Feature

The Town that Counts Whale Sharks

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Each year, tourists flock to the town of Donsol to swim with the whale sharks. But what happens when spotting these creatures becomes a game of chance?

Story by
Nina Unlay
Photography by
Videography by
Francisco Guerrero
Additional photography by

Francisco Guerrero

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Omar Nepomuceno is looking for the whale sharks, as he has been for over 20 years as an interaction officer. When I ask him what our odds are, he answers with, “Swertihan”—a game of luck.

I’ve come to see the whale sharks. There are less than 10,000 of them in the world, only observed a few months in the whole year (maybe three during a bad year, five in a lucky one). About 513 of these animals are in Donsol, a coastal town in the north of the Philippine islands—on record, the largest population of the endangered animal in Southeast Asia.

But “swertihan” is always Omar’s answer, regardless of the science or season. It was his answer even though the whale shark sightings in his hometown fell by nearly 70 percent in the short span of a year. As an interaction officer, another term for the guides who take tourists out to see the sharks, he is asked about the odds quite often.

“We don’t say fifty-fifty,” he lectured during our first meeting. “Let’s say… It depends on your luck. Doesn’t it sound nicer?”

On the motorized wooden boat, it doesn’t present as luck, but as labor: Omar uses one forearm to protect his eyes from the sun, the other to level his vision. He peers through the sliver of space in between like binoculars. This is how he finds the whale sharks, one small area of the Donsol bay at a time. The whites of his eyes have darkened over the years—likely from sun damage; he and the other interaction officers used to be provided yearly eye checkups, a practice that stopped over time.

The whale sharks’ silhouettes, dark blue shadows, can be seen when they are within three meters of the water’s surface. In more developed sites, like Australia’s Ningaloo Reef, technology alleviates the hard labor; planes are used to spot sharks from the sky. Here, the roof of a boat is the highest viewing point: A second spotter stands at the front. He’s fashioned a t-shirt into a mask, protecting his head from the heat and wind. Only his eyes remain uncovered.

Luck is the mistress of wildlife tourism—and there are few species as wily as the whale shark.

Omar sings as he works. He is almost a caricature of a tour guide, the sort with trivia, lessons, and jokes. They are often about how big he’s gotten over the years, his potbelly peeking out from under a uniform (a blue t-shirt with the word BIO for “Butanding Interaction Officer”) that is too small.

He always starts the trip with a joke: “Please don’t touch the whale shark or the only people who will be happy are your boat operators, because we will end the trip and go home.” And then a lesson: “Remember: the fault of one is the fault of all,” at which point the joke becomes an ominous lesson about Donsol.

Today, luck is not with us, hard as Omar tries. For the tourists onboard, having made the trip from Western Europe, there is little to do but pat on some sunblock.

“What would I do if we don’t find one?” one muses. “I would have to stay, wouldn’t I? Wouldn’t it be funny, if an animal extended my vacation?” Another one jokes. (She has yet to realize this isn’t a joke. She spends another two days waiting.)

Some tourists refuse to leave before finding a whale shark. They say it is a life-changing, existential experience; simply sizing them up in the water requires a recalibration of the mind. Whale sharks are essentially giant fish—the world’s biggest—growing up to 40 feet in size. “Bigger than a car! A bus!” is often the comparison.

On this particular day in February, a single shark comes and goes within the span of ten minutes. Eleven boats that were previously spotting, as we were, come swarming at the same time from all directions, desperate to provide a sighting for their waiting tourists. The shark is in the middle of this big circle of boats. It flees, diving deeper than three meters, farther than the eyes can see.

Omar is done singing for the day. He knows he shouldn’t apologize but does anyway. “I’m sorry” is the last thing he says before we get back on land. We make three trips out to sea, nearly ten hours of waiting, before he leaves without apologizing.

DONSOL’S UNRELIABLE SIGHTINGS

Last year, whale shark sightings in Donsol fell from 1,790 to 589, a drop by 68 percent. According to the records provided by WWF, the decline is a small slice of a highly unpredictable fluctuation in sightings, which the science has yet to explain. The real change began in 2012, when there were only 53 sightings in the entire year: an anomaly without explanation.

