I have been swimming with Donsol’s whale sharks every year for fourteen years now and when I think of another generation which might not be able to experience the wonderful feeling I get from swimming with these gentle giants, my heart secretly aches.
As far as I can remember, this is the first time that something like this has happened since the town of Donsol started to offer whale shark tours in 1998. For some unknown reasons, whale shark sightings are considerably very low this year. There are days when no single shark is seen, sometimes in a span of ten days. This has become mostly perplexing to the locals and frustrating to many tourists, some of whom traveled halfway around the world just to experience what Lonely Planet lauds as the “quintessential Philippine underwater adventure.”
I was home last week and felt that it was a terrible time for Donsol. The place, which considers Holy Week as its super peak season, was surprisingly not abuzz with tourists. I am also disturbed by this development, not just because our family owns Amor Farm Beach Resort and ours is a business that relies on tourism and the abundance of the whale sharks in the area, but because I sense that something is wrong with the picture.
Whale sharks used to be aplenty in Donsol at this time of the year. What’s happening? What gives?
I don’t have the answer to this phenomenon but the Four Laws of Ecology remind me that, yes, everything is connected to everything else, everything must go somewhere, that nature knows best, and there is no such thing as a free lunch. I feel that Donsol is at that challenging point where it’s reminded of these laws of ecology.
For so many years now, and studies will be able to back this, whale sharks annually frequent the waters of Donsol as early as December and as late as June. Donsol was also found to be a feeding ground of these creatures, and is possibly a breeding ground as well. It’s actually safe to assume that whale sharks consider Donsol as their habitat. In fact, the small fishing town which “originally” took pride in conserving the whale sharks through its tours boldly claims it is the whale shark capital of the world.
I said originally because that does not seem to be the case in Donsol anymore – at least on the side of the local government and the tourism office which are in charge of the tours. Government officials have forgotten that the reason why Donsol has this tourism activity going on was to protect and conserve the whale sharks from poachers. By allowing local fishermen to engage in tours so they will have to earn from it, killing these whale sharks, which fins command a high price in the market, will be stopped.
Ecotourism was the buzz word when Donsol became popular in 1998. I don’t think most people back in Donsol ever consider ecotourism now.
The fact that the tourist centre continues to send 30 boats to go on the whale shark tour at a time (there are three batches of tours every day, you can almost expect at least 90 trips made on a busy day) even when there’s only one visible whale shark in the area is a testament to how it has become a money-making venture already. Some tourists have even called it a “scam.”
One tourist, who was supposed to stay in Donsol for three nights, checked out as soon as he was finished with the whale shark tour last Thursday. He wrote a letter, detailing how the entire tour has become a torture to everyone participating in the tour, but most especially to the whale sharks who are not used to the sound of at least 30 propeller boats scouring the sea for them, more so to the sight of at least 120 human beings trying to glide along one whale shark, in a span of three hours. He sees Donsol as a whale shark Disneyland which shows no compassion towards the gentle giants.
I don’t blame him for that. In fact when I have the chance to talk to our guests at the resort and explain to them the history of the town’s whale shark tours, they are surprised to know that conservation actually plays a part in the Donsol experience. Most of them honestly think the tours are just an income-generating scheme.
It is so easy on the part of the tourism office , and every stake holder for that matter, to claim that climate change might have an effect on the whale sharks and that whale sharks are wild animals anyway, sighting is almost always not guaranteed. It is so much easier to put the blame on the environment without even considering that our human actions, the frequent tours and the overflowing number of tourists wanting to swim with the whale sharks, could have possibly put pressures on the whale sharks. The argument that they are wild animals should, in the first place, caution the people of Donsol about protecting them from any form of hazards that could potentially threaten their existence.
Of course, a scientific study should be done to truly know where the whale sharks are at this time of the year, but I am certain there is some truthfulness to the Four Laws of Ecology. Everything is connected to everything else and the disappearance of the whale sharks in Donsol could be a result of the uncontrolled tours in the area. Also, what Donsol is experiencing now reflects the old adage that there is no such thing as a free lunch. The Butanding Festival alone, which reeks of corruption and which promotes bikini contests and wacky marathons in lieu of the environmental quiz bees that aim to engage the youth in whale shark conservation, is evident Donsol pays no attention to whale shark protection.
I used to take pride in promoting Donsol among my friends and readers. I invite them to see Donsol and swim with the whale sharks because in all honesty, the experience of swimming with a ginormous creature that gently glides along you is a humbling and liberating experience that I think everyone should experience in this lifetime. But until Donsol gets its act together, I shall refrain from doing so.
- Photo courtesy of D. Whitehead. Not taken in Donsol.