The Vanishing Whale Sharks of Donsol
As I mentioned on our Facebook Page last week, Berlin is THE crossroads for travel bloggers this summer. While exchanging stories and travel tips, we discovered that the whale sharks of Donsol, Philippines appear to be vanishing.
I was stunned.
When I got home, I immediately started researching the claim and discovered that it appears to be true. Apparently, the number of whale shark sightings has dropped dramatically. There has not been much international media coverage on the issue, but newspapers in the Philippines are reporting on the decline and theorizing on the causes.
Theories include bad tourist behavior, overfishing, shifts in plankton growth and global warming. Several papers reference the fact that local water temperatures have increased by a whopping 2 degrees Celsius. In reality, the decline in the number of whale sharks is probably related to all of the above.
Interviews with local experts suggest that whale shark sightings peaked in 2010, the year we visited Donsol. That means that our video and follow-up report are not representative of the situation today – unfortunately.
In our trip report, we discuss the fact that many tours were not in accordance with the rules set up by the Word Wildlife Fund and we urged tourists to insist that their boat captains and fellow passengers follow the rules as closely as possible. If you watch the video above, which was picked up by Sharkdiver.com, you’ll notice that it is edited to emphasize the true nature of swimming with the whale sharks: it is a very competitive and chaotic experience.
Even if you try to follow the rules, the whale sharks don’t always play along. For example, at 2:35 in the video above, I am swimming alongside a large whale shark when it suddenly starts to turn. (It looks like I’m turning, but that’s just the way it’s filmed combined with the fact that I am angling myself to see the shark.) Suddenly, I end up above the massive animal in increasingly shallow water. I flatten out to avoid touching the shark, but you can see me looking back to see whether the dorsal fin is about to hit me. That shot ends because the shark continues to turn towards Thomas and he has to dodge it. This short snippet highlights the challenges of swimming with whale sharks, even when swimmers are well intentioned.
Yet, as we mentioned before, the income from carefully controlled whale shark tourism provides a powerful motivation for locals to stop hunting whale sharks, protect local waters, and educate on climate change. Let’s hope experts are closely studying the Donsol experience and applying the lessons to other regional whale shark hotspots.