Saturday, 17 March 2012 18:00 Roderick L. Abad / Special Features Writer
DONSOL, Sorsogon—The Philippines, being an archipelago, sits atop vast natural resources. Be it by land or water, it’s endowed with a plethora of flora and fauna of different species and, of course, all sizes.
A prolific proof of which is that it is a home to the world’s smallest fish—the dwarf goby or Pandaka pygmaea, which measures 1.2 centimeters or less than half of an inch. This tiniest vertebrate on Earth was first discovered by American ichthyologist Albert Herre in Malabon River in 1925.
On the other hand, marine scientists found the whale shark—the world’s largest living fish that could be anywhere from 6 to 18 meters long—in waters around this archipelago, particularly in Bohol, Northern Mindanao and some parts of the Visayas region.
Adding to the list in the past recent years, Donsol in Sorsogon province, from out of the blue, has emerged as the center of whale shark or butanding where a big concentration of this mammoth fish has been sighted.
Why is the Philippines so blessed as such?
“It’s because we are in the coral triangle,” said Jose Ma. Lorenzo Tan, World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)-Philippines vice chairman and chief executive officer. “In fact, we are at the center of marine biodiversities of the world.”
The whale shark, with scientific name Rhincodon typus, is also called balilan, kulwano, tawiki or toki in other parts of the country. It weighs up to 40 tons and lives up to more than a century.
Despite being big in size, the whale shark is graceful and gentle. Under the sea, it’s very visible with distinct features, such as a broad, flat head; a checkerboard pattern of white spots and stripes on its blue-gray-brown skin; and three prominent ridges on the upper flank.
Such a gigantic fish is highly migratory. In Donsol a considerable number of butanding between 4 and 12 meters usually come in droves between December and May annually. Mainly, they take advantage of the abundant food concentration of plankton, krill, small fish, squid and invertebrate larvae.
Since Donsol has become a popular seasonal feeding ground for whale sharks, scientists and environmentalists alike have began flocking to this idyllic town in the Bicol region to study them further. Also, it has opened a big opportunity for the local tourism industry, thus, prompting the host community to provide interaction tours so that domestic and foreign visitors could have the chance to swim together with these huge marine creatures.
The awakening of a sleepy town
THE rustic Donsol was in a deep slumber until 1998, when this sleepy coastal town was awakened by the “invasion” of the world’s largest fish.
At first, though, the popularity of Donsol as the host of migrating whale sharks was mired by the bloody slaughtering of a butanding along the shore of a nearby municipality. Such incident, according to Donsol’s Commission on Tourism Chairman Ronald Mallilin, was broadcasted globally, prompting concerned groups, such as the independent conservation group WWF and its partners, to come over.
The fact that whale sharks were becoming endangered back then led the Philippine government to ban both their killing and harming, as well as exporting their byproducts via the Fisheries Administrative Order 193 of March 1998.
The provincial government of Sorsogon, on the other hand, launched a massive campaign to stop the killing of butanding. Meanwhile, the town of Donsol, on the prodding of green groups, issued guidelines and local ordinances, as well as a code of conduct, for their protection.
With such extensive initiatives to save the whale sharks from extinction, local and foreign tourists alike begun visiting the fifth-class municipality to have a close encounter with the “gentle giants” of the deep.
“At first, we didn’t know how to handle the visitors and guests,” Mallilin said. “So in 2000 we started a partnership with the WWF and the DOT [Department of Tourism].”
Through a tripartite agreement with the local government unit of Donsol, the WWF extended assistance in terms of research and study, and provided inputs on how to properly handle the whale shark during the interaction.
The DOT, for its part, served as the marketing arm and gave trainings for service providers, including the Butanding Interaction Officers (BIOs).
A sure magnet for visitors, whale sharks brought the town much-needed business, especially in ecotourism. Seeing the interaction with these sea creatures a hit for both local and foreign tourists, the townsfolk of Donsol eventually realized that they could live off the butanding without having to kill them.
On tourism and livelihood
FROM a mere P5,000 the local government got from the minuscule total revenue of the booming tourism industry brought about by the butanding in 1998, Donsol Vice Mayor Emeterio Belmonte Jr. said their LGU’s share had ballooned to almost P6 million last year.
This, he said, represented 5 percent of the gross earnings of P150 million the whale shark-interaction tours from the combined 25,053 local and foreign tourists who visited Donsol in 2011.
“I’m so happy that the tourism industry really helps a lot in our economy, as well as in the livelihood of our people,” Belmonte told the BusinessMirror. “The butanding is indeed God’s big blessing to us.”
With the system in place, the local government of Donsol automatically earns when a visitor registers and pays with the local tourism office—P100 for Filipinos and P300 for foreigners.
