- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 8, 2006

DONSOL, Philippines — Residents of this placid and secluded little town once knew a big but unintended secret: In the first half of the year, the nearby sea swarms with the world’s largest fish.

Whale sharks, some as big as a bus, have put on an annual show for generations of islanders, swimming close to shore, seemingly unafraid of people, who left the fish alone.

Then in 1997, a group of visitors got wind of the creatures, called “butanding” here. They were enthralled by the sharks’ gentleness, swimming like gigantic dolphins, said Donsol Mayor Salve Ocaya.

The Internet helped get word out to tourists, who began descending on laid-back Donsol, tucked amid coconut groves and hills away from the main road in Sorsogon province, about 360 miles southeast of Manila near the southeastern tip of Luzon.

Francis Ricciardone, who was the U.S. ambassador, and a few other diplomats visited last year. President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo came in April and left ecstatic after a 20-minute encounter with an enormous whale shark.

“The whale sharks brought us to the limelight,” Mr. Ocaya said.

The town is still adjusting.

Budding industry

“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 in 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. They don’t eat meat, but survive by sucking seawater into their gaping mouths and capturing plankton and tiny crustaceans on their gill rakers, marine specialists say.

Little is known about the nature of whale sharks, which roam warm tropical seas. They congregate in Donsol’s murky waters from January to June, probably because of the abundance of plankton, said the local branch of the World Wildlife Fund, a conservation group.

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

Only 900 tourists visited the town in 1998, the year after word of the sharks started to spread. Last year, Donsol had 7,600 visitors, a third of them foreigners, tourism officer Salvador Adrao Jr. said.

Close encounters

On a recent day, sport utility vehicles rumbled down a muddy hillside road in palm-lined Dancalan, bringing dozens of tourists to the small, government-run visitor center, which collects boat rental and guide fees and arranges daylong expeditions. Villagers rented snorkels and rubber fins and peddled souvenirs. Police armed with M-16 rifles watched over the early-morning 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.

Commotion erupted as the boat maneuvered close to the whale shark.

Carlos Pendor, a stocky, sunburned guide, persuaded two jittery tourists to jump off the boat. He pulled 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 huge it was hard to see 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 housewife from Hamden, Conn.

“It was like ‘Jaws,’ ” said her daughter, Maral, 10. 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.”

Growing pains

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.

A construction boom fosters a new sense of hope.

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 the peak months of March and April, prompting plans for construction of a hotel, along with a concrete road to Dancalan. A small airport is being discussed.

Donsol, however, is wary about damaging the pristine conditions that lure the sharks. Projects like 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 World Wildlife Fund and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Poachers hunt the sharks for lucrative Asian markets such as Taiwan, where demand is strong for pricey shark fin’s soup.

Although Donsol has been designated a sanctuary, whale sharks face danger when they slip beyond its waters. Villagers say they have seen sharks with spear wounds and slashed fins or tails. One, dubbed “Lucky,” has a long nylon rope dangling from its tail, indicating it may have escaped from poachers.

Dancalan’s seaside visitor center has become a conservation outpost. “The whale shark has only one natural enemy — your appetite for shark fin’s soup,” a sign says. Tourists are required to watch a video about whale shark protection before going out to sea.

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 Mrs. Bikales, the Connecticut housewife.

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