LEGAZPI CITY, Feb. 20 (PNA) -- A total of 90 appearances of whale sharks in the waters off the Albay Gulf, some 30 meters from the shorelines of the Legazpi Boulevard, have been recorded in the past two weeks, Bem Redito, city butanding interaction officer, said in a telephone interview Thursday.
Redito said the presence of whale sharks was first noted during the first week of the month with six sighted, followed by another two in the second week.
The eight whale sharks, with measurements ranging from six meters to 13 meters long, have been frolicking at the shorelines of the Legazpi Boulevard, bringing in hundreds of viewers daily since Feb. 2, he said.
Redito said that since the first appearance of the gentle giant fishes, at least 40 foreign tourists from Europe, Germany, United States, Japan, Singapore and Korea visit the city daily to watch and interact with the whale sharks.
Asked if these butandings came from the coastal waters of Donsol town in Sorsogon, Redito said the butandings appearing in this city are still juvenile or not fully grown and are not from Sorsogon, citing a photo identification conducted recently by the WWF.
Tourism and business in this city have been on the upbeat for almost three weeks now since the gentle sea creatures first appearance.
City Mayor Noel Rosal said in an interview that hundreds of local and foreign tourists watch in awe these playful sea creatures swimming and exhibiting their white-dotted bodies about 500 meters off the shorelines of the Legazpi City Boulevard in the vicinity of the coastal villages of Dapdap, Puro and Lamba.
Rosal said that with the influx of foreign visitors as well as local tourists, he issued an executive order regulating the watching and interaction with the friendly sea creature.
The code was made in response to the wrong practice engaged by some foreign visitors while interacting with the butanding by either riding at the back of the sea mammal or feeding them.
As a result, two butanding interaction officers and two boatmen were suspended for allowing foreign tourists to ride on the whale shark despite the guidelines his office had issued.
Rosal said the code of conduct is based on the guidelines laid down by the World Wildlife Fund which prohibits the practice of touching, riding on and feeding the whale shark, restricting the movement of the whale shark, taking underwater photography with a flush, and using of scuba apparatus, scooters, jet ski or any motorized underwater gadgets.
Swimmers interacting with the butanding are allowed to swim along with the creature at a distance of four meters from the tail and three meters from the head and body.
Joan Encinares, the city tourism officer, said in an interview that in order to strictly enforce the code, they have trained and accredited 14 butanding boatmen and boats with white and red flags bearing the city government seal.
She said that under the guidelines, non-accredited sea crafts and boatmen will not be allowed to engage in any interaction activity or get near the whale shark.
The daily whale shark interaction is only allowed from 7:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.
The city government has also regulated the interaction fees at: P1,000 per small boat for two guests and P1,500 for big boats to accommodate four or more guests, including a P100 registration fee, Encinares said.
Legazpi Boulevard is a major road network by the bay where business establishments such as resto-grille, videoke bars and refreshment parlors line up along the five-kilometer boulevard.
Chito Ante, city business consultant, said in an interview said that income from businesses at the boulevard is increasing as their operations went on 24/7.
The presence of whale sharks here has been attributed to the abundance of plankton, the food they eat, in the Albay Gulf, Rosal said.
Donsol town in Sorsogon has been tagged by tourism authorities as the Butanding Capital of the country because of the presence of several whale sharks measuring 14 meters long.
Butanding season is observed in February until March where thousands of local and foreign visitors spend their holidays in Donsol town, some 47 kilometers from this city.
However, last year, the sightings of butanding at the coastal waters of Donsol dwindled because of the rising sea temperature due to climate change, stress and lack of food.
Alan Amanse, Donsol BIO board chairperson, confirmed in an earlier interview that the rising sea temperature, stress and insufficient plankton are the factors that cause the whale sharks to transfer to cooler areas and swim to the deep sea or look for areas with abundant food.
He said because of this condition, the sightings of butanding in Donsol has considerably dropped from eight sightings the previous year to only two during the first half of last year, endangering the tourism industry of the town.
Amanse claimed that sea temperature rise has significantly increased from the ideal temperature range 26 to 27 degrees to 29 to 30 degrees last year.
Currently, there are only two eight-meter long and two-meter wide whale sharks swimming off Donsol waters.
They are “Curly,” a butanding with curly dorsal fin, and “Lucky,” with a nylon cord tied on the tail.
“Wala na 'yong mga malalaki measuring 14-meters long, and gone are the likes of the famous “Putol” and “Nognog,” Amanse said.
Another cause for the depletion, he lamented, is that the butandings are suffering from stress because of the many interaction events that the BIOs conducted during the butanding season which is held in May and December.
Rey Aquino, town councillor, claims that the rampant gathering of plankton by fisherfolk and the presence of ecoli contamination in the Donsol river due to existence of household toilets along riverbanks contributed further in the problem of scarcity of food (plankton) in the butanding feeding grounds. (PNA) FPV/FGS/MSA/CBD/UTB