Whale sharks in Southern Leyte
Whale sharks have been sighted in the waters of Panaon Island, Southern Leyte for decades. Anecdotal reports by local fishermen speak of spotted giants that would haunt their time at sea. This wasn’t the case for the people of Barangay Son-ok II, part of the Municipality of Pintuyan, who took the initiative to start ecotourism activities with the giants in their waters in 2007.
Following an exploratory trip in 2012 to confirm the presence of whale sharks in Panaon Island, LAMAVE decided to set up a base in Pintuyan in February 2013. Since then, we’ve conducted five research seasons from 2013 to 2017. The seasons run from November to June and are highly dictated by the southwest monsoon. During the first two research season, the team identified a total of 93 individual whale sharks, identifying the aggregation as mainly composed of juvenile males. The research was later published in 2016 as the first scientific description of the aggregation of whale sharks in Southern Leyte. Incredibly the team matched one of the whale sharks to Taiwan, representing the first international match through photo-ID in South-East Asia with a minimum distance covered of 1600 km.
Throughout the years the team have been monitoring the presence of whale sharks, as well as conducting in-water behavioural surveys and tourist compliance surveys in the area. We work closely with the local community by conducting capacity building activities and encouraging sustainable practices. We are fortunate to have a fantastic working relationship with tour operators that visit the site.
Investigating the impacts of tourism
Shark-based tourism is a rapidly growing industry, and here in the Philippines, whale sharks are no exception. Understanding any impacts of tourism is essential to minimise any potential detrimental effects on the target species and habitat. LAMAVE has been conducting in-water behavioural observations of whale sharks in Southern Leyte to understand any impacts of tourism on this site. Between 2013 and 2016 the team recorded a total of 527 tourist-whale shark interactions during 359 trips. The results of the study published in 2017 revealed that interactions were significantly shorter when the interactions were closer to motorized vessels or in deeper waters, information that was shared with the Local Government Unit to help improve local guidelines and the sustainability of the practice.
Championing sustainable tourism
To date, Southern Leyte remains the most sustainable whale shark tourism practice in the country, which is why the local whale shark guides were chosen to star in the Their Future Our Future campaign film promoting sustainable marine wildlife tourism. Watch the video opposite which explains why snorkelers should always keep their distance when interacting with marine animals.
Extending to Northern Mindanao
In 2017, LAMAVE officially extended the research project to Northern Mindanao, after an exploratory visits in 2016 that confirmed the presence of whale sharks across various municipalities. The team has matched individual sharks between various sites in the Bohol Sea raising the question of where the whale sharks go and how are they use the area. One of the main goals of the project is to asses the reliability of whale shark sightings in the area, and understand why and where the sharks aggregate. We are also investigating any whale shark-fisherfolk conflicts, and how these could be mitigated.