It was an accident—or attack—waiting to happen.
Two whale sharks that frequent Oslob town, south Cebu, were confirmed to be seriously injured, one of them by a spear and the other by the propeller of a motorized banca bringing tourists.
“Berto,” one whale shark identified by local fishermen, has been missing for three days after it was seen swimming with a spear thrust in its back, said Cebu diver and marine biologist Gary Cases of the Philippine Commission on Sports Scuba Diving (PCSSD).
“We are still tracing the location of this whale shark with a spear wound to see if it is still alive,” Cases told Cebu Daily News. CDN team spotted the injured whale shark during a visit last week although the spear wound was several weeks old according to local fishermen.
The second one, “Lucas,” was struck by the propeller of a motor boat carrying local tourists, including divers, and was “seriously injured” in the head just last week.
The sighting of whale sharks in the coastal barangay of Tan-awan, Oslob, has drawn intense interest of divers and tourists since August when word spread that the deep-sea marine animals, which can reach 40 feet in length, were frequenting the shallow waters of the town after being hand-fed with shrimps by local fishermen.
The phenomenon has triggered a debate over whether the “domestication” of wild whale sharks was good for the animals and how to best manage the instant rise of tourist enterprises that have given local fishermen a new lucrative livelihood.
The PCSSD, a line agency of the Department of Tourism (DOT), is leading a reef study in the area to determine the health and population of at least 18 whale sharks that have been sighted passing through waters of barangay Tan-awan for the past two years.
Cases said he was visiting the area last Saturday when the fishermen told him about the two wounded whale sharks.
At least four whale sharks, locally known as “tuki” or “butanding,” have developed close interaction with local fisherman who regularly toss baby shrimps or “uyap” in the water to draw them.
With this, the fishermen have discovered a new livelihood, charging P300 per tourist for a ride out to sea on their paddle boats for a close encounter with whale sharks.
Photographs of divers and snorkelers underwater swimming close to the whale sharks or “riding” them have spread on the Internet.
The latest accident happened on Thursday last week, a day after DOT Regional Director Rowena Montecillo, with Cases and Ocean Care’s Mario Marababol, visited Oslob to observe the activities there and talk with the mayor about measures to protect the whale sharks and ensure that eco-tourism is properly established.
Cases said he learned that a large motorized banca or outrigger based in Santander town, south Cebu, was carrying local tourists when it approached a school of butanding.
“It was an accident because dive boats are not supposed to get close in the sites. They know that they are not allowed in the area,” Cases said.
Boats that carry divers must stay at least five meters away from the marine species or the dive site.
Cases said that they are also tracing the parties responsible for piercing “Berto” with a spear.
The whale shark was carrying the wound for weeks and didn’t show up for its morning feeding since last Saturday.
Whale sharks are not carnivores and don’t attack humans but they are targets of hunters out to harvest its meat and shark’s oil.
Cases said they suspect whale hunters from other municipalities may have targeted “Berto”.
Reneboy Servila, a local guide, said there are also people “envious” of the barangay’s popularity due to the whale sharks.
Servila is one of the first fishermen who established the group that feeds the whale sharks and provides banca transportation services to visitors. He said other people in the area wanted to set up a similar business.
Just last month, a private resort opened in barangay Tan-awan beside the port terminal of Servila’s group.
He said they also see new motorboats from other municipalities that frequent the area bringing divers and other tourists.
A second fisherfolk group was established last December by locals.
At the Capitol, Gov. Gwendolyn Garcia yesterday formed a technical working group (TWG) to craft guidelines for whale shark watching in Oslob.
The TWG is headed by Provincial Board (PB) Member Peter John Calderon.
Its members include the Whale Shark Watchers Organization, the Provincial Veterinarian Rose Marie Vincoy, Provincial Legal Officer Marino Martinquilla, Provincial Engineer Eulogio Pelayre and Provincial Agriculturist Necias Vicoy.
Calderon said that the TWG will meet on Thursday in Oslob town to agree on guidelines.
The governor met with Oslob Mayor Ronald Guaren, who earlier handed over a copy of a new municipal ordinance passed for the protection of whale sharks.
The mayor said guides, who are fisherfolk in barangay Tan-awan, will be organized into a single group to be accredited by the municipality.
In the Oslob municipal ordinance, only an accredited group will be allowed to ferry tourists to the site where the whale sharks are.
Motor boats are prohibited in the area. Only paddle boats are allowed.
Touching and riding the whale sharks are also prohibited.
Buoys in the seawater will mark the designated whale shark watching area.
Under the proposed procedures, tourism officers will give a briefing for visitors in a designated area.
Viewing is limited to 30 minutes. Tourists will be provided with life jackets.
A maximum of six tourists is allowed to view for 30 minutes while a maximum of four divers is allowed to avoid crowding.
Fees were set in the ordinance—P300 per person for non-Oslob residents. Oslob residents will be charged only P30 per adult and P15 for children below 12 years old.
Tourists bringing video cameras will be charged an additional fee of P100.
Snorkeling is charged P20 and diving in the area will cost P50 per person.
Violators of the ordinance will be fined P2,000 or face jail time of four to six months. /Candeze R. Mongaya and Carmel Loise Matus
Source: Cebu Daily News