We know that traveling allows us to see the world beyond our comfort zones. We come home from most of our travels with renewed faith in ourselves and a changed perspective in life. More often than not, that shift in our understanding of the world comes from meeting people in our travels, most of whom are local people who warmly welcome us into their lives.
It’s time to meet and honor more Local Juanders who make our travels easy and exciting. For our first feature on them, I want you to meet Omar Nepomuceno, a Butanding Interaction Officer (BIO) from Donsol who takes his job to his heart. Being one of the very first tour guides in Donsol, Omar has a wealth of experience in dealing with tourists, but more so, a deeper understanding that his job entails not just tourist-satisfaction. Ensuring the protection of the whale sharks, locally known as butandings, is something that Omar strongly feels about, and it shows in the kind of work that he delivers all the time.
Omar is one of the original 28 Butanding Interaction Officers who were trained by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in 1998 at the height of whale shark discovery in Donsol. He has just gotten home from a previous work in Manila and found himself on the boat with foreign travelers one April afternoon. He recalls that since the boatmen had a hard time talking with foreigners, they would drag him to go with them to talk with the guests. It became his job to entertain them, informing them of other places in Donsol that might be of interest to them.
He was the first to explore the potential of river cruising and firefly watching in Donsol, together with other environmental groups and individuals who did the mapping for Donsol’s early tourism plan. Omar is happy now that Donsol is known around the globe as the Whale Shark Capital of the World and takes pride in the realization that a lot of his townmates have actually benefited from it.
His work as a BIO has taken him around the Philippines already. For instance, he trained the fishermen in Pamilacan Island in Bohol (popular for whale shark hunting in the 90s) on how to interact with the whale sharks and have engaged them in understanding that the entire community benefits from keeping the whale sharks alive than poaching them.
“I use our community here in Donsol as an example in making them understand that it is always better to ensure the protection of the whale sharks and that proper tourism allows people in the community to further benefit from protecting them. A family of six can easily benefit from whale shark hunting, but for how long? For what cost? Whereas, a mother gets to work as a housekeeper, a tricycle driver earns more from transporting tourists back and forth, a fisherman enjoys additional income as spotters and guides – these things, when add up, mean a lot to a community,” Omar says in Filipino.
This is also the same line that he uses to explain to his guests why Donsol is forever grateful for the presence of whale sharks in its water. And why he sees to it that all of his guests on-board strictly follow the regulations of interacting with the whale sharks. When he has a guest who tries or touches the whale shark, he sends him back to the Tourism Center, short from banning him from interacting with the whale shark again. He says he has to do it. Someone has to do it, especially now when most of the BIOs and the Tourism Center have become lax already.
When you see Omar work as as BIO, you understand the kind of dedication that he puts into his job. He could easily tell, just by observing the behavior of his guests, how their interaction for the day is going to turn out. He takes his guests’ masks when he notices that they are not clear and clean these for them. He provides extra guidance to those whom he feels need further assistance. And then, he engages you with his self-deprecating humor (“I don’t need a vest anymore, this is my inflatable!” – referring to his big tummy). And he is the only BIO out there who provides his guests with lessons on whale shark anatomy with the help of a wooden sculpture of it.
He is cool like that. So when you happen to be in Donsol anytime soon, consider yourself to be extra lucky when he happens to be your BIO. Here’s a Local Juander’s take on Donsol.
Guests should not leave Donsol without: Seeing or swimming with a whale shark and a deeper appreciation for their existence on earth.
When in Donsol: Eat our local delicacy, kinunot (fish meat, malunggay, chilies, and coconut milk). Kawnkita Restaurant at Amor Farm Beach Resort makes a really mean kinunot.Say: Gusto ko makailing ning butanding (I want to see a whale shark)! One thing that they should know about Donsol: The presence of whale sharks and fireflies in our town says a lot about our healthy environment. Let’s do our part in protecting our environment. The best thing about my job: Meeting different people and helping protect the whale shark.
- All photographs taken on February 2012 with a Canon 550d