RIGHT now, they are the most talked about phenomenon in many areas in the country, with the exception of Chief Justice Renato Corona’s impeachment.
But the whale sharks (Rhyncodon typus) sighted off Barangay Tan-awan, Oslob are oblivious to their fame and the turmoil they have caused among the southern Cebu town’s officials and nature conservationists.
The local fishermen’s practice of feeding the whale sharks—known in the Visayas as tuki-tuki or tuki—krill (tiny shrimp-like crustaceans) to lure them to the surface, which many visitors find entertaining, is the subject of debate between locals and nature conservationists.
Apart from that, local stakeholders—barangay officials, fishermen and the Municipal Government—are at odds over management policies relating to the whale sharks.
Whale sharks are the largest extant fish species—and the largest among 440 shark species—in the ocean. They are listed as “vulnerable” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature due to the threats they face (like hunting) and their dwindling population, even with strict protection policies in Australia.
Whale sharks are migratory and are found in warm waters around the world, except the Mediterranean. They are gentle creatures that feed mostly on plankton.
However, there are still risks involved when coming in close contact with these sea creatures.
But more often than not, the risks—on the whale sharks and on humans—are not pointed out to visitors, many of whom have never encountered live sea creatures the size of the whale shark.
Mark Suson, a diver and councilor of Barangay Gawi in Oslob, said that late last year, he and some divers and fishermen were able to identify nine whale sharks—three females, six males—off Barangay Tan-awan.
Whale sharks have spots on their back and sides. The pattern of spots is unique to each creature and serves as a whale shark’s thumbprint.
Suson said they submitted photos of the Tan-awan whale sharks to an international database and found that there was no match. This means that the whale sharks here have not been identified until now, he added.
In a recent count, Suson said, the number of whale sharks seen in Tan-awan at one time reached 18, some of them still juvenile. Local divers have yet to identify the creatures.
Although the whale sharks were sighted off Tan-awan sometime in September last year yet, the visitors’ briefing area was set up by the Municipal Government only last Jan. 7.
The briefing area also serves as ticket booth, where visitors pay P300 each to ride a paddle boat and go near the area where the whale sharks are fed.
At the briefing area-cum ticket booth, visitors are shown a laminated printout of “the 10 commandments”, which lists prohibited acts while near the whale sharks.
While the situation in Tan-awan on weekdays may be manageable, weekends and holidays are chaotic.
During the Chinese New Year holiday, more than 20 people stood in line from 9 a.m. to noon, waiting for the 15 or so paddle boats, occupied by around 20 visitors, to come back to shore.
A visitor has 30 minutes to watch and even get into the water in the whale shark feeding area.
At the briefing area, more people try to secure tickets and get a chance to see the whale sharks. With a long line of people waiting, briefings are often cut short, or the person in-charge merely points to the 10 commandments printout.
Some visitors, who believed they can battle the strong current, opted to swim to the feeding area with fins, masks and snorkels. Local government officials at the briefing area are not certain what to do with the swimmers so they (swimmers) could go near the whale sharks without paying fees or getting a briefing.
Suson said more often the snorkelers are the problem.
Many of the snorkelers are brave enough to swim close to the whale sharks in deep waters but few are aware how to behave properly in the presence of the sea creatures.
For those who are deaf to the barangay official’s instructions at the briefing area, a dive shop has put up a sign at Rene Boy’s cottages on what not to do around whale sharks.
The sign, complete with graphics, says whale sharks should not be touched; swimmers should stay at least three meters away from the shark’s head and four meters away from its tail; and when taking pictures of the creature, one should turn off the camera flash. Sadly, the sign (about three feet by five feet) is overlooked by many.
There are no signs elsewhere in the area, not even near the briefing area where there are make-shift tents offering food to visitors who are waiting for their turn to jump on a boat.
Fortunately, the local government has prohibited motorized boats from going near the feeding area and installed buoys where motorized sea craft can be moored.
Suson raised another problem—garbage.
Many visitors leave litter on the beach, or worse, throw plastic bags and bottles into the sea. Owwa members make some effort to pick up trash, but on busy days, they have no time to clean up.
Apart from pointing out the disadvantages of mass tourism, nature conservationists and marine scientists do not approve of the practice of the Oslob Whale Shark Wardens Association (Owwa) to feed whale sharks.
To lure the creatures to the surface, an Owwa member on a small paddle boat drops krill into the water.
While the scene may look fascinating, even amusing—one whale shark, possibly still a baby judging by its size, dogged the Owwa member’s boat like an excited puppy, mouth agape—a marine scientist said the practice may alter the behavior of the sea creatures.
Anthony Ilano, University of San Carlos marine biology section head, said whale sharks are creatures of the wild. “They should be treated as they are. Mura’g dili na maayo (It might not be right to feed them),” he told Sun.Star in an e-mail.
John Peter Melendres, a diver, disagrees.
He said that even if fishermen drop 10 kilos of krill a day for the whale sharks, this would not be enough for the sea creatures. “It would still feed on its own,” he added.
According to a research paper by Philip J. Motta, et. al. of the University of South Florida Department of Integrative Biology, a whale shark with a total length of 443 centimeters (14 feet) can consume about 1,467 grams of plankton an hour while one with a total length of 622 centimeters (20.4 feet) can devour 2,763 grams per hour.
Melendres pointed out that in Mexico and Indonesia, whale sharks are also fed by humans.
Besides, he said, it is better that Oslob fisherfolk understand the importance of the whale sharks and take care of these creatures.
Ilano admitted, though, that to be able to find out what is right or wrong, studies have to be conducted in the area.
“It would be good to conduct studies on plankton population dynamics, why they (whale sharks) are there, food availability, water current system, survey-species identification, and density or number of animal population on a weekly, monthly or daily basis,” he said.
He stressed the need for appropriate management measures in the area to protect the whale sharks. (First of 2 parts)