It started a steep decline in tourist arrivals, impacting the community’s then-steady stream of income. From roughly 30,000 annual tourist arrivals at its peak, it has dropped to by two-thirds.

“2018 was our lowest record for tourist arrivals. The season [for sightings] started in March, which is very late. It usually starts in November,” says Desiree Abetria, the municipality’s Tourism Officer. “This should be a good year because sightings started early, but we can’t say for certain.”

Photo by Francisco Guerrero

Luck is the mistress of wildlife tourism—and there are few species as wily as the whale shark. Fickle as it may be, for some it’s a lucrative and rapidly growing business. The industry of shark viewing is estimated to be worth over US$ 300 million; whale sharks make up approximately a third of that, according to a study.

“We don’t say fifty-fifty. Let’s say… It depends on your luck. Doesn’t it sound nicer?”

In more recent years, the number of whale shark sites has rocketed, particularly in countries in the Global South: India, Indonesia, Thailand. In Ningaloo Reef, where the practice began, whale sharks still bring in an annual revenue of US$ 11.6 million.

The operation in the fishing village of Dancalan, the center of Donsol’s whale shark tourism operations, is small in scale. But it also means a decline makes a considerable impact: around 60 boats are registered for tourism, and each one pays at least four men a wage that exceeds a fisherman’s daily pay, plus tips.

When the tourists don’t come—or worse, when they ask for refunds—these men take the hit. Many of them, like Omar, have started to look for other sources of income to support themselves; they work as fishermen, tricycle drivers, construction workers.

Despite the uncertainty, those with hope come to the tourism office each morning, waiting to be called on a boat.

WHERE ARE ALL THE WHALE SHARKS?

“The whale shark is a strange case [for tourism] because we can’t predict how and why it comes to certain places,” says Dr. Alessandro Ponzo, Executive Director of the Large Marine Vertebrates Research Institute Philippines (LAMAVE), the leading research organization on megafauna in the Philippines.

Whale sharks are known to travel for food: primarily, microscopic plankton found in nutrient-rich waters. As filter feeders, they need only open their mouths and suck in their food, like vacuums.

“Plankton is ubiquitous. It’s all over,” says Rica Dungog, a researcher who received grants from National Geographic and The Rufford Foundation to study the plankton in Donsol. “But plankton are also drifters, at the mercy of the current of the water.”

Rica’s nine-month study had interesting findings: The water remained relatively nutrient-rich, especially considering the tourism activities. She also found that there were more sightings close to areas with higher levels of plankton, which backs the theory that the whale sharks have come to eat. But because there hadn’t been many studies prior to hers, it’s scientifically impossible to establish a trend: “We have to understand that the waters these whale sharks are lurking in have a lot of factors which affect the plankton,” she says. “And it’s very difficult to pinpoint [changes] without historical data.”

The whale sharks’ status on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List was “data-deficient” when the tourism initiative in Donsol began. There was little to zero national research, or interest, until the tourism potential became obvious. The status has since changed to “endangered,” signaling not just a growing global interest towards protecting this species, but the urgent decline in population that requires it.

Rica pursued her study because of a visit she made to Donsol in 2012, the year there were only 53 sightings. “I can’t forget it. I went as a tourist, and I saw a whale shark... and the whole town was congratulating me, as though I won a competition.”

WHALE SHARKS: WORLD CITIZENS

All over the world, scientists are attempting to track where whale sharks go. The longest journey on record was more than 12,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean: from the waters of Panama, to Costa Rica, the Galapagos, Hawaii, until finally the Marianas Trench.

For countries with little funding for conservation initiatives, the primary method for tracking is photo identification. Whale sharks are identifiable by the white markings on their backs known as spot patterns, unique as fingerprints.

Meynard Matalobos, 22, is in charge of identifying the sharks in Donsol. As a researcher for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), he joins the tourists and spotters on their trips; if they encounter a shark, he takes photos of the spot patterns and uploads them to Wildbook, a global archive for photo identification.

The whale shark, even when it does not show up, has a powerful, omniscient, presence.

It took Meynard three months to learn how to spot the sharks. When I ask him about the ones he’s seen, he quickly rattles off their names (all beginning with the letter P for Philippines, followed by a wild mix of numbers) by memory. “They’re like my friends,” he jokes.

