Whale shark watching goes to Oslob
The fishermen of Oslob town in southern Cebu fondly call them Fermin, Lucas, Bali, Ranie, Diane, Berto, Tikyu and Big Mama, and like their counterparts in Donsol town in Sorsogon, they have suddenly discovered the economic potential of whale shark tourism.
Ramonito Lagahid Jr., 24, have known about the presence of whale sharks (Rhincodon typus), the world’s largest fish listed as “vulnerable” by wildlife authorities, in the waters off Oslob, his hometown, since the 1980s. His father would brand the fish as “pest” for destroying fishermen’s nets and driving away other fishes.
Now, the whale sharks have become a tourist attraction in Oslob, 117 kilometers south of Cebu City. They are locally called “tuki” and in Donsol, “butanding.”
Visitors want to see and swim with the giant “gentle creatures.” Others try to feed them, raising concern among environmentalists who fear that this might diminish their ability to scour for food.
Although the fish species were first sighted in Oslob in the 1950s, the town realized their economic potential only in September last year.
One fisherman from Barangay (village) Tan-awan, Jerson Soriano, started feeding a whale shark with “uyap” or baby shrimps after it continuously bumped its snout on his banca.
More whale sharks came to the area after the feeding. Their length varies from 2 to 6 meters. The largest, Big Mama, measures 9 m.
Soon, divers and resorts asked the fishermen if they could guide them to the whale-watching site. At first, the fishermen charged P150 to P200 each for their services, but some tour groups later handed them P500.
“It was only our sideline at that time. We continued to fish early morning. Around 10 a.m., we will guide tourists to see the whale sharks,” Lagahid said.
He said he had met with other fishermen and agreed to impose a uniform fee of P200 per person.
Soon, 51 fishermen from Tan-awan were earning at least P1,200 a day from their moonlighting, much more than the P400 they derived from fishing. It was time to shift careers and they decided to become whale shark feeders, spotters and boatmen.
At least 800 tourists would line up as early as 5 a.m. on weekends for a 30-minute whale shark encounter. The number drops to 300 up to 500 on weekdays, tourism officer Elizabeth Benologa said.
Most of the visitors come from Cebu and neighboring provinces. But the number of foreigners from Spain, Australia, Japan, Italy, China and Korea increased after videos and photos of the gentle giants spread online.
A visitor pays P300 as entrance fee and whale-shark-watching fee, aside from P20 to P35 rental for a life jacket. Of the P300, 60 percent (P180) goes to the fisherman, 30 percent (P90) to the municipality, and 10 percent (P30) to Tan-awan.
For Oslob residents, only P30 is charged.
Mayor Ronald Guaren said the local government’s share would be used to maintain the shore and area covering the whale-shark-watching center.
The improvement of the area is part of the P1-million budget allocated for coastal resource management, Guaren said. The provincial government, he said, had promised to build a two-story viewing deck and waiting area.
Small businesses, such as eateries, souvenir stores and swimming gear rental shops, have also sprouted due to the influx of tourists.
Alice Eliseo, 46, who owns a souvenir shop, said she would earn P1,000 on weekends, “something you don’t get when you’re only a plain housewife.”
Friends Aileen Tantoy, Dionesio Enjo, Guily Bigno, Gwendolyn Gallano and Palmicito Tantoy pooled P50,000 to set up a store that rents out life jackets, flippers and goggles. They also have a baggage counter and snack bar.
To protect its tourist-drawer, the municipal government passed an ordinance on Jan. 6, setting the rules and regulations on whale-watching. Tourists and visitors are required to attend briefing sessions before sailing out and to wear life jackets.
Only paddle boats will be used to ferry at most six tourists to the designated whale-shark-watching area—about 30 m from the coastline. Viewing is allowed from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m. (30 minutes per trip) to give time for the fish to rest.
Tourists are not allowed to touch or ride on the whale sharks. Only the fishermen can feed shrimps on board bancas to avoid harming the creatures.
Lagahid said some fishermen would spend the entire night looking for uyap to feed the whale sharks the following day. 1 to 2 kilograms of shrimps are enough to feed one shark from 6 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Not in their nature
But the practice of feeding the whale sharks have alarmed marine biologists and environment groups.
Elson Aca, project manager of the World Wildlife Fund for Nature-Philippines, said feeding should be banned as it compromised their natural feeding behavior.
Although they are highly mobile creatures and spend most of their time in deep water, the whale sharks are fed on shallow waters, said Aca, who studied the movement of the fish in Donsol.
“As I personally experienced in Oslob, whale sharks have been accustomed to feeding, and they approach boats, waiting to be fed. This will increase the risk associated with humans and boats alike like poaching and getting wounded from propellers,” he said.
Veterinarian Alessandro Ponzo said feeding the whale sharks with uyap could lead to nutritional defiency since they also feed on different zooplankton species.
“While it may not be a problem in the short term, it will for sure be in the long term since most of the animals have been observed in the bay for several months,” Ponzo said.
“The whale shark should follow their natural migration cycle and the community should expand and improve their tours including in the package other attractions, like Sumilon Island, which is famous for shark-diving and pristine reef,” he added.
Oslob is located a few hundred meters away from the Bohol jetty, the main current that brings rich waters of marine animals from the Pacific Ocean into the Bohol Sea and Sulu Sea, Aca noted. The Bohol Sea has the highest biodiversity for large marine vertebrates in Southeast Asia.
With 28 species of dolphin and whales identified in the Philippines, 18 have been observed in the Bohol Sea, including the blue whale.
“If the fisherman can get organized and trained, they have the chances to offer one of the best eco-tourism experiences in the country while at the same time educating the tourists on the fragility of the Philippines marine ecosystem,” Aca said. With a report from Carmel Matus
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