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.
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.
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. The results of this scientific study was published in 2018. To date it is the most complete tracking study of whale sharks in the country, with satellite tags deployed on different individuals in multiple sites. Read more and watch the video below for a summary.
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. In early 2019, the catalogue had reached +1600 individual whale sharks, and the Philippines became the second largest known population of whale sharks in the world.
The video opposite explains more and tells you how you can contribute to whale shark conservation.
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. In 2018, a new scientific study by LAMAVE and WWF-Philippines revealed that whale sharks in Donsol, Philippines are uncharacteristically larger than those found elsewhere in the Philippines. The study, which describes the population dynamics and strong site fidelity of adult whale sharks to the coastal waters of Donsol, was published in the journal Frontiers in Marine Science and represents the longest dataset on whale sharks in the country.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 and the local community.
A recent study explored tourist perspectives on the ethics of feeding whale sharks in Oslob, Philippines. The scientific study published in the journal Tourism Management, investigated over 1,500 tourist surveys and TripAdvisor comments and found that tourists generally supported feeding whale sharks, despite being aware of the ethical complications of feeding sharks for tourism purposes. Tourists justified their participation using mainly economic, human enjoyment, and animal welfare arguments. Two-thirds of TripAdvisor comments that mentioned ethical issues were classified as “Guilty Pleasure”, whereby the tourists were aware of the moral and ethical issues of feeding an endangered species for tourism purposes, but still chose to do the tour and recommended it to others. Further discussions into this research can be found here.
Further studies, new Recent collaborative research among the University of Hong Kong (HKU), the University of Guam (UoG), and the Large Marine Vertebrates Research Institute Philippines (LAMAVE) shows that whale shark tourism in Tan-awan, Oslob, Philippines has led to degradation of the local coral reef ecosystem. This study, which provides the first documentation of such ecological impact locally in Tan-awan, has recently been published in the scientific journal “Environmental Management”, and provided baseline data to measure future tourism management intervention and the shift towards a more sustainable tourism model.
Read more about how this project contributes to our nation wide whale shark research here.
and Northen Mindanao
and Northen Mindanao
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.
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.
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.
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.
Through citizen science contributions in 2015, and initial satellite tracking of whale sharks from Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park in the Sulu Sea in partnership with Tubbataha Management Office (TMO) and Palawan Council for Sustainable Development (PCSD), we identified the presence of whale sharks in Honda Bay, just north of Puerto Princesa City, the capital of the province of Palawan. In 2016 LAMAVE had a dedicated effort to further assess the feasibility of whale shark data collection, and this was further validated in 2017. We have now identified over 50 individual whale sharks in Honda Bay and have satellite-tracking data for a few individuals. In order to further understand the ecology of whale sharks using this rich shallow ecosystem, we will conduct season-wide surveys employing photo-ID, focal follows, and satellite data, to understand their seasonality and habitat use.
LAMAVE will be working closely with the local government unit of Puerto Princesa, under whose jurisdiction Honda Bay is, and the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development, under whose management the whale shark and its habitats fall. Data and results will be shared with these stakeholders, as well as with coastal communities with whom whale shark-fisheries interactions occur, with the overarching goal of regulating the wildlife watching tourism industry that is currently underdeveloped in Palawan. Our team will employ successful techniques we’ve used in Southern Leyte, Donsol and northern Mindanao.