Whalesharks and mantas are among the most desirable "sightings" for divers and snorkellers everywhere. Take a trip to Donsol in the Philippines and you will most likely be able to see and photograph both. But they need caring for too. By Jeremy Torr.
Donsol, April 2015 – We had gone to Donsol, in the Sorgoson province of Luzon in the Philippines, to look whaleshark (butanding in the local language, Tagalog). Although they had been part of the sea-junkie must-see trail since the late 1990s, the numbers of sightings there had apparently dropped right off in the last two years. And to add to the uncertainty, Typhoon Maysak/Chedeng was rapidly bearing down on Luzon island, where Donsol is situated.
When we arrived, our guide Joel Briones - who happens to be the president of the Donsol Butanding Interaction Association - warned that the whalesharks had definitely started to go somewhere else. For the last couple of seasons, visitors had been lucky to see one or two sharks in a whole week.
But by the end of our three hour snorkelling session, we had dived in over a dozen times, and every single time had seen, swum with and been overawed by at least one of these massive creatures. Like underwater zeppelins, they would materialise out of the plankton soup of Donsol Bay as we swam alongside. They were unbelievably big - they get up to 15 metres long, and weigh 40 tonnes with 2 metre-wide mouths sieving the water for food. Scary but exhilarating in equal measure. We swam and swam until we were utterly exhausted, but still babbling like six-year olds about what we had seen every time we surfaced.
"We were lucky today," grinned Joel. "They seem to have come back again this year." It was an incredible experience, and one that you must do if you get the chance.
Exactly why the whalesharks congregate at Donsol between January and July to feed, nobody really knows. Despite their size, and their slow swim speed when feeding, their rarity means remarkably little is known about them. Exactly where they migrate to when they leave Donsol is not clear, although some studies say they travel some 8,000km a year. How and where they breed and why they suddenly up and leave is also unclear. There is still a lot of research to be done, say Joel.
He also says they need protecting. "Some fisherman still think they are a nuisance," admits Joel. "When I was a fisherman we didn't like the whalesharks because we thought they ate the fish," he says. "We would see them, and chase them away." As recently as 2006, five whale sharks were found dead near Donsol. They had all been shot at close range, with one showing 13 bullet wounds to its head. And if you ask the right people in the village markets around Donsol today, you can still buy manta ray and whaleshark meat. Smaller specimens get caught in nets and drown, and are chopped up for their meat.
Too many tourists could harm the animals as well. Although a local bylaw only allows 30 boats (each with six tourists) to look for whalesharks at once, that can be flouted. In 2011 there were more than 5,000 recorded boat trips, and possibly more unrecorded. And although there are only supposed to be six swimmers with each butanding at any one time, that too is sometimes contravened. The fear is that if the whalesharks become too bothered by hundreds of goggling snorkellers, they could leave.
The WWF also says that it is equally important that care is taken to ensure the plankton-rich waters at Donsol, and in the whole Ticao Pass sea region that it borders, must be kept free of pollution if the whalesharks and other big fish are to feel at home and come back.
"The problem is most local people see the sea first as a larder to get food from, and second as a garbage tip to get rid of rubbish," says Rico Calleja, manager of the Ticao Island Resort dive station on nearby Ticao Island.
Calleja says that during certain times of the year, the dive centre staff have to clean the beach twice a day to get rid of all the washed up rubbish. Plastic bottles, abandoned nets, fishing lines, and of course one-shot instant coffee wrappers. There must be millions if not billions of those on the beaches around the Philippines - thanks Nescafe.
All of this jetsam ends up in the eco system, damages the food chain and enters the marine population's bloodstream. As Marvin, chief dive instructor at Ticao says, the fishing gear that local fishermen abandon in the sea kills thousands of small fish but also cruelly injures the bigger ones.
Marvin has swum with 6metre manta rays at the nearby Manta Bowl (as a parasite cleaning station, it gets hundreds of the massive fish every year) with the tips of their fins half cut away by discarded fishing lines.
"So one time, I went down with some scissors and tried to cut away the line. After the first time when the fish was very suspicious and darted away, it realised I was helping and let me swim up many times to cut away the line," he says. A fellow diver took an amazing video of his rescue, see the link below.
But it is easy to blame to locals - this use of the sea as a disposal system, says Calleja, is simply part of their culture. "When they only had coconut shells and fish bones to throw in the sea there was no problem. It is the modern packaging and materials that causes the problem," he says. "It's a matter of education - we have to start with the children and get them to collect and dispose, not just throw away."
His resort is already working with groups and schools to help educate the local villages, through cleanups and talks, and is looking at the possibility of providing better sanitation for the villages on Ticao too.
"We won't solve these problems in a day," he says. "But we have to solve them. Let's hope we can do that in coming years. If you write about our story, it could help these things happen - so please do!"
- For more information about the Donsol butanding tours, go to : http://www.donsolecotour.com/
- For more about the Ticao Island Dive Resort report, go to : http://www.ticao-island-resort.com/
- To watch Marvin's amazing manta rescue video, go to : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iVw35GWNms4