Monday, February 1, 2016

Donsol’s butanding season reopens as ‘gentle sea giants’ return from long absence
By Danny O. Calleja

DONSOL, Sorsogon, Jan. 31 (PNA) – The local government here has reopened its whale shark interaction tourism offerings as the “gentle marine giants” are back from quite a long time of hibernation.

And the tourists are back, too, thrilled by having seaborne close encounters with these enormous human-friendly sea creatures locally called butanding.

“We have at least seven of them now staying and frequently appearing before public eyes since early this month,” tourist receptionist and butanding interaction officer (BIO) Recto de los Santos said on Sunday.

De los Santos was referring to the whale sharks known as the gentle giants of the ocean which, for about two decades now, have made the coastal water of this once obscured and out-of-the-way town their seasonal home, attracting tourists from all over the world who seek a once-in-a-lifetime experience with these rare marine treasures.

He recalled that the local waters lost these creatures for over two years until October 2014 when around five of them returned and had been sighted intermittently near the local seashores, feeding themselves with plankton at the mouth of the huge Donsol River.

The sightings lasted up to July last year as the next months were marred with weather disturbances until December that caused floods and turbulent seas, the BIO said.

“With their (whale sharks) reappearance starting last Jan. 6, town mayor Josephine Alcantara-Cruz has declared the interaction season as tourists have once again started coming," De los Santos said.

Tourist arrivals, he said, have been multiplying since the first word on the return of the animals was passed to the international travel world.

This means that this year’s season for whale shark tourism in the municipality has started very much ahead of the regular period which, in the past years, would come in the months of November through June.

During this period in the past since the official discovery of the marine mammals in the local waters way back in 1998, schools of these marine mammals usually arrive from nowhere of the ocean and stay near the mouth of the Donsol River to take advantage of the continuous abundance of plankton that fill their diet, to mate and even breed.

Since then, this third-class municipality has been known as the Whale Shark Capital of the World and achieved tremendous local tourism industry gains.

Barely 18 years ago, Donsol, which sits 47 kilometers southwest of this city or 540 kilometers southeast of Manila, was described as a sleepy rural community where weathered public utility vehicles spurred swirling clouds on dusty, unpaved roads.

Over years following its discovery as seasonal sanctuary of whale sharks, it captured international attention with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF)-Philippines spearheading a holistic conservation program which ranges from satellite butanding-tagging and photo-identification, to the effective management of tourism impacts.

Since then, the national government has poured in funds to improve the 29-kilometer main road linking the area to the Maharlika Highway and road networks within and outside the municipality to make them more accessible to land trips.

The biggest among these road improvement projects being undertaken by the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) are the ongoing Php769.2-million Donsol-Pio Duran and the Php700-million Donsol-Jovellar-Guinobatan roads that have opened new convenient and shorter routes between the municipality and the southeastern sections of Albay.

The road connection between Donsol with Pio Duran would also allow tourists to move around ecotourism sites along the coastline of Ticao Pass and jump through the Pio Duran port to Burias, Masbate, a quaint island that offers unexplored ancient landmarks and pristine beaches away from the hassles of urban life.

The Donsol-Jovellar-Guinobatan road, whose 25-kilometer section between the first two municipalities is now almost done, on the other hand, makes travel shorter for tourists who after here are now raring to make journeys down the newly-known ecotourism wonders of Jovellar—Albay’s town of exciting rivers, astounding caves, magnificent falls and exotic underground rivers.

It also leads tourists to areas covered by the third district of Albay where Mt. Mayon’s southwestern quadrant can be closely viewed as well as Ligao City, the site of the alluring Kawa-Kawa Hill and Nature Park.

Whale sharks, species of giant sea mammals scientifically called Rhincodon typus, are slow-moving filter-feeding shark and the largest extant fish species reaching as big as 13 meters in body length and weighing more than 21 metric tons.

They are migratory in nature but some of them have adopted the waters here as residence.

Friendly to human beings, these creatures swim from surface to mid-water and with their size, they are hard to miss.

Usually, De los Santos said, this resident group composed of around eight fully matured butandings would stay behind after the feeding season and continue entertaining tourists and visitors until September, then disappear from public view and stay not farther than the nearby Manta Bowl to wait for their next season.

The Manta Bowl is a deep portion of Ticao Pass that is sanctuary of manta rays, an equally-protected marine wildlife species.

Study says that the largest annual congregation of the whale sharks is in the coastal waters of this municipality where they migrate in vast number to take advantage of the dense food concentration of plankton and krill which is brought about by the current patterns, water temperature and the general health of the sea.

Starting 2012 down to 2013 and until the early months of 2014, however, no whale shark had arrived, idling the tourism industry of the municipality that in the past years would be visited by an average of 25,000 tourists yearly.

During these periods of absence, the butandings stayed away from the high temperature of the Donsol waters and lack of food due to intense heat of summer, De losa Santos explained. (PNA) SCS/FGS/DOC/CBD/PJN