Thanks to Wildbook, Meynard can give the local community an idea of where their sharks have been. But if other sites are not investing in these practices, there is no way to find out where their sharks are going. A shark can “disappear” for years if it migrates to an area where people aren’t looking; or worse, it could migrate to a country that practices hunting.

“You can’t just protect whale sharks from your backyard,” says Carina Escudero, one of the advocates who spearheaded the conservation initiative in Donsol. “You have to protect the whole world.”

PRAYERS, GAMBLES, AND GUARANTEES

Grace Razo, 48, doesn’t know how to swim. She fears the water but prays for the whale sharks to come. Currently, she manages a restaurant and a souvenir shop, strategically situated by the docking area of Donsol. Every morning, she gathers news about the sharks from passersby and receives text notifications with monitoring reports.  

“Some of the residents say… the Lord is mad. It’s like a punishment, because we were taking too much. We didn’t realize that it would be this hard when the seasons change. Some of our wares, they have expiration dates, and we forgot that they would expire if the tourists didn’t come back.”

The whale shark, even when it does not show up, has a powerful, omniscient, presence. You can buy refrigerator magnets in their shape; hats, shirts, slippers with their face. A giant calendar with whale shark stickers hangs outside the tourism office; the quantity indicates how well the season is going. Inside, portraits of the sharks are hung on the walls, like a looming reminder that they are always there somewhere.

This is the backdrop for the morning wait, when tourists line up and are assigned boats and interaction officers. The vendors, like Grace, often wait as well. She wishes us well every time (“good luck!”) without making any guarantees or promises. “No guarantees” is a standard rule for trying to maintain an ethical wildlife tourism site, a safeguard that places the odds back in the hands of Mother Nature.

“I went as a tourist, and I saw a whale shark... and the whole town was congratulating me, as though I won a competition.” <callout-alt-author>Rica Dungog<callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author>

Sali Salahudin, 61, is the only one who breaks this cardinal rule. He is not afraid to place a bet. “Just make sure you go out the time I tell you to,” he tells me. “Then there will be one.”

Sali is not from Donsol. He and his son migrated from a southern island to sell pearls to tourists. Every morning he’s found walking the coastline, a cigarette in one hand, stringed pearls in the other. On average, Sali makes US$ 15 a week, usually selling one or two items.

But he holds his intuition like his wares: “A tourist promised me he would buy something from me if he saw a whale shark, so I told him what time to go out,” he says. “Sure enough, he saw the whale shark, and I came to greet him, but he didn’t buy anything.” He tells this story three times over the course of my trip; the loss still clearly on his mind.

When he finds out that we still haven’t seen a whale shark, he makes a request: “Let me tell you what time to go out tomorrow.” The next day, Sali was one of the first to congratulate us upon our return.

CAN DONSOL AFFORD THE GAMBLE OF WILDLIFE TOURISM?

It isn’t uncommon for the rules—unspoken or otherwise—to be broken: Boats swarm the sharks, despite the guideline that there cannot be more than six tourists at a time. They also come closer than the allotted four-meter distance.

The interaction officers apologize for the missing sharks. The tourists ask for refunds. Trips can be abruptly extended, in the hope that a shark will come at the last minute. The boatmen spend more time on the sea, sometimes without asking for compensation.

“It’s a very Filipino cultural trait to want to please the tourist as much as possible,” says Alessandro. “The interaction officers feel a sense of ownership over the sharks because they’re the ones in the water every day. It’s good, but it also means they regulate one another. And right now, the interaction officers are the ones pulling the tourists closer to see the shark.”

“You’ll notice it,” Omar says, talking about the boats that return. “If there are no sharks, the officer will be the last to leave. Nahihiya siya. But when there are whale sharks, the officer leads the way back.”

Can we expect communities who depend on the whale shark not to feel liable for their decline? Can they afford not to?

Some interaction officers have stopped coming to the dock. They refuse to take out tourists when they feel the odds are low, saying they feel “hiya,” a Filipino word that translates loosely between shyness and shame.

The rule of “no guarantees” might sound like it means “no apologies,” but the latter is often thrown out. Wildlife tourism is susceptible to biodiversity loss, unsustainable practices, and changes in animal behavior, making the communities with the most to gain also the ones with the most to lose. And yet, they are the ones making apologies.

