Palawan, too, is home to whale sharks

19 Aug 2007

PUERTO PRINCESA CITY -- The waters of Puerto Bay were so calm that morning early last week, it was as if a thin layer of soft tissue had blanketed the entire delta as the sun pierced the horizon.

Julie Danag, a boat skipper, scanned the blue waters looking for signs of bird activity that could signal a fish feeding frenzy.

From a distance, he spotted a small fleet of tuna fishermen, instinctively cranked the boat’s engine and raced toward the area as his guests, award-winning wildlife photographer Duncan Murrell, along with an Englishman and a Greek hobbyist, got ready to enter the water with snorkels and fins and armed with an expensive underwater camera.

In less than a minute, Murrell and his companions watched – enthralled -- as a swarm of hungry tuna feasted on a school of tiny jacks.

But the real treat was yet to begin. While swimming in the deep blue, Murrell gawked as the silhouette of a giant fish glided underneath him, heading toward the surface.

A whale shark twice the length of their boat was herding the smaller fish into the killing zone, as if working in cahoots with the tuna.

Murrell felt an adrenaline rush as he scrambled to take a series of underwater shots rarely seen in these parts.

It was picture perfect: The gentle whale shark, about six meters in length, seemed to be posing for the photographer, like a ballerina about to execute a pirouette.

“If I were to compose that frame on Photoshop, I wouldn’t have needed to alter anything,” Murrell said of the picture.

Sightings of the rare whale shark (Rhincodon typus) around Puerto Princesa City just right outside the bay have increased in frequency over the last five years, prompting tourism officials and conservation groups to take stock of its potential as a tourist attraction.

City tourism officer Melinda San Juan-Mohammad said they were setting aside funds this year, for the first time, to undertake a more rigorous program to protect the whale shark and to promote it as a tourist attraction, in addition to the famous underground river of Puerto Princesa City.

“We are undertaking a capacity-building program to train local guides for whale shark watching and to promote this segment of tourism in Puerto Princesa,” Mohammad told the Inquirer.

Toto Cayabo, who works with boat skipper Danag, runs a thriving dolphin watching tour operation around Puerto Bay and is the first in the business to offer whale shark watching.

Cayabo has tied up with the city’s hotels and offers the tour at P750 per person as an introductory price.

“Pag ganitong kalmada ang panahon, malaki talaga ang chance makita ang butanding (When the waters are calm, there’s a good chance to see the whale shark),” he said.

While Donsol promotes whale shark tours between the months of February and May, according to Cayabo, whale sharks have been sighted in Puerto Bay between June and September.

Cayabo believes that Palawan’s whale sharks, being migratory species, may have come from as far away as Sorsogon looking for calm waters teeming with plankton, krill and small sardines which serve as their diet.

There have been little or no scientific studies on Puerto Princesa’s whale sharks, compared to the more established whale shark congregation areas, like Donsol, Sorsogon, currently touted by the government as the world’s whale shark capital.

Murrell, who has won coveted prizes, including the prestigious BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year, said based on bits of information he had gathered, the gentle giants show up in pods (social group of whales) of three or four.

The whale shark is called “butanding” in Filipino, but Cuyuno fishermen of Palawan refer to it as “tiki-tiki,” mainly due to its resemblance in body form to a gecko.

However, unlike in Sorsogon where the whale shark had been hunted down for their meat, Palawan fishermen generally ignore the fish.

“It’s not eaten here in Palawan,” Cayabo said.

He added that the attitude of most fishermen was to avoid the fish for fear of getting it tangled in their lines and nets.

Mohammad said they were tapping science-based nongovernmental organizations in Palawan to gather more information about the whale shark and its feeding habits in Puerto Bay in order to guide their tourism promotion activities.

“We also want to tap communities around Puerto Bay so that they can benefit from this resource by serving as guides,” she said.

Source: Philippine Daily Inquirer