By Anna Valmero
DONSOL, SORSOGON—The successful story of Donsol's butanding or whale shark (Rhincodon typus) conservation efforts talks about shared responsibility for the environment.
The very mention of Donsol's name today conjures images of the gentle giants swimming near the water surface as they forage for food on a hot summer day.
Hailed as one of the the ultimate swimming experiences in the country, travelers from all over the world would go here to tick off swimming with the butandings on their bucket list.
Back in the 1990s, Donsol used to be a sleepy fifth-class municipality deriving its income from fishing and farming. Fisher folks would usually shoo away the swimming giants that bump into their boats and even considered them as pests for driving 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.
The presence of butandings indicate that seas can support life, 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 summer.
Like other animals, whale sharks rely on food for their migration patterns and the presence of planktons in Donsol Bay is the reason why they are in the area.
Funded by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Butanding Ecotourism Development Project was implemented in 2008, the year when 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 town, a guideline that would ensure jobs for the locals. To date, there are 40 certified BIOs who take turns to man the 30 trips scheduled daily for butanding interaction, said Amanse, founder and two-term persident of the BIO Association for the past decade.
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 P1,100, explained Amanse.
Instead of spending days out into the sea, local BIOs can get a second job and spend more time with their family, said Amanse, who sidelines as a carpenter, tour operator and singer-guitarist for occasions.
Amanse added that aside from the family of the BIOs, three other families earn from each butanding watching trip. These includes 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. This is divided among the BIO, the spotter of the butanding, the boat captain and the machinist. The cost includes the P100 contribution to the revolving fund of the BIO Association and the five-percent tax paid to the local government.
Amanse said he went abroad for two years in search of greener pastures but he came back to his hometown because of his love for the butandings.
“I have earned more money working abroad in mid-2000 but I came back because of the butandings. Letting other people share that experience is the best job in the world for me,” said Amanse,who is dubbed as the country's most experienced BIO.
With over a decade of experience under his belt, Amanse is also a resource speaker in BIO training sessions for towns that are beginning to establish butanding ecotourism projects. He said he highlights the responsibility of BIOs to guide guests on proper whale shark interaction by watching and not touching the butandings.
At the start of every trip, Amanse 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,” explained Amanse to our group.
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,” said WWF Philippines chief executive Lory Tan.
The ecotourism project to protect Donsol's gentle giants, said Tan, show how ecotourism is “transformational” in terms of changing the local communities attitude toward the butandings and their environmentLocals have 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. 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 2011 alone, a total of 25, 053 tourists flocked to the area—a significant increase from 867 visitors in 2002—to witness the butandings swim, the all time record high since the town accepted tourists for whale shark interaction.
For this year, the local government expects tourists to hit 30,000. For January this year, some 2,574 tourists visited the area, almost double from 1,393 visitors in January of last year, according to data from the local tourism board.
For its part, the local tourism board controls the number of boats and tourists who can join the butanding interaction activities. This is to prevent overcrowding of tourists in the bay of Donsol.
In a span of just a decade, Donsol has become the butanding capital of the world with 358 individual butandings identified via photo-identification, according to WWF-Philippines communications manager Gregg Yan.
Sightings of butandings or the number of surfacing giants seen by guests during trips for interaction average from five to ten daily.
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.
(Photo by wildlife photographer Jurgen Freund)
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