Wildlife watch in a small town with the endangered giants of the sea
Leaning over the gunwale of his handmade baroto, a local sea kayak with outriggers, Leyte fisherman Ery “Baloy” Cordova peers into the cobalt depths of the Bohol Sea, scanning for signs of the world’s largest fish. A shout and signal from his outstretched arm tell us he’s found one. My friend free-surfer Corey Wills and I scramble for our swim fins, masks, snorkels and camera, and jump into the sea. The late afternoon sun casts a golden light on the emerald-green landscape of Southern Leyte.
Below the surface, the enormous shape of a whale shark glides silently past, seemingly oblivious to us or perhaps deliberately ignoring the familiar shadow of fanboys. Whale sharks can grow to lengths of over 12m, the size of a regular city bus, and even after diving and snorkeling with them for more than 10 years, the jolt of adrenaline from being in the water with an animal this huge never fails to put my heart rate into overdrive.
Whale sharks in numbers
- Swimming with whale sharks? Experts suggest keeping a distance of at least 3m
- Whale sharks can travel long distances. Recently, scientists tracked an adult female (whom they named Anne) from Panama to the western Pacific, covering a distance of 20,000km
- 12.65m: the length of the largest whale shark on record. Most of those spotted in coastal areas are reportedly juveniles ranging from 4m to 8m in size
- 1.5m: the average size of a whale shark’s mouth, which contains about 300 rows of tiny teeth
Trying to keep up with the cruising butanding, as they are called locally, Corey and I lean into our swim fins in an open water sprint to keep pace. Although we’re swimming as fast as we can, the shark appears to be barely exerting itself, effortlessly propelled with casual sweeps of its enormous sickle tail.
We spend more than five minutes swimming with this gentle giant, snapping a few photos as it comes to the surface in search of high concentrations of plankton (krill, or small shrimp, and other tiny organisms), its natural food. Unlike their toothy cousins around the world, whale sharks are interested only in the tiniest prey, and are totally harmless to any creature larger than a thumbnail.
“Whale sharks follow the food trail,” says Lorenzo “Lory” Tan, author of A Field Guide to Whales and Dolphins in the Philippines. “And there’s a lot of food for them in these reefs.” Although they are relatively slow swimmers, whale sharks can travel great distances, traversing entire oceans during migration season. Those that migrate from California and Mexico in search of food swim through the Pacific and eventually find themselves in the Coral Triangle, an area encompassing the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste. Recognized and protected as the world’s richest trove of marine biodiversity, the Coral Triangle offers plenty of sustenance after the long journey.
From the Pacific, Lory explains, they come into the Philippines through two entry points: the San Bernardino Strait between Luzon and Samar, which accounts for the Donsol whale shark sightings, and the Surigao Strait, between the Bohol Sea (also known as the Mindanao Sea) and the Leyte Gulf. The coral-rich waters around Panaon Island and in Sogod Bay in Southern Leyte attract a large number of whale sharks every year, typically arriving in October and staying as late as the following June (although the season varies annually depending on the southwest monsoon).
The area surrounding the sleepy fishing village of Pintuyan offers one of the most unforgettable encounters with a whale shark. Sprawled on the coastline of Sogod Bay, Pintuyan is a tiny village of less than 10,000 people, most of them fisherfolk. A four-hour drive south of Tacloban, Sogod Bay itself is fringed by quiet cobblestone beaches, framed by a dramatic backdrop of rugged hills covered with dense groves of towering palm trees (copra production is another important local industry).
Whale shark trivia
- The pattern of spots on the whale shark is unique to each individual, much like a fingerprint
Although it’s received less attention than other whale shark hotspots around the Philippines, Pintuyan is the hub for an innovative project that tracks the movements of these animals using photos captured by visiting tourists. Marine biologists have rung the alarm bells over decreasing world populations — largely due to illegal fishing — and in 2016, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) added the whale shark to its Red List of endangered species.
“Whale sharks are such a vital part of the ecosystem,” says Lory. “For one thing, they clean the oceans of plankton and krill that could otherwise cloud the waters. That hinders the penetration of sunlight, which the underwater plants and coral need to produce food for the ocean’s fish.” And yet, demand for whale shark fins and meat has led to poaching and a dramatic population decline.
