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Where The Whale Sharks Remain

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Whale shark tourism has uplifted the lives of the locals in Oslob, who keep a close relationship with these gentle giants. But where do we draw the line between tourism and conservation?

Story by
Nina Unlay
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Science tells us that whale sharks—an endangered species—are difficult to find, as they are always chasing their food. They are highly mobile and elusive. They are travelers.

But in Tan-awan, Oslob, whale sharks don’t chase after their food; they only have to follow. Their meals are prepared, kept in stocks like a kitchen, making the whale sharks as regular as the tourists: a controversial practice that has earned Oslob divided reviews.

They’re called “feeders,” men who throw buckets of uyap (tiny shrimp) into the sea from their boats. There are also the interaction officers, self-labeled “sea wardens,” who row the boats for the tourists coming to see the sharks.

Many of them were previously fishermen by profession; now, as they make more than enough money, they fish only for their own food.

The feeder boats move in a succession so that the sharks can follow in single file. The boats rowed by the sea wardens come next—a factory line picking up and dropping off tourists.

They are not the only ones in the water: From time to time, scientists set up camp in Tan-awan, mainly studying how the tourist activities affect the sharks’ behavior. When permitted by the municipal government, they conduct their research as the tours go on. Sometimes they work together with the sea wardens to keep the tourists from getting closer than they are allowed. But as they continue to occupy the same waters, the sea wardens and the scientists can’t always mind their own business.

“Anti-feeding talaga sila,” Mark Rendon says about the scientists. He is the president of the TOSFWA, an association of over 200 sea wardens and feeders.

I ask what they’ve warned him about, and he lists them off: that whale sharks shouldn’t remain in shallow water for too long; that their bodies get too hot close to the surface; that they need to stay a certain distance from people or else it becomes habitualized. That the interaction area isn’t safe for them.

Is ecotourism failing? Does conservation have to take the backseat for tourism to succeed?

The interaction area is not much more than the water by the shore, about as large as a football field, marked by a line of buoys and string. There isn’t any netting underneath, Mark makes it a point to clarify, as it’s a very important distinction: It is illegal to keep whale sharks in captivity. But luring them into the interaction area with food is, technically, legal.

In between my questions, Mark is shouting registration numbers into a megaphone. He sounds tired; he has been up since three in the morning. The sea wardens’ body clocks have changed to match the rhythm of these tours.

“Do you agree with the scientists?” I ask.

“Siyempre, pro-feeding kami,” he says. “Yun yung ikinabubuhay namin eh.”

The tourism in Oslob has transformed the lives of men like Mark. In 2012, there were 28,000 visitors; by 2018, over 500,000.

Tourist arrivals have gotten exponentially higher year after year, despite minimal infrastructure or operational developments, demonstrating an incredibly high demand for whale shark interaction. The incredible growth has turned Oslob into a mass tourism site, one of the most profit-generating in the country.

Oddly, the price of the interaction hasn’t been raised since operations began. In fact, whale shark watching is the cheapest tourist activity in Oslob by far, less than a third of the price of diving. It is also the cheapest whale shark watching activity globally—it currently costs Php 300 to see a whale shark for less than 30 minutes, even though studies have shown that foreign tourists would pay up to US$ 64 (Php 3,200).

The last time on record that there was a call for higher prices, which would shift the site towards higher-value tourists, the TOSFWA protested, unwilling to experiment with a system that provides them their livelihood. A system which, to some extent, they still don’t understand.

THE ANTI-FEEDING SCIENTISTS  

“In conservation, if you don’t have data and you don’t know the effect, you’ll take the side of the caution,” says Dr. Arnel “AA” Yaptinchay, Founder of the Marine Wildlife Watch.

He is talking about a tenet followed by all conservationists, the precautionary principle, which implores them to consider and prioritize the chance of harm until it can be proven that there is none. In theory, the precautionary principle places the burden of proof on initiatives that might impact the environment or ecology of a place—such as tourism—rather than the conservationists. But it is a principle that has yet to be reflected in practice or policy, particularly as tourism has become more and more important to the national economy.

“You don’t need to kill an animal to impact them; you don’t need to build a coal mine to destroy a mountain.” <callout-alt-author>Dr. Alessandro Ponzo<callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author>

Tourism contributed 12 percent to the country’s GDP in 2017, the highest it has been in over ten years. But AA claims that the policies in place have yet to address the threats to the country’s many marine species: “Maybe I could have a different take on this if [whale sharks] were not a protected or endangered species. But they are. We should be allowing it to thrive, reducing threats, not adding [more].”

