We awoke shortly after sunrise in our small air-conditioned hut. Peering out from the front door we witness the most glorious sunrise over the beach, checking the time it is a little after six, an hour before registration. We start preparing the cameras, both still and video. Nervously checking and re-checking everything as we prepare the cameras and their underwater housings. Andy, my brother, asks me to do the final check on the main O-ring before we close up, like surgeons after surgery. After all, flooding my brand new hi-definition video camera is the last thing he wants on his bill this trip. After finally satisfied, the cameras are ready, and we grab our personal kit, just fins, mask & snorkel, no scuba gear this time. A knock at the door finds Ryan, a guy from the local dive shop with lead weights for the video housing, without which would make swimming with the video camera like swimming with a basketball. Twenty pounds of lead are strapped to the underneath, just to make it neutrally buoyant. We struggle, with the cameras to the Information center, God they are heavy out of the water.

The hustle and bustle around the information centre on Donsol beach is quite incredible for such a sleepy backwater of the Philippines. This is due to the presence of the “Butanding” as they are known locally. Known to the rest of us as the Whale Shark or Rhincodon Typus. For several months of the year (Feb-May), Donsul turns into the Whale Shark capital of the world, with more sightings than anywhere in Asia Pacific. These great creatures were hunted here up until 1998 when the Philippine Government made it illegal. The WWF sent a team to help transform the local fishermen from hunters to protectors, taking small groups of tourists out in their boats to have encounters with them. This is Eco-Tourism at it’s best, no longer do the fishermen have to rely on a daily catch to feed their families, now they leave the shore with cash already in their pockets, with no guarantee that they have to deliver the goods. Luckily for us, they seem to have a private competition between boat crews to get as many sightings as possible for their paying guests, all for the important tip that may follow.

Before anyone can go out, there is a registration process with a short video emphasizing the rules of interaction and a small 300 pesos conservation fee per head. First boats go out at 7:15am, and there seems to be a crazy scramble to be the first ones off the beach. We meet a group of researchers who ask if we’d like to share the cost of their boat to help there grants stretch further. We agree, and grab the cameras and kit and board a small outrigger known as a ‘bangka’. We head out with anticipation causing havoc within our empty stomachs.

Whale Shark in Donsol Whale Shark Mexico tagging

On our boat was whale shark scientist, Deni Ramirez Macias from the Centro Interdisciplinario de Ciencias Marinas, Mexico. Deni has been traveling the world collecting DNA samples for her genetic research for her PhD. Her research covers samples from Australia, Taiwan, Mozambique, the Red Sea, Holbox Island in the Caribbean and Baha California. Along with her were several freelance scientists and volunteers. They gave a quick briefing to us as to what research they will be doing in order to record each shark. First a photo ID of the left pectoral fin, this acts as a fingerprint as every shark has a unique pattern of markings. One of the volunteers will then dive down to determine the gender. After this Deni, descends with a small spear that she thrusts just forward of the dorsal fin. The spear is hollow and only goes 1-2 cm into the outer cartilage, not harming the shark in anyway, before it comes out with a small skin sample lodged inside. With other visual marks recorded, once on the boat each shark is given a number, the GPS location is recorded and all details are recorded down on a slate. The DNA sample is then transferred to a small vial with a saline mix added to preserve until Deni gets back to the lab in Mexico.

With so little known about the largest fish in the sea, it is the work of people like Deni and her team that will help us understand more. Like the old saying goes, “We cannot protect what we don’t understand!”

Unfortunately the research team were having a hard time trying to change the mentality of the fishermen who believe that she is hurting the sharks and may scare them away, resulting in a loss of their livelihood. This is where I saw an opportunity for us to help out in our own small way. If we could capture on film her taking the samples and then show the fishermen that no harm was done, maybe this could help in some small way with her research. All we’ve got to do is find a shark. We head out about half a mile from shore then turn right to follow the beach along towards the headland. Perched precariously on a small mast was our BIO’s (Butanding Interaction Officers), eyes scanning the almost mirror like surface of the morning sea, the long unknowing wait begins. Hours pass, and all aboard become relaxed, some sunbathing whilst Andy and I stand at the front of the boat, looking back and forth for dark shapes just beneath the surface. Nothing, the eyes start playing games and before we realize we are seeing dark shapes everywhere, or is it just the sea starting to tease the untrained eyes of two English lads. The sun is getting higher in the sky and temperatures are now scorching, we retreat under the canopy leaving the searching for the professionals. Moments later shouts of “Butanding, Butanding” ring out. Followed very closely by our “Where, where?” Panic sets in as everyone is frantically grabbing masks and fins. Our BIO tells us to get ready on the righthand side. Perched on the side of the bangka, our hearts pounding, we prepare the cameras for our first encounter.

