Cocooned in rural seclusion, the placid little town of Donsol, in The Philippines 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 – 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 round, 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 580km south-east of Manila.
Then-US 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 organise in-water viewing of the big fish – a sometimes nerve-racking attraction offered in a few places like Australia’s Ningaloo Reef, Belize in the Caribbean, Mexico and the Seychelles.
Whale sharks, which can grow as long as 18m 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 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, says the local branch of the conservation group World Wildlife Fund.
For the Philippines, which is struggling to lure foreign tourists amid law-and-order problems, Donsol has become a surprise draw.
Just 900 tourists visited the town in 1998, the year after word of the sharks got out. Last year saw 7 600 visitors – a third of them foreigners, said Donsol’s tourism officer, Salvador Adrao Junior.
On a recent day, SUVs rumbled down a muddy hillside road in palm-lined Dancalan and disgorged dozens of tourists at the small, government-run visitor centre, which collects boat rental and guide fees and arranges day-long expeditions.
Villagers rented snorkels and rubber fins and peddle 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, grey submarine just under the waves.
The boat erupted in sudden commotion as the boat manoeuvred close 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 seven-metre whale shark, its grey-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.