AA has been campaigning to protect the whale sharks since the primary threat was hunting, a practice that was banned in 1998. Now, he is fighting to protect them from tourism. He is pushing for a new bill: a comprehensive set of laws, called the Joint Administrative Order on Marine Wildlife Tourism Interaction, that will address practices which could be harmful to marine wildlife. The order would also effectively place a ban on provisional feeding.

AA and the rest of Marine Wildlife Watch has campaigned for its passage since 2014, but the government has yet to sign it. He speculates that even if it were passed, Oslob may be provided with an exemption.

As a business, Oslob is incredibly lucrative: Since the tourism initiative started in 2011, it has made roughly over US$ 18 million in revenue. It’s the most popular whale shark watching site in the Philippines, in large part due to the provisional feeding and their 100 percent sighting guaranteed policy. At the moment, there are no other provisional feeding sites in the country.

“This is a very unique situation,” says Dr. Alessandro Ponzo, Executive Director of the Large Marine Vertebrates Research Institute Philippines (LAMAVE)—the only conservation organization with a base in Oslob. “We have six years of data, which isn’t enough to know the scientific long-term effect. There is no paper which states the impact is ‘killing’ them, and that’s what people are expecting to see.”

Even though the data doesn’t conclude with certain extinction, the results have been worrying: one of LAMAVE’s studies shows that at least nine sharks in Oslob have become year-round residents, which means that they have stopped their natural migration patterns. They’ve also started feeding vertically rather than horizontally, like fishes in an aquarium who come to the surface for food. Another study shows that sharks now approach boats rather than avoiding them, which means that they can be prone to being cut by motorized boats or commercial fishing vessels.

“Siyempre, pro-feeding kami. Yun yung ikinabubuhay namin eh.” <callout-alt-author>Mark Rendon<callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author>

There are many other effects which the scientists claim they inform the sea wardens about, but none so conclusive that the practice has been stopped.

“You don’t need to kill an animal to impact them,” says Alessandro. ”You don’t need to build a coal mine to destroy a mountain. The government and the media always focus on: Are you killing the animal or not? And nothing in the middle.”


SHARKS IN THE WILD

Elizabeth Benaloga, Tourism Officer of Oslob, believes that their provisional feeding site should be considered a way of “protecting and conserving the sharks.”

“We have to protect them. We have to educate people na kapag nakakita kayo ng hayop na ganito, especially the whale shark, you have to love them. You have to make them feel na: ‘loved kami dito sa lugar na 'to, hindi kami sinasaktan.’” Elizabeth is adamant that whale sharks benefit from human interaction: “Imagine, yung mga sinsasabi nilang dinosaurs, bakit sila nawala? Kasi di sila sanay na may tao sa paligid nila, kinakain nila. Kasi hindi nila nafeel na may pwede pa lang mag-alaga sa kanila, may pwede pa lang makabigay ng pagkain sa kanila, kahit na di sila ang naghahanap.”

But the science doesn’t work in her favor: “Sharks have lived maybe 50 million years on this planet without anyone feeding them,” says AA. “They would do fine without us. They’re wild animals.”

The threads that separate biodiversity hotspots and tourism sites—whether they invite mass or sustainable tourism—are dangerously thin.

There are tourism sites in the country which leave sharks in the wild. In 1998—not coincidentally, when whale shark hunting was first banned—the first whale shark tourism site was established in Donsol, Sorsogon. It has since been labeled one of “the most successful ecotourism projects of the Philippines” by the Department of Tourism. Donsol and Oslob started the same way: a low-class fishing municipality with an accessible whale shark population. But they have since moved in opposing directions.

“We started [the operation in] Donsol with hardly any money,” says Carina Escudero. “It’s a miracle the sharks even survived. People [commercial buyers] were offering Php 600,000 in exchange for three dead sharks, in a place where people were earning less than a hundred pesos a day.”

Carina is not a scientist, but she works with them; she spearheaded the conservation and tourism initiatives in Donsol after its potential was brought to her attention. In 2012, she created a series of short documentaries about Oslob called The Tuki Chronicles, which received criticism from the municipal government.

“My heart is torn about Oslob,” she says. “In a way, those guys are my friends. I watched them go from walking to taking tricycles. From eating corn to eating rice. From drinking gin to drinking beer,” she says. “Do I think we should prioritize the whale sharks over them? I don’t know.”

The Oslob sea wardens are aware that more conservative models, such as Donsol’s, can be pursued. But they are not tempted in the slightest: “Sa pagkakaalam ko sa Donsol, parang pahirapan doon maghanap ng whale shark,” says Janrio Muñoz, 22, one of Oslob’s youngest sea wardens. “Walang assurance na makakakita ang tourist talaga.”

