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Gentle Giants Win Over Visitors

An annual gathering of huge, plankton-eating whale sharks is a hit with tourists, giving a Philippine region a new lease on economic life.

July 09, 2006|Jim Gomez | Associated Press Writer

DONSOL, Philippines — Cocooned in rural seclusion, this placid little town long kept a big but unintended secret: In the first half of the year, the sea swarms with the world's largest fish.

Whale sharks -- some as big as a bus -- have put on an annual show for local folks for generations, roaming close to shore and seemingly unafraid of humans, who left the fish alone.

Then in 1997, a group of visitors got wind of the creatures, known locally as butanding. The visitors were enthralled by the sharks' gentleness, swimming like gigantic dolphins, Donsol Mayor Salve Ocaya says.

Word got around, helped by the Internet, and before long tourists began descending on laid-back Donsol, tucked amid coconut groves and hills away from the main road in Sorsogon province, about 230 miles southeast of Manila.

Then-U.S. Ambassador Francis Ricciardone and a few other diplomats visited last year. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo came in April and left ecstatic after a 20-minute encounter with a mammoth whale shark.

"The whale sharks brought us to the limelight," Ocaya said.

The town is still adjusting.

"We're trying to cope with the arrival of so many visitors, many of them from as far as Europe. But we don't have enough resorts," the mayor said.

"And have you seen our bridge?" the mayor added, referring to a long, narrow span that can handle only one car at a time crossing a mangrove-lined river to the village of Dancalan, the staging area for boat trips to watch the whale sharks.

Donsol is among the latest to organize in-water viewing of the big fish -- a sometimes nerve-racking attraction offered in a few places such as Australia's Ningaloo Reef, Belize on the Caribbean, Mexico and the Seychelles.

Whale sharks, which can grow as long as 54 feet and weigh up to 34 tons, are an eye-popping sight up close. But they don't eat meat, surviving by sucking seawater into their gaping mouths and sieving plankton and tiny crustaceans on their gill rakers, marine experts say.

Little is known about the natural history of whale sharks, which roam tropical seas. They congregate in Donsol's murky waters from January to June, probably because of the abundance of plankton, says the local branch of the conservation group World Wide Fund for Nature.

For the Philippines, which is struggling to attract foreign tourists amid law-and-order problems, Donsol has become a surprise draw.

In 1998, the year after word of the sharks got out, 900 tourists visited. Last year saw 7,600 visitors -- a third of whom were foreigners, said Donsol's tourism officer, Salvador Adrao Jr.

On a recent morning, SUVs rumbled down a muddy hillside road in palm-lined Dancalan and disgorged dozens of tourists at the small, government-run visitor center, which collects boat rental and guide fees and arranges daylong expeditions. Villagers offered snorkels and rubber fins for rent and peddled souvenirs. Police toting M-16 rifles watched over the bustle.

A motorboat set out with five tourists laden with life vests, snorkels, dive masks and fins, a whale shark spotter perched atop a pole, shading his eyes from the sun. After about an hour, he yelled, "There! There!" pointing to what looked like a small, gray submarine just under the waves.

The boat erupted in sudden commotion and began maneuvering closer to the whale shark.

Carlos Pendor, a stocky, sunburned guide, cajoled two jittery tourists to jump off the boat. He dragged them to the side, yelling, "Look down!" A 23-foot whale shark, its gray-green back dotted with faint lines and pale-white spots, swam tranquilly, its flat head and body gently swaying.

At close range, the whale shark was so big it was hard to see it in its entirety. But by the time the tourists grabbed a breath of air, it was gone.

Twenty-three other boats bobbed in the waters off Donsol. Most sputtered back to shore by lunch, each encountering five to 10 whale sharks.

"It was sort of scary because out of nowhere came this huge, square face," said Eliot Bikales, a homemaker from Hamden, Conn.

"It was like 'Jaws,' ' her 10-year-old daughter, Maral, butted in. But she said that after her fears eased, "It was OK. It felt like they were my friends."

Sid Lucero, a young Philippine actor, said facing such a huge creature nearly moved him to tears.

"It hit me straight in the heart," he said. "Looking at this huge creature reminded me that there is a higher being."

Thanks to the new tourism, the sharks have created about 1,000 seasonal jobs in Donsol, a poor farming and fishing town of about 40,000 people once said to have been a communist rebel stronghold.

On what used to be a barren beach stand five small inns. But their 50 rooms are inadequate for the hundreds of tourists who flock in during the peak months of March and April, prompting plans for a hotel, along with a concrete road to Dancalan. There is talk of a small airport.

Donsol, however, is wary about damaging the pristine conditions that lure the sharks. Projects such as a pier have been junked. Only 25 dive boats -- down from nearly 50 -- are allowed at sea at one time, the mayor said.

The town also is waging war against poachers, helped by the WWF and USAID. Poachers hunt the sharks for lucrative Asian markets such as Taiwan, where there is a strong demand for pricey shark fin soup.

Although Donsol has been designated a sanctuary, whale sharks face danger when they slip beyond its waters.

The whale sharks, however, seem to be their own best ambassadors. Many visitors return to shore transformed into advocates. "They are national treasures that need to be protected," said Bikales, the homemaker.

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