STUART HEAVER reports about the rising sightings of these gentle giants in Bohol.
An exciting new marine adventure now combines the allure of Bohol Sea’s pristine waters, so popular with scuba divers, with the chance to see the largest fish on the planet in its natural habitat—the whale shark.
Although huge—growing to lengths of 12 meters and weighing over 20 tons—the whale shark offers no threat to man. This enormous and graceful creature is a filter feeder: it uses its massive mouth to hoover up huge amounts of plankton from the sea. Often seen feeding near the surface, the whale shark is returning in increasing numbers to the Bohol Sea.
Last year, a massive whale shark was seen feeding close to the shore at Alona Beach on Panglao Island. Families and honeymooners frolicking in the surf could clearly see the shark a mere 100 meters from where they were.
Béatrice Galonnier runs the Tropical Divers Dive Center (www.tropicaldiversalona.com) at Alona Beach and happened to be out in the bay training some novice divers when the shark’s magnificent dorsal fin was first seen gliding through the water between the anchored bancas.
“The atmosphere was fantastic,” says Bea. “Even the local fishermen just stopped their work and looked on in amazement.”
Then, after just a few minutes, the shark was gone.
“We were very lucky to swim with it and take some amazing pictures,” says Galonnier.
Galonnier had the idea of offering an underwater equivalent to the African wildlife safari—the Whale Shark Safari. Instead of spotting land animals like the lion and elephant, this safari would seek out vulnerable underwater species like the whale shark.
“It is such a beautiful and unique experience to dive with the whale shark,” she says. “I cannot fully describe it.”
The whale shark was once a hunted species until a complete ban was introduced in the Philippines in 1998. Now, apart from the occasional rogue poacher, the whale shark is only hunted by wildlife enthusiasts and ecotourists armed with nothing more than an expensive digital camera.
Prior to 1998, local fishermen would hunt for these gentle giants with traditional hand-held harpoons. The demand from Taiwan and elsewhere meant that whale-shark meat could command a high price. The hunting, however, was seriously depleting the whale shark population.
Pamilacan Island, less than 20 kilometers east of Alona Beach where Tropical Divers is based, is the center of this traditional whale shark hunting community. Pamilacan fishermen quickly had to adapt to survive as their traditional source of income was effectively cut off overnight. After some initial resistance, the hunters of the whale shark eventually became its stewards and guardians.
Led by pioneers such as Joselino “Jojo” Baritua, who set up Pamilacan Island Dolphin and Whale Watching Tours to provide an alternative income source for local fishermen and supported by organizations like the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), attitudes have changed.
“The transformation of the community of Pamilacan from whale hunters to whale lovers is awe-inspiring, absolutely mind-blowing, and little short of miraculous,” says Yeb Sano, the local project manager for WWF.
Now more than 3,000 visitors make their way to Pamilacan Island every year to see dolphins and whales in their natural habitat. The former hunters now have a new source of revenue.
And it is Pamilacan and nearby Balicasag Island that form two of the most popular stops on the Whale Shark Safari. Leaving Alona Beach in a traditional white banca, it takes less than an hour to reach Balicasag Island, a beautiful spot for the safari diver to get into the groove of underwater life.
Divers, descending in 5- to 20-meter-deep waters, are treated to the sight of immaculate coral walls with a kaleidoscope of stunning colors and giant fan corals waving gently in the tide. Marine life is so abundant here: a huge variety of fish, including lion fish and a huge shoal of swirling jack fish rotating above me, as well as several turtles and a tightly clustered shoal of menacing barracuda swimming downstream a few meters away.
Nondivers are also welcome to join the safaris. They can snorkel on the many reefs, have a swim, just soak up the sunshine and the scenery, or immerse themselves in a good book.
At Pamilacan Island, which is home to less than 250 families, it is possible to witness a traditional fishing community and meet some of the locals.
Of course, no one can guarantee that a wild animal will appear on cue, especially if you take the safari off-season. But even without the appearance of the iconic whale shark, the safari offers a unique opportunity to witness a teeming underwater habitat, dive in some of the best sites in the region, and understand the culture of the local fishing communities and their amazing transformation from hunting to conservation.