Janrio isn’t wrong. Oslob’s tourist arrivals are exponentially increasing, while Donsol’s has steadily decreased. Because the sharks are left in the wild to feed, their presence is seasonal; and it has been increasingly erratic in the last few years.

As Donsol’s tourist arrivals, and tourist dollars, have begun to decline, it begs a question: Is ecotourism failing? Does conservation have to take the backseat for tourism to succeed?

 

“WHAT IS IT GOING TO TAKE?”

When Carina first approached AA about starting a conservation initiative in Donsol, her question was simple: “What is it going to take to turn this into a project?”

The answer was equally simple: Money.

The follow-through is more complicated: Conservation funding, like a whale shark, isn’t easy to find. At least, not without a catch. Under the National Integrated Protected Areas System Act of 1992 (NIPAS) are more than 240 protected areas, which require facilities, infrastructure, operationalization, and constant maintenance. The upkeep for protection is so costly that the label, “protected,” has little value in itself.

A study found that in the Philippines, protected areas are underfunded by 324 percent, and understaffed by 540 percent—the worst statistics among all ASEAN countries. In 2018, the Bureau of Biodiversity Management (BMB) was only provided Php 1.89 billion for conservation initiatives. The proposed budget for 2019 cuts it further, by roughly Php 40 million.

“The DENR’s current budget allocation in our protected areas is not enough to cover the gargantuan tasks of protecting and managing these protected areas,” says Nancy Reaño-Corpuz, Supervising Ecosystems Management Specialist of the BMB.

As such, areas that urgently need the resources for conservation from the national government are often instructed to pursue “ecotourism” for funding; roughly 30 percent of protected areas have an ecotourism project attached to them. According to the BMB, ecotourism has been introduced as a “conservation strategy” and an “economic development option.”

The threads that separate biodiversity hotspots and tourism sites—whether they invite mass or sustainable tourism—are dangerously thin. Taking whale shark sites as an example: There are at least seven individual whale shark populations (hotspots, essentially) in the Philippines. Four of these have a tourism project attached to them, yet only two are considered protected areas.

Donsol and Oslob started the same way… But they have since moved in opposing directions.

“It’s not just whale sharks,” says AA. “The threatened and protected species in the Philippines [in general] are gaining popularity in tourism. In the current Wildlife Act and the Fisheries Code, tourism is a gray area. It’s not addressed in any of the laws.”

Given the status quo, those governing these protected areas are expected to produce money via local government units, NGOs, and other funding institutions. This legal framework removes the long-term security that national funding would provide, placing PAs in a position vulnerable to the whims of smaller bodies with their own vested interests.

In the case of Donsol, WWF was provided funding from the United Nations to pursue the project: funding that eventually stopped and needed to be secured from other organizations.

Constantly searching for new funders also means adapting to the priorities of those funders.

“[Funding] is not that simple,” says AA. “It happens all the time that funds are spent on something unrelated. I once had project in Palawan to protect the dugongs, but the funding we got was [allocated] for reproductive health for women. There were times where we didn’t even have a project for Donsol, but our [WWF] Director would tell us that we just needed to be present because it was good for [the community] to see that we want to help them.”

It also places the burden of governance on advocates and locals: “I should have asked for ten-year funding,” Carina says. “I made a mistake. But this is not my world.”

The world of conservation is tricky. When commercial buyers were the primary threat, to “conserve” meant to protect whale sharks from being hunted and sold. Marine Wildlife Watch no longer lists hunting as a primary threat, but tourism is on the list.

“Tourism always impacts the animal. Humans always impact the animal,” says Alessandro. “Do we need tourism? For sure; it benefits the community. But in most cases, it has a negative impact [on the species].”

Ironically, the mass spread of tourism, instead of conservation education, has taught Filipinos that to “protect” is also to bear witness to the whale sharks, as though our social awareness allows them to survive. But the old debate about whether the whale shark is more valuable alive or dead has been finished: The Philippines wants its sharks alive. And no one—save for the declining number of hunters—aims to harm them, not even those in Oslob.

In fact, the sea wardens believe rather adamantly that they are keeping the whale sharks safe. They give them names, like pets, and shoo away the tourists who try to reach out and touch them. They would understand if the sharks stopped coming, even if they don’t have a back-up plan. But as long as they are permitted, they will keep putting food for them in the water.

Despite the number of scientists surrounding him, Mark does his own research online. He’s found people who, like the wardens, support provisional feeding. He’s read articles that say it is fine to do so in small quantities. When I ask what he actually feels about the whale shark, he laughs, implying that he doesn’t know why people come to see the giant, “special” fish. In fact, he doesn’t talk about its endangered status at all.

But this animal is important to him too: “Siyempre special sa amin iyon kasi doon kami kumikita.”

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