Donsol, Phillipines Whale Sharks Whale Shark swimming

“Go, go, go….” We jump over the side, completely dis-orientated we surface and look at the BIO on the boat who is pointing out the direction to swim. We swim flat out following our other BIO, staring into the plankton filled water and there slowly materializing from the murk we see a large shape looming closer. This dark shape then turns to black and the white spots become more apparent and sharp. It is coming straight at me. Like a dear caught between the lights of an oncoming jugernaught, I freeze. The massive head is drawing closer and reality kicks back in, point the #%@! camera!!!! I dive down in front and swim towards the shark, with the motor drive of my camera going crazy, as I rattle off frame after frame of stills. I look through the view finder to frame as best as possible. Even with my widest lens the shark is immense. I then realize, I am in the path of a freight train, quick, do I go right or left. I go to the sharks right side so the researchers get a clear shot of the left fin. The shark cruises by almost oblivious to our presence. I then turn and begin the pursuit. As graceful and slow as they have looked on National Geographic documentaries, this guy was not hanging around. Effortlessly he cruised on by, just feet beneath the surface feeding on the plankton rich waters off Donsol. We swim like we are in the race of our lives just to keep up, I see several markings, scars from propellers showing how close the two worlds of man and fish have become. He dives, slowly becoming invisible before he begins rising again for the surface, I get in position again just ahead and swim alongside, staring into the beady little button shaped eye attached to the side of his colossal head. As the volunteer dives down to check the gender, the shy goliath banks to one side to maintain his dignity and avoid having his privates checked. He continues to bank and slowly the bright white under belly comes into view. Still banking further, he does a complete rotation and we are left completely in awe. The grace of something so massive doing these acrobatics was similar in tune to watching a jumbo jet doing a slow barrel roll. He then dived deep and we are left floating in the open ocean, speechless. I turn to find Andy, only praying that he had as good as an experience as me, and more importantly captured it on film.

Once on the boat, the research team rapidly recorded down all the data, GPS co-ordinates, time, gender, photo number, scars and other marks and finally a give him a number. Not so scientifically I name him George! Deni is in a frenzy of her own and explains that she has only every seen this barrel roll behavior once before in all her research, we were very lucky.

As huge as he had seemed, George was only a juvenile at 5 meters. Whale Sharks grow to a full length of 15 meters. The problem they now face from the increased demand for their fins for sharks fin soup is that they do not reach maturity until they are 30 years old, therefore many are killed indiscriminately before they can even re-produce. Like most other shark species the future does not look good for the Whale Shark.

swimming with Whale Sharks protect whale sharks

Agriculture Secretary Salvador Escudero II signed Fisheries and Administrative Order (FAO) 193, thereby making it unlawful to catch, sell, purchase, posses, transport and/or export whale shark and manta ray meat and related byproducts. This was a complete reversal from the BFAR’s (Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources) earlier stand that the government agency was helpless to stop the slaughter as there was no law against the export or trading of whale shark meat as technically, the whale shark is considered a fish, albeit an extremely large one. Whale sharks have not been officially declared as an endangered species, although their numbers have significantly declined in recent years.

Under FAO 193, violators now face the following penalties: a fine of not less than P500.00 (USD 13.16) and not more than P5000.00 (USD 131.58) and/or imprisonment from 6 months to 4 years. While conducting fishing operations it is considered unlawful and illegal to catch whale sharks and/or mantas. Any caught accidentally must be released unharmed.

The BFAR may request assistance from the Philippine Navy, Coast Guard and the Philippine National Police Maritime Command, as well as from other government agencies to stop the slaughter and preserve these animals. Under the local fisheries code, local governments have the power to enforce regulations only on its municipal waters, which extend to just 15 kilometers offshore.

Even after the signing of FAO 193 some unscrupulous traders are offering bounties of as high as P200,000.00 (USD 5,263.16) per whale shark in order to tempt the fishermen. This is a sure sign that there are huge profits to be made from such a venture, most of the demand is driven from Asia’s growing need for Shark’s Fin Soup to give “face” to business men and families at wedding banquets.

The thought of George ending up at some wedding banquet disgusts me, but even more disgusting is our own ignorance coming from a lack of understanding for these ancient creatures. By removing the sharks from our oceans we are throwing the entire oceans eco-system out of balance, and like the melting polar ice caps, who knows what else will follow.

All we can be certain of is that life on this Earth will never be the same for our children as it has been for us…….

Gary Stokes,
Underwater Photographer & Videographer for Oceanic Love.

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