09 November, 2008

Identity Crisis

The gentle giants of Donsol (Philippines) are not new to the Diaries of a Frog Man following the posting of Tourist Power - Discover Donsol (Philippines) by Jessica Noelle Wong of Donsol Ecotour.

They are now back thanks to the selfless work and dedication of Lene and Claus Topp (click on the link as their website is certainly worth a visit!!!) whom are representatives of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and whom have kindly provided this post which was previously published in Australasia ScubaDiver Magazine.

This is the first of a two-part series. Warmest and most sincere thanks to Lene and Claus Topp for their contribution.

Identity Crisis:
“Doesn’t it hurt them?” asks one of the older men standing in the small building. Like the rest of the fishermen at this meeting in the Philippines’ tiny town of Donsol, he is a Butanding Interaction Officer (BIO), guiding tourists who want to swim with whale sharks – locally known as butanding – in the coastal waters. World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF, wwf.org) representatives from Denmark and Philippines as well as Australian whale shark expert, Brad Norman, have called for a meeting with the BIOs to put forward a plan to uncover where the whale sharks go after they leave Donsol. It’s a mystery the 40 BIOs want to solve too. It’s odd to hear fishermen ask after the wellbeing of a fish, but it illustrates the relationship this local community has with these spotted giants.
Whale sharks, after all, create a large part of the income for the people of Donsol, and everybody wants the whale sharks to return for the next season. One of our plans is to fit satellite tags on a group of whale sharks. It’s created a Catch-22 though. WWF earlier helped Donsol’s tourism operators implement a set of rules related to whale shark interaction – one of which clearly states that sharks cannot be touched – and now this talk about shooting a metal anchor under the shark’s skin. Even though the BIOs themselves are pretty good at breaking these rules, they have a point. This is a special case; a compromise is needed. WWF needs to attach the tags to the sharks to be able to follow their migration routes away from Donsol waters. After we assure the fishermen it’s for a good cause, and that the thickness of the shark’s skin means the tagging feels akin to mosquito bite on a human, they agree to the plan. The information the tags might give us is crucial to their survival, and the survival of whale shark tourism in Donsol.

Unsolved Mystery

Whale sharks have always come to Donsol. At first they were considered pests, ripping fishing nets apart and scaring people because of their size. Though they were fished in other parts of the Philippines, whale sharks were never hunted in these waters. The fishermen tell us their fathers never told them how to kill these huge animals, and they thought the meat was inedible. In the late 1990s the community realised it had a treasure out there in the murky greenish waters – a treasure a lot of people are more than willing to pay big bucks to see. The whale shark was declared a protected species in the Philippines in 1998, and whale shark tourism in Donsol began in earnest. The first year saw around 200 visitors to the sleepy town, the next year more. Accommodation was needed and homestays opened in Donsol town and simple resorts mushroomed along the coast. In 2001 the first Butanding Festival was held. Now a colourful annual event, the festival honours the whale shark with an art festival, fair, and town hall dances. The highlight is the parade. Villagers spend weeks creating their life-sized versions of the whale shark; several dozen floats participated in last year’s “floating” parade. Today the number of visitors is closer to 10,000, and the revenue derived from tourism has elevated Donsol from a fifth-class municipality to a fourth-class, a steep jump in just 10 years. Whale shark tourism has created more than 300 jobs, and 200 fishermen now have seasonal employment as a result of this tourism. Not all is rosy, though. While a lot has been done to develop this tourism, very little has been done to secure the source: the whale sharks. The sharks come to Donsol every year to enjoy the nutrition from the plankton-filled water, but there are a number of unanswered questions. Not just about Donsol’s whale sharks, but whale sharks around the world. How many sharks visit Donsol? Do the same animals return year after year? Where do they go after Donsol? How long do they live? When do they mature? Where do they breed? Even though the ancestors of these sharks can be traced back to the Jurassic period, our knowledge about their lifecycle and movements is still as murky as the water off Donsol’s shores.

Waiting Game

Our tags have been stranded in Manila customs. Days pass. Fortunately we can spend our time on other activities, like training the BIOs. The satellite tags will show us the movements of the sharks over larger distances, but we also want to know how many sharks visit Donsol each year, and if these are the same sharks year after year. And Brad Norman’s just the person to help. In 2006 he won the prestigious Rolex Award for Enterprise for his work with photo identification of whale sharks and building an online photo database at ECOCEAN (ecocean.org). In Donsol we want to start a sub-library, so these trainees need to be able to run the whole process. Drawing a square in the air he explains how the photos need to be taken. “It must show the area behind the fifth gill, up to the back of the shark and down to the belly, and preferably the left side,” he says. The photos can then be uploaded to the ECOCEAN library, where his staff will process them for matches. The pattern of dots on a whale shark’s body is like a human’s fingerprint. Each shark has unique markings, and via a patternrecognising computer programme all new photos are scanned, most obvious spots highlighted and marked, and these markings then matched with pre-existing photos on the database. Other characteristics such as the size, gender, and distinguishing scars are also registered.
To be continued...........
All pictures appearing on this post have been taken by Lene and Claus Topp whom retain all copyrights

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