“With the help of tourists, we’ve identified 250 individual animals here in Pintuyan since 2012,” says Gonzalo Araujo, one of the executive directors of the Large Marine Vertebrates Research Institute Philippines (LAMAVE), a science-based conservation organization dedicated to protecting marine life across the archipelago. Scientists from the project have employed outside-the-box ideas such as using software originally designed for mapping constellations to create a photo identification system for tracking whale shark populations.
“The pattern of spots on the whale shark is unique to each animal; it’s just like a fingerprint,” explains Gonzalo. Using photos taken by LAMAVE staff and volunteers as well as photos of whale sharks found on social media — utilizing tourists as citizen scientists — the project has built a database of whale shark sightings from across the Philippines and beyond. With statistical analysis software, researchers have been able to create a more complete picture of whale shark populations and migration patterns.
“We’ve made great progress in our understanding of the lives of whale sharks since the start of the project, but there is still so much we don’t know about these animals,” Gonzalo says. For example, the data collected from the waters surrounding Pintuyan shows that more than 80% of the whale sharks here are male. But where are the females? Very little is known about whale shark mating patterns or the birthing of their young.
“So far, only two baby whale sharks have ever been found in the Philippines — we just don’t know where they go after that, but of course they must be here somewhere,” Gonzalo adds.
Whale shark tourism in Southern Leyte has been organized by KASAKA, a community-based cooperative of fisherfolk from the village of Sonok, since its launch in February 2005. The cooperative hires local guides, whale shark-spotters and boat captains and trains them in the best practices of whale shark tourism. KASAKA currently has more than 60 members, catering to the more than 900 whale shark tourists arriving annually.
Interestingly, this ecotourism-based livelihood grew naturally from the skills the Sonok villagers already had as fishermen. “All my life I’ve been a spear fisherman,” says Ery. “I was eight years old when I saw my first whale shark. I was out fishing when it appeared, the shark was bigger than my boat. I was so scared.”
Whale sharks in numbers
- 5km/h is the typical cruising speed of whale sharks
- 300: the number of pups a pregnant whale shark can carry at one time
- 100 years: whale sharks can live up to a century (and sometimes to 150 years) but generally become ready to reproduce at age 25
- 1300: the number of whale sharks that have been identified in the Philippines to date
One of the founding members of KASAKA, Ery is legendary for his uncanny ability to locate whale sharks. His technique is unbelievably simple: wearing a scuba mask, he bends over the side of his boat and looks beneath the waves of the Bohol Sea for the tell-tale shape of the butanding. It’s the same technique he’s used for catching fish for his daily meals since he was a kid, but he had no idea these skills would lead to an entirely new career.
“Here we call the whale shark ‘tiki-tiki’, like the small lizards you find at home. When you look from above, the shark looks almost the same as the tiki-tiki,” says Mutya Castañares, Ery’s partner. She runs a pleasant guesthouse called La Guerta in Pintuyan that is popular among visiting whale shark enthusiasts; one of the effects of growing whale shark tourism.
Before whale shark tourism began in the Philippines in the late ’90s, the idea of paying to swim with one seemed crazy to Ery and his fellow fishermen. The tight-knit community was isolated for centuries, accessible only by boat or via a winding dirt track until the national highway was completed here in the early 2000s. But as the tourist numbers visiting this area continue to increase, they’ve embraced the preservation of the whale sharks like a calling.
Since there’s no feeding or baiting of the sharks, snorkelers are dependent on their spotters to find a shark to swim with; literally a fishing trip for the world’s largest fish. It’s this element of uncertainty that makes every whale shark encounter here that much more special and exciting.
In fact, our most memorable whale shark encounter doesn’t happen until the very last hour of our very last day in Pintuyan. With the late afternoon sun blazing, Ery spots a school of small tuna exploding to the surface, feeding on tiny baitfish. Suddenly, the massive dorsal fin of a whale shark knifes through the melee, the butanding taking in enormous gulps of its prey.
Ery signals for us to jump in the water, directly in the path of the approaching giant. Adrenaline rushing, I dive beneath the surface just as the form of the whale shark materializes in the shimmering sunbeams. I try to freeze the memory of this beautiful creature as it passes, its outline disappearing into the fading light above the Bohol Sea. “Did that really just happen?” I think to myself as I resurface, the entire experience feeling like a waking dream. Seeing the look of quiet pride on Ery’s face as he sees my amazed stare, I know I’m not the only one who’s completely enchanted by these magical animals.
This article first appeared in the June 2018 issue of Smile magazine.