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Whale Sharks


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Whale Sharks


Studying the whale shark population of the Philippines

LAMAVE has been studying whale sharks in the Philippines since 2012. We started working with this species to understand the human-shark interactions, and how these can be beneficial to local communities as well as for the species. However, human-shark interactions can have ecosystem-level implications which need addressing in order to ensure their long-term sustainability. We are now working across the different tourism sites in the country, namely Donsol, Oslob, Southern Leyte and Palawan. Whale sharks were targeted by fisheries in the Philippines into the late 1990s, after which time the species was nationally protected. Their populations have however declined globally, leading to their up-listing to 'Endangered' under the IUCN Red List in 2016. As part of our ecological understanding of the species, we also study their movement patterns and distribution, and how these sites link up between them.

PHOTO-IDENTIFICATION AS A RESEARCH TOOL

Our main research technique to understand their ecology is photographic identification (photo-ID). This techniques harnesses the uniqueness of the whale shark's spot pattern and through the aid of star-mapping software, we can 'match' whale sharks between areas. We have now employed this techniques across 5 sites in the country, which gives us a good idea of their movements. Our understanding can be complemented by the general public, who can also engage in collecting photo-ID data through citizen science.

TRACKING THEIR MOVEMENTS USING SATELLITE TAGS

Another research technique we've employed to understand whale shark movements is through the use of satellite tags. In 2015 we partnered with Marine Megafauna Foundation (MMF) and Tubbataha Management Office to tag whale sharks at Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park, with the aim of understanding their movement patterns in the country, but also how they might be using areas that still pose a risk for this endangered species. Satellite tags can tell us a lot about how whale sharks use specific areas, and how they might travel long distances between important foraging grounds. These data are essential to sustainably manage the species and their habitats. 

In July 2016, the IUCN Red List announced that the whale shark was no longer listed as vulnerable but rather endangered, thus sliding closer towards extinction.

HOW MANY WHALE SHARKS ARE THERE IN THE PHILIPPINES?

In 2016, the 1000th whale shark was identified in Philippine waters, making the Philippines the third largest known aggregation of whale sharks in the world and the biggest in South East Asia, according to the online library Wildbook for whale sharks. The video opposite explains more and tells you how you can contribute to whale shark conservation.

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Donsol


Sorsogon

Donsol


Sorsogon

understanding this famous WHALE SHARK aggregation

Donsol Bay is home to the Philippines' original whale shark tourism destination, which was founded in 1998 with the assistance of WWF-Philippines. Whale sharks naturally aggregate here to feed in the rich waters. In 2015, LAMAVE started working with WWF-Philippines to study this aggregation and to build a comprehensive database of individual whale sharks using photo-ID. 

DONSOL: THE 'WHALE SHARK CAPITAL OF THE WORLD'

The waters of Donsol, in the Southern tip of the Bicol region, have been home to whale sharks for many years, though it wasn’t until 1998 that people realised its potential for tourism after new legislation (FAO 193) was passed, protecting whale sharks across the country. Shortly after the passing of the law, WWF-Philippines worked alongside the local government, Department of Tourism and stakeholders, to set up effective and sustainable tourism practices. The area soon became known as the “Whale Shark Capitol of the World” and remains the Philippines original whale shark tourism destination.

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USING PHOTO-ID TO STUDY THE LOCAL POPULATION 

WWF Philippines collected extensive data on the whale sharks since 2007, and in March 2015 began a collaboration with LAMAVE in order to continue the collection of whale shark photo-ID to identify and follow population trends in Donsol.

Using this data, the team is building a comprehensive database of individual whale sharks using photo-ID. This, in combination with LAMAVEs work in Cebu, Palawan, Southern Leyte and Mindanao, is essential to developing an understanding of whale shark movement patterns in the Philippines and beyond.

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Oslob


Cebu

Oslob


Cebu

STUDYING THE IMPACTS OF PROVISIONING ON WHALE SHARKS IN OSLOB, CEBU

The whale shark project in Oslob, Cebu involves researching the resident population of whale sharks, monitoring the impacts of provisioning on the animals, and studying the socioeconomic implications of this tourism industry. This is LAMAVE’s longest and largest running project.  

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Oslob 

The quiet seaside town of Oslob gained international publicity after the local government approved the feeding of whale sharks in the fishing Barangay of Tan-Awan in 2012.  What began as a small tourist operation, has skyrocketed into a booming industry that continues to grow, mostly unregulated. While the activities in Oslob have resulted in a large boost to the local economy, they raise ongoing conservation and sustainability concerns.  

Learning from a provisioning site

LAMAVE identified this region as an important source of insight into the long-term ecological and behavioral effects of tourism on these animals, and also on the socio-economic impacts on the local community. In 2012, we set up a research base and began monitoring whale sharks in Oslob through daily photo identification and behavioral surveys.  We also deployed multiple temperature-depth-recorder tags on local whale sharks to understand their local habitat use and diving behaviour.

In 2014, the teams' first scientific paper was published describing the Population structure and residency patterns of whale sharks visiting Oslob. Another scientific paper followed in 2015 outlining the findings of a three year study investigating whale shark behaviour and tourist compliance to the local code of conduct. The study highlighted that some local guidelines were being broken 97% of the time, highlighting an urgent need for improvement in the management of the tourism practice. LAMAVE continues to work with the Local Government Unit. 

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Extended residency and differences in lagged identification rates suggest behavioural modification on provisioned individuals, underlying the necessity for proper management of this tourism activity.
— Reference: Araujo et al., 2014

Read more about how this project contributes to our nation wide whale shark research here

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Southern Leyte


and Northen Mindanao

Southern Leyte


and Northen Mindanao

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.

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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.