Ironically, wildlife tourism is still flaunted like an honor in many narratives; particularly in the context of a developing country, framed as a win-win for impoverished communities with high amounts of resources.

On December 2018, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution promoting sustainable tourism, “for poverty eradication and environment protection.” It’s a development plan that has been pushed for years. A related phrase, “pro-poor tourism,” is on the rise—a term lauded with expectations, if not guarantees.

But when the whale sharks don’t show up—when the ecosystem doesn’t cooperate as we expect—the ugly truth comes out: Behind the set of principles, tourism is a stand-in for a need, a livelihood where alternatives were failing. When the need becomes overpowering, the principles start to collapse; and the only thing left is a sense of ownership that holds impoverished communities accountable.

It forces a question: Can we expect communities who depend on the whale shark not to feel liable for their decline? Can they afford not to?

Photo by Francisco Guerrero

“ARE YOU HAPPY NOW?“

It isn’t just ownership, but pride: a pride that brings tourists as close to the whale shark as possible, a pride that apologizes when they cannot. It is dotted with uncertainty—from where the system has failed them—that they cover up with luck and omens, faith or science: theories that pass the time before the new season arrives.

But Omar refuses to leave Donsol, despite the offers he receives for better paying jobs abroad. “I am happy here. In the beginning, people laughed at us, thinking we were crazy for believing in tourism. But now, I make good money. I make people happy.”

On our third day, Omar arrives with a fresh haircut (“No more bad omens!” he says) and wears a pair of swimming shorts patterned with sharks (“My lucky pair”). He tells us not to pay for our equipment rental unless we manage to see to see a shark.

He knows he shouldn’t apologize but does anyway. “I’m sorry” is the last thing he says before we get back on land.

As though they know the stakes have been raised too high, two sharks come out. The spotter on the roof makes his signal, and immediately the crew shifts into gear.

Five boats come the same way; it is a race to get there first.

Our boat is moving so fast that loose clothing starts flapping in the wind like flags. The five tourists, myself included, are in a mad rush to put on rubber flippers and goggles as fast as first-timers possibly can. As I force my feet into what I hope are the right flippers, I find myself wondering if today, I should have patted on that sunblock.

But there is hardly any time to speculate: The motor is still running when we are instructed to jump—the water, like adrenaline, hits my ears first, and then my sight. There are muddled shrieks of joy and millions of tiny bubbles from the fits of wild paddling. My panic tells me to swim as fast as my body takes me, even if I can’t tell what I’m chasing.

By the time the adrenaline has settled, there is nothing to see. Maybe a silhouette that only trained eyes can find. When my head breaks the surface, Omar asks quickly: “Did you see?”

No, I admit, on the verge of lying, of apologizing. So great was the expectation put on this moment, that even the tourist is reluctant to admit that she has failed to do her part.

When we take our second jump, I am not no longer looking for the shark; instead, I look to Omar and where he points.

The feeling is closer to disbelief than euphoria. There is no way to identify her as anything other than “as big as a bus!” in the moment. She is more real than in all the photographs; faster than in all the videos. A dark blue submarine with white marks and tiny eyes.

“People laughed at us, thinking we were crazy for believing in tourism. But now, I make good money. I make people happy.” <callout-alt-author>Omar Nepomuceno<callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author>

She allows me to swim above her for a minute, making it look like the floor of the blue ocean is dotted white. After that gratuitous minute, she dives deeper, as if to say: that’s enough for now.

Meynard would later give her a name: P-1512. She isn’t listed in Wildbook; this is the first time she’s allowed herself to be seen. No one knows where she’s been, or where she’s gone since. All the world knows of P-1512 is that, on that day, she showed up. It’s a find that allows the whole town to celebrate: the tourists, the residents, the scientists, the vendors, and the tourism officers. A victory they share with the whole world.

Before leaving the boat, Omar asks: “Masaya ka na?” Are you happy now?

I throw it back: “Are you?”

“Of course. You all saw the whale shark,” he says, leading the way back into town.

--

This story was also previously published on MongaBay News.

Photo by Francisco Guerrero

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