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Snorkeling with whale sharks

By Atty. Gloria Estenzo Ramos

Cebu Daily News

Two of our children had the distinct privilege of experiencing what they described as an incredibly “amazing” dive with whale sharks, also known as butanding and tuki (in Cebuano), at Donsol, Sorsogon. The place is world-famous for the abundance of the gentle giants in its waters, from November to May. Whale sharks are also spotted at Sogod Bay in Leyte. Apparently, warm seawaters teeming with planktons and krill attract whale sharks to said areas. The Philippines is identified as one of the fourteen whale shark hotspot countries in the world. (www.whalesharkproject.org)
The news about the tuki’s presence in the municipal waters of Oslob, in Cebu, stirred a lot of excitement in not a few residents, this writer and our clan members included. Having the chance to snorkel with the gentle giants of the tropical seas was an unexpected dream come true during the holiday break. However, while it was unforgettable, the possible effects of the manual feeding of whale sharks, and the unregulated numbers of tourists and bancas converging in the area is worrisome.
The whale shark is listed as “vulnerable” in the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Red List (www.iucnredlist.org). It faces real danger of extinction, if conservation measures are not undertaken.
Our country committed to conserve and protect wildlife, including whale sharks, as a signatory of the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Bonn Convention for the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS). Republic Act No. 9147, the Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act, penalizes killing, trading and any form of maltreatment and/or inflicting injury upon whale sharks and wildlife. Under the CMS and RA 9147, we are duty-bound to conserve and protect the whale sharks and their habitats “to promote ecological balance and enhance biological diversity” and “to pursue, with due regard to the national interest, the Philippine commitment to international conventions, protection of wildlife and their habitats.”
The Department of Agriculture (DA) has jurisdiction over all declared critical aquatic habitats, all aquatic resources including but not limited to all fishes, aquatic plants, invertebrates and all marine mammals, except dugong. For the implementation of International agreement on international trade in endangered species of wild fauna and fora, the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) of the DA is entrusted as the management authority for aquatic resources (section 19, RA 9741).
To provide advice to BFAR as a management authority, the designated scientific authorities for aquatic/marine species are the BFAR, the University of the Philippines (UP) Marine Science Institute, UP Visayas, Siliman University and the National Museum and other agencies as may be designated by the Secretary.
Former president Gloria Macapagal- Arroyo issued Administrative Order 282, where the Philippine Navy, the Coast Guard, Philippine National Police Maritime Command, the DA, Department of Environment and Natural Resources, and concerned local government units were directed to “coordinate with academe and marine fisheries expert to locate, monitor, and protect the whale sharks’ pathways in Philippine waters.” In addition, the National Bureau of Investigation and National Prosecution Service of the Department of Justice were ordered to step up the investigation, filing, and prosecution of criminal cases involving violation of laws, rules and regulations on the protection of whale sharks.” (www.mb.com.ph/node/ 250830/gma-move)
Is feeding of the whale sharks in Oslob detrimental and a violation of our laws? BFAR and the aforementioned scientific authorities must already intervene and coordinate with the local government units on this issue. Hopefully guidelines will soon be issued for all stakeholders to comply.
Many scientists believe that whale sharks should not be manually fed as this will impact their behavior, foster dependency, apart from consequences that are not safe to both the tuki and humans.
“Whale sharks are passive creatures and can be agitated by aggressive behavior such as being touched, or chased. It is as much a diver’s responsibility as anyone’s to ensure the survival of Whale Sharks for future generations. This means causing minimal disturbance to the sharks when approaching by boat or when diving. Although whale sharks are harmless, their sheer size makes it necessary to exercise caution around them, especially at the tail end.” (www.whalesharkproject.org)
It is most important that stakeholders be educated on what constitutes responsible behavior in the inter-action with whale sharks. A Whale Shark Code of Conduct was developed by The Shark Trust, the Australian Department of Conservation and Land Management and PADI and the Project AWARE Foundation, both for the safety of divers and of the whale sharks, and also by Donsol, http://tourism.albay.gov.ph/butandingnotes.html, as follows:
1. Do not attempt to touch, ride, or chase a whale shark.
2. Do not restrict normal movement or behavior of the shark.
3. Maintain a minimum distance of 3 meters from the whale shark and at least 4 meters from its tail.
4. Do not undertake flash photography.
5. Do not use underwater motorized diver propulsions.
We cannot over-stress the importance of respect for the whale sharks. Noise should be avoided and the required distance maintained. Feeding and touching the may cause harm. While it is normal to be stupefied by their humongous but gentle presence, our over-excitement might just drive them away, or worse, cause them and the swimmers harm. It is a big loss on “environmental, ecological, genetic, scientific, aesthetic, recreational, cultural, educational, social and economic” grounds, if the whale sharks chose to change their migratory route and by-pass Cebu, should our behavior threaten their tranquil existence.
The tuki’s charm might just make political authorities more conscious of the need to conserve and protect our biological wealth and implement our long-languishing environmental laws, coinciding with the UN Decade on Biodiversity (2010-2020).

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