total of 79 individuals were identified throughout the 2015 season. This is an astounding 154% increase from the 31 individuals identified throughout the 2014 season.
For the months of March and April this year, the maximum number of sightings per day stood at 10 individuals. This is a huge jump from the maximum of four for the same two months in 2014.
WWF-Philippines is committed to work harder to ensure that Donsol Bay and the ecosystems surrounding it are healthy, so that its waters remain a viable feeding ground and habitat for the whale sharks. To understand the phenomenon of the Gentle Giants’ return, the organization is set to conduct water quality analysis and plankton surveys in Donsol Bay.
Today, the Donsol Visitor Center is humming with activity. Local and foreign visitors pack the orientation room to listen to guidelines on proper whale shark interaction procedures. The hubbub provides high hopes that whale shark ecotourism will remain as a prime socioeconomic driver for the town, without luring the sea’s gentle giants with bait and daily rations of krill.
Anchored on the three principles of sustainable ecotourism – natural asset protection, direct community benefit, plus enhanced visitor experience – Donsol’s community-based whale shark ecotourism program stands as one of the best sustainable wildlife interaction offerings in Southeast Asia.
To support WWF-Philippines on-going Whale Shark Research and the Community-based Whale Shark Ecotourism Program, contact:
4th Floor JBD Plaza #65 Mindanao Avenue
Barangay Bagong Pag-asa
Quezon City 1105 Philippines
Tel:+632 920 79 23/26//31
Fax:+632 426 3927
Partners in Conservation
Local Government of Donsol
Department of Tourism
Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR)
Public Sector Partners
United States Agency for International Development (USAID)
United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)
Banco de Oro Unibank, Inc.
Dr. Brent Stewart, Hubbs-Sea World Research Institute
First Resource Management and Securities
Fluor Daniel Philippines
NHK / Japan Underwater Film Company
The Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation Limited
Wolcott Henry Foundation
Ms. Vivian Yuchengco