CEBU CITY, Philippines–The small coastal barangay of North Granada in Boljoon town, southern Cebu, pleaded ignorance after being heavily criticized for mishandling a whale shark that was stranded there.
Carinn Lestolis, the 18-year-old girl photographed sitting on top of the whale shark, said she was frightened by the outpouring of anger and online bashing, especially comments about her using the fish as a “surf board.”
“Nahadlok ko nga ma-priso, nasakitan sad ko sa mga gisulti sa mga tawo sa Facebook about nako (I’m afraid of going to jail. I was hurt by what Facebook users said about me),” Lestolis told Cebu Daily News.
Lestolis, her cousins and neighbors were among those posing as they gathered around the animal.
Several of them hung on to the body of the 10-foot whale shark, whose tail was tied with a rope.
Fisherman Pablo Trapero told Cebu Daily News the whale shark had gotten caught in their fish nets so they dragged the nets to the shallows to untangle the animal and set it free.
Before releasing it, though, local residents got excited and swarmed around.
Lestolis said this took place outside their house.
“We didn’t know it’s wrong to touch them. All we know was that they shouldn’t be harmed,” a teary-eyed Lestolis said in Cebuano.
She said riding on the back of the whale shark was just harmless fun for them.
“We got excited and happy when we saw the whale shark, so we posed with it and posted it on Facebook,” Lestolis said.
She said she balanced on the back of the whale shark for about two minutes to strike a pose.
The whale shark is called tuki by local residents in south Cebu and is also known as butanding.
Lestolis said she already deleted the photo album and is thinking of deleting her Facebook page after the incident.
North Granada barangay councilor Pedro Lestolis, Carinn’s father, said he was in the area when the incident occurred.
He said they didn’t know that handling the whale shark that way was wrong.
Under Republic Act 9147, an Act for the conservation and Protection of Wildlife Resources and Habitats, it is illegal to maltreat or kill endangered species, like the whale shark.
The penalty is three to six months in jail with a fine of P20,000 to P50,000 for maltreating an endangered species. A longer prison term and higher fine is slapped for killing and destroying them.
The photo that circulated online was from the Facebook profile of a neighbor, barangay treasurer Liza Sesaldo.
Many mistook her for being the girl riding the whale shark.
Sesaldo said she was hurt by the critical comments online and from radio commentaries about the photos, which Cebu Daily News carried on its front page yesterday.
“I was harassed by their comments,” Sesaldo said.
The whale shark in the photographs was trapped in the fishnets of 61-year-old Granada resident Pablo Trapero.
At 5 a.m. last Saturday, he said they were surprised when they couldn’t lift the nets, which are usually left at sea overnight, only to find a whale shark caught in it.
“We had to bring it to the shore so we can tear the nets,” Trapero told Cebu Daily News.
He said whale sharks often get trapped in their nets, but could usually free themselves.
Trapero said they had to tie the whale shark’s tail to keep it still.
He said it took them two hours to release the whale shark 100 meters from the shore.
Trapero said local residents crowded around the whale shark after the nets were removed near the shore. He said they led the fish back to the open sea at 8 a.m.
Boljoon Mayor Teresita Celis met with residents yesterday to verify the incident, which she had first denied had happened at all.
Celis said she only knew about it yesterday morning when her employees showed the photographs on Facebook.
“I was really infuriated,” Celis said.
When Cebu Daily News first asked Celis about the photos last Sunday, she denied the photos were taken in Boljoon because fishermen don’t feed it, like those in the next town of Oslob, which has enjoyed a tourist boom from promoting “whale shark interaction” in the water.
Celis yesterday said her town plans to pass an ordinance that will penalize the touching or riding of whale sharks.
“I assure you, it won’t happen again. There will be no second time. If it will happen again, we will penalize them,” she said.
Celis said she was worried about negative online feedback over the Facebook posts.
She said she warned local residents yesterday that if it happens again, she’ll have them jailed.
In the meantime, she said they would intensify an information campaign about the whale sharks since their area in south Cebu is part of the migratory path of the animals.
Oslob town has enjoyed a tourism boom in recent months, with foreign and local visitors paying P300 each to ride a paddle boat not far from the shore to see whale sharks approach fishermen who hand feed them krill, while tourists swim near it or watch from boats.
Regional Director Andres Boholst of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources in Central Visayas (BFAR-7) said the people who touched and rode on the whale shark couldn’t be penalized, unless an ordinance is approved and enforced by the local government unit.
“Whale sharks are naturally friendly, so they would not inflict harm,” he said.
In Oslob, rules about “no touching” and “no feeding whale sharks” are told to visitors in an outdoor tent used as a briefing area while fishermen who have becom guides belong to a association accredited with the Oslob municipal government.
Boholst said riding and touching the whale shark may give it ailments.
Their huge tail can also harm persons who approach it.
He said a person should at least be five feet away from the whale shark for safety.
Regional Director Rowena Montecillo of the Department of Tourism in Central Visayas (DOT-7) also went to the barangay to check the report of whale shark abuse that has circulated around the world because of the Internet.
“This happened because the people are unaware (about how to handle whale sharks),” Montecillo said.
Still the DOT-7 chief said the incident also showed that the public is concerned about the whale sharks.
Cebu Gov. Gwendolyn Garcia said the Facebook photos clearly showed a state of ignorance.
“This should be taken up by the mayor concerned,” she said.
Earlier this year, Garcia issued an executive order for the creation of the technical working group (TWG) to craft guidelines for whale shark watching in Oslob town. /Candeze R. Mongaya, Reporter with Correspondent Carmel Loise Matus
First posted 7:23 am | Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012