Manila: A tour guide has been praying for the return of four popular whale sharks to a famous southern Luzon tourist destination, where the number of the tourist haven’s main attraction has been dwindling due to climate change and overfishing, a local paper said.
Whale sharks nicknamed by residents, tourists and tour guides as Kuping, Nognog, Puti and Putol, have been missing from the waters of Donsol, Sorsogon, since the start of the summer. Randy Radana, 36, a tour guide trained to interact with whale sharks, locally known as butanding, told the Inquirer that the animals are sorely missed. Their absence makes Donsol sad and the tour guides poor, he said.
Radana’s daily net income is a minimum of PHP450 ($10 or Dh37.50) since 1998, when Donsol’s income started to turn around because of the growing number of friendly whale sharks at the shore.
Donsol has been earning at least PHP35 million a year because of tourism. From a fifth class municipality, Donsol rose to a third-class town, and has been looking forward to becoming a first-class town.
But since November last year, the start of tourism season in Donsol, Radana and fellow tour guides have been teaching tourists how to interact with just a few whale sharks. Despite the bleak prospects for their trade, they remain happy with just one idiosyncratic star named Kulit, a four metre long whale shark.
From January to April this year, there has been a 20 per cent drop in tourists to Donsol, compared to the same period last year. From April 1 to 22 this year, only 2,567 tourists came to Donsol, compared for 9,114 for the whole month of April last year.
Filipinos, Americans, Ethiopians, Slovaks and Swedes are top whale watchers at Donsol.
There was speculation that the missing whale sharks in Donsol have moved to nearby Oslob, Cebu, in central Philippines, now a growing tourist spot for whale shark lovers.
But local tourism officer Nenita Pedragosa said: “Studies show that the whale shark population in Donsol is different from that in Oslob. Only one whale shark from here was found there.”
Citing climate change as the culprit in making the sea of Donsol too hot for whale sharks, Radana explained that climate change brought rains in summer, making Donsol River discharge murky water into the sea off Donsol, making it hard for tourists and tour guides to spot whale sharks there.
Rampant illegal fishing has affected the feeding habits of the whale sharks, pushing them to leave for a more favourable environment, said Radana.
Early signs of the effect of climate change in Donsol’s sea were first seen in 2011. They have started to become deadly and exponential, Radana said.
When it comes to whale shark watching, tourism officer Pedragosa compared Donsol with Cebu’s Oslob, where whale sharks are hand-fed, saying that tourists who prefer the thrill of spotting and interacting with whale sharks in their natural state go to Donsol.
At the same time, tour guides also tell the truth to tourists — that whale shark sightings are not always guaranteed, said Pedragosa.
Averting a downward spiral of earnings from tourism in Donsol, Pedragosa said: “We now offer various packages as alternatives, including island hopping and firefly watching at night.”
It is not yet known how fireflies can compare with the exciting giant whale sharks that once entertained tourists in the area.