It also gets a 5-percent share of the P3,500 rental fee for banca (canoe) or motor boats set by the members of the Boat Operators Association (BOA) that a group of five guests leases to see and interact with the butanding.
“Donsol’s tourism industry is now independent from the LGU [in terms of funds],” Mallilin said. “In fact, it even has provided the town additional income since 2004.”
Donsol’s tourist arrival data showed that the number of both local and foreign guests visiting the coastal town to see the whale-shark interaction has been constantly increasing over a decade.
In 2002 a total of 867 tourists were recorded. This grew to 2,172 in 2003 and 3,076 in 2004. From 8,605 in 2007, visitor arrival jumped to 11,414 in 2008. The following year, it rose to 17,520. And in 2010 it surged to a whopping 24,231.
Alongside the rapid expansion of the tourism sector, related industries also experienced dramatic change.
Manipon cited, for instance, the hospitality segment, which, since 1998, has seen growth in the number of accommodation facilities dotting Donsol. To date, 150 rooms have become available for tourists in the town’s seven resorts and five home-stay establishments.
And with fishing and agriculture as the means of livelihood among the locals, the vibrant whale shark-interaction activity in the area has likewise diverted them to become service providers.
Of late, there are 240 boat captains, crew members, spotters and machinists; and 40 BOIs in Donsol.
“We take advantage of the jobs generated by the whale-shark interaction because it gives us the opportunity to earn a decent income,” explained BOA President Joel Briones, a trained diver who also serves as a BIO to give tourists a literal “in your face” experience with the butanding.
“After some time, when the off season comes in, then we go back again to our original jobs as fishermen or farmers.”
An outpouring of support
WHEN the Tourism Masterplan of Bicol was crafted, Gov. Joey Salceda once said, “All roads will lead to Donsol.” This was realized in so short a time when the sightings of whale sharks started to draw visitors to this idyllic town of Sorsogon.
Tan vividly recalled that on his first visit to Donsol in April 1996, all roads leading to its coastal areas were rough and muddy, and the Donsol bridge was just a one-lane passageway.
“But now, I’m glad to see how far Donsol has gone in terms of infrastructure,” he said. “This only shows that the blessings the town gets from the annual visit of the butanding really go to the people.”
Apparently, not only visitors go to Donsol. Various organizations with a cause to protect the town’s prized catch throng the town.
One of them is Banco De Oro Unibank (BDO), which has been supporting the WWF-Philippines for a series of environmental education and conservation programs.
BDO and the WWF’s partnership has four components—a whale shark-ecotourism management program for Donsol in Sorsogon; an agroforestry program for the Abuan watershed in Isabela; a sustainable-fisheries program for Quezon in Palawan; and a nationwide environmental-education campaign for elementary students.
In support of these thrusts, the bank launched the “ATM Transaction Donation” Project in March 2011. For almost a year now, this has allowed the BDO ATM debit cardholders to donate P5 for every transaction to the environmental programs of WWF throughout the country.
“Since we have about 4 million cardholders and 1,600 ATMs nationwide, this project indeed creates a big impact,” said Edgardo Reyes, BDO senior assistant vice president for ATM operations.
Reyes said the bank has already donated P4 million, of which P2 million has been earmarked for the Donsol whale-shark conservation and the remaining P2 million to agroforestry, fishery and education initiatives.
As part of the WWF’s project in the coastal town of Sorsogon, BDO funded a brand-new 6-foot-long fiberglass whale shark-scale model that was unveiled at the Donsol Visitor Center on February 20.
This was followed by the ecological education drive dubbed “Seed for the Future,” wherein WWF and BDO representatives taught 300 pupils in Donsol East Central Elementary School the merits of marine conservation.
Both parties are currently working on the agroforestry initiative for the Isabela dam. After which, they will move to Palawan for the fisheries project in Quezon in June of this year.
“Because in BDO, ‘We Find Ways’ is our thrust, we are committed to continue supporting these kinds of initiatives in order to give awareness to everybody that we need to preserve and conserve the environment for the next generation,” said Reyes. “We hope that we can sustain our partnership with WWF and foster more tie-ups with other cause-oriented groups in the future.”
- Too many tourists in Donsol (sorsogoncity.wordpress.com)
- Lessons from Donsol (sorsogoncity.wordpress.com)
- Environmentalists plant 10,000 ‘bakawan’ seedlings (sorsogoncity.wordpress.com)
- Whale sharks and tourism (sorsogoncity.wordpress.com)
- Donsol: The Most Remarkable Natural Encounter (sincerelymheg.wordpress.com)
- Close Encounter with the whale sharks/ Butanding in Oslob (chasingcyanide.wordpress.com)