Venturing Into The Wider World of International Whale Shark Research

LAMAVE attended the 5th International Whale Shark Conference (IWSC) held last 28-31 May 2019 in the town of Exmouth, WA Australia. Part of the organization’s contingent were LAMAVE researchers Ari Agustines and Tin Legaspi, the only Filipinas to participate in this fifth conference.

 Project Leader Ari Agustines presented the latest research findings from our whale shark research site in Palawan and how the individuals there are connected to other sites. Project Leader Tin Legaspi presented about top-down versus bottom-up management and how to find the balance when provisioning an endangered species. Her presentation focused on LAMAVEs ongoing collaborative work with the Local Government Unit of Oslob Cebu, the local community and other government departments (provincial, national).

Read about their experiences taking their first dive into the world of international whale shark research.

The nerves that come with firsts

“I was nervous,” Ari shared, “because I knew that I had to present in front of a lot of experts on whale sharks… It was a huge room. It was big.” Attendees of the conference included the world's leading whale shark scientists, conservationists, natural resource managers and tourism managers. She worried about how she was going to “appear in front of a panel of experts from all over the world doing different studies…  They know their stuff.”

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It was Tin’s first international conference and she was one of the first presenters for Day 1. She was anxious for her own reasons. “Prior to attending the conference, I was actually nervous mainly because… my topic was ‘controversial.’ That gave me a lot of pressure.”

But mixed in with their fluttering butterflies was an unyielding exhilaration. “I was also excited,” said Tin. “The names of the people you stumble upon (when) reading journals, they were actually there which is very cool.”

Before the actual conference, lines of communication were opened on social media for new participants who wanted to interact with other whale shark researchers and scientists.

Tin reflected on that, saying “That made me feel legit, because... sila talaga yung foundation ng whale shark science.” (“That made me feel legit, because... they are really the foundation of whale shark science.”)

For her part, Ari redirected her nervous energy towards the objective of learning and contributing to whale shark research and conservation: “I psyched myself up to get excited about sharing what I was doing in a new project site in the Philippines, something that most of them have never heard of before. So it’s more of a chance for me to share knowledge as opposed to being judged by people.”

“You know what, the things we are doing in the Philippines, especially in Palawan, it’s a new site. And everyone in the conference is there to learn.”

Sharing the LAMAVE experience

Tin understood that she had something unique and relevant to share at the conference, saying “During the conference, they know that we are the ones who actually encounter whale sharks every day. So they’re also interested, especially with my project, because I have a site that isn’t ‘normal.’ So, they are interested in how whale sharks behave, how clean are they, if they have many copepods or not, what’s their profile…”

Ari shared the same feelings about the reception of her presentation. She said, “A lot of people were interested in the study site, Palawan… I think they understood our message well, like the very important bits like policy, conservation implications. I really tried to stress the points of why it is needed for us to do collaborative work with certain countries.”

A friendly network of brilliant minds

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Despite the initial apprehension that comes with being in the presence of scientific giants, the two ladies soon found the conference to be filled with gregarious, helpful colleagues.

Tin said, “You meet a lot of experts, and these experts make you think that despite how much they do or where they’ve been in the world, they are still human. They still have the same sense of humor and you can get along with them. I got really inspired by what they do.”

“It makes me feel inspired, given that they are very approachable. It means they are willing to help you out on how you can develop yourself as a whale shark scientist...That made me feel like I am actually part of them. They don’t discriminate in terms of experience. They encourage people to work on things.”

Ari felt that associating herself with these experts was an invaluable experience. “I think it was important for me (to go to this conference),” she said. “For me to be able to socialize and network with other people… they were all very friendly. We are all working towards the same goal… It’s great to build a network of like-minded people.”

Representing the country

Aside from representing LAMAVE in such a big conference with global experts, Tin and Ari were also there as ‘ambassadors’ for the Philippines and its whale shark researchers.

“I felt that it was me Gonzo and Tin who represented the Philippines,” Ari shared. “In these international conferences, it’s important for developing countries to be present. It’s different, the things we are going through. Like how we also value conservation, on top of trying to deal with national poverty or other important things. We value conservation on top of that.”

Tin echoed her sentiment, saying “It’s always good to represent the Philippines and talk about whale sharks in the Philippines.” 

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“It was also a good experience, because we are the only Filipinas to attend the 5th International Whale Shark Conference… I feel pressured because I feel like I need to strive more.”

Despite this monumental privilege to represent Filipina researchers, they remained humble and deflected any praise. Instead, they spoke of how their presence there should be an open invitation to all young Filipino scientists to explore work and collaborations with the international scientific community.

“The main gist of being able to do this (attend the conference as Filipinas) is to welcome everyone. Maybe we (Ari and I) helped kickstart this, but I hope that more and more young Filipino scientists would venture more into presenting their studies not just in the Philippines but even outside.”

LAMAVE is proud to be part of these two young Filipina researchers’ journey and is excited to see them develop as part of the next generation of whale shark experts. LAMAVE hopes to continue to support the Philippine community of marine scientists who can make a difference on a local, national, and global scale.

This is the fifth whale shark conference following on from the successful IWSC4 held in Doha, Qatar in 2016. It is also the first international conference to be held in Exmouth at the new Ningaloo Centre. As whale shark enthusiasts will know, Ningaloo Reef is one of the oldest whale shark tourism destinations in the world and the conference offers a unique opportunity to highlight the destinations best practices when it comes to managing whale shark tourism – a key theme of the conference which aims to bring together scientists, tourism managers and marine park managers.

Recognised as hosting the second largest known population of whale sharks in the world, the Philippines is of global significance to the species. LAMAVE have been studying whale sharks in the Philippines since 2012 and our team was happy to share the latest research findings from our five study sites.