Ecotourism

On and On in Palawan

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Palawan is a series of islands on the far West of the Philippines on the South China Sea.  They’re known for extensive coral reefs, atolls, WW2 wrecks and views that, I’m sure,  have been translated to wallpaper on more than a few tablets and phones around the world.

It’s a big island with a few destinations for travellers, each one offering something specific: the capital Puerto Princesa a UNESCO world heritage site, El Nido – a dive spot, Coron – a place to snorkel, go island hopping and for scuba, wreck diving.

We chose Coron as our spot, and every second day, embarked on one of these trusty bankas with a crew who took us around the various spots to snorkel and swim.

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We went to some incredible spots for coral with tons of colourful fish (including Finding Nemo – the clownfish), sea snakes, nudibranch, starfish, clams, big brain coral plus a couple of Japanese WW2 wrecks.

And yet, I have no shots of any of it to show you, because I haven’t got an underwater camera. However, in lieu of that, we do have a shot of the whale shark which we saw in Donsol previous to Palawan, as the family we were traveling with on the banka had an underwater camera and had my email address.

So, while not in Palawan, here is an underwater shot of the whale shark we spotted, alone, with 99 other people:

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Ok, back to Palawan. While we didn’t spot whale sharks there, we stopped in a ton of spots, that were also nice to look at, like:

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And, from a higher vantage point:

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On one of the island hopping jaunts we also snorkelled into a thermal lake, which alternated from hot to cold temperatures, and created this strange effect underwater, where your line of sight went from clear (cold water) one second to hazy and blurry (hot water) the next.

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So, I’d spot something cool I wanted to point out to Rose, who was a few feet behind me, but by the time I’d shown her, the water had gone hot, creating the haze, and distorting the view. Really bizarre effect, but awesome to see.

The town of Coron also had a market (straight ahead on the right)

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It was filled with plenty of fish, which Rose’s mum got really excited about and would do all the bargaining in Tagalog, to avoid any chance of getting inflated prices, if I, an obvious foreigner, were to insert myself into the negotiating.

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Fine with me – instead I followed a bunch of the roving cats around the fish market who were waiting for a fish to slip through the hands of a vendor, or in the case of this guy, hang around long enough for someone to offer you a charitable poisson:

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We also roamed around the town, hopping between shade and shadows, to avoid the sun’s laser beam heat, and jumped into a Filipino dessert specialty, Halo-Halo (shaved ice, coconut, condensed milk, and other colorful candy stuff) which pairs well with 35degreesCelsius:

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After a week, shlubbing around Coron, we headed back to Manila briefly before moving on to see more of Rose’s family forest (it’s more than a tree) in Vigan – a UNESCO heritage town, north of Manila.

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Where are the whale sharks?

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We kicked off our raison d’être for being in Donsol, first thing in the morning (really. Things get so dark here that we were asleep at 9 and up at 5am every morning, sometimes beating the rooster’s cackle by 30 mins).

On first entrance, the tourist operation for watching whale sharks seems well run: each visitor is required to watch an instructional video on how to interact with them (I.e Don’t. Watch from a distance and keep your hands to yourself) and how the town of Donsol, with the oversight of the World Wildlife Federation, is working to conserve their unique natural resource.

We got on board a banka – a type of fishing boat used in the South Pacific, where passengers were kept to a strict maximum of six – another condition of Donsol’s ecotourism mandate.

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So, the search began for the Butanding:

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One of the crew told us to get our snorkelling gear on so we could go overboard quickly. We waited in anticipation:

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After an hour, the search continued:

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Then two hours:

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And, to the end, no sign of a whale shark.

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Understandably, it’s a wild animal and there’s no guarantee of seeing one, and we were told the same by the tourist outfit.

However, after doing research, we understood that in the 2000’s at the same time of year, Donsol was teeming with whale sharks. Apparently it wasn’t a question whether you’d see a whale shark, but how many. All the attention earned Donsol the marketing rubrique of “Best Asian Encouter” in 2004, for whatever that’s worth. But, nevertheless, it suggested a degree of good health.

We asked around, wondering if maybe we just had really, really bad luck. After chatting with a few locals and others we heard the same thing: whale shark numbers were down during this time of year, and, as a consequence, so was tourism.

Regardless, we came here to see a whale shark in the wild, so signed up for round two the following day.

The good news: We got in the water with a 4m shark (about the size in the very top photo above) and each had a good amount of time swimming next to it by ourselves. We even got this to prove it:

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The bad news: So did 100 other tourists. 100! All circling the same whale shark – splashing, screaming, waving at it, moving on top of it, and essentially doing everything opposite of what everyone was told in the instructional video.

It was disturbing, and sad, because while I get the enthusiasm and pent up demand for seeing a shark, there obviously is not enough whale sharks around, at least this time of year anyway.

So, at the end, while Rose and I were both happy to have had a moment with one. It was bittersweet, because we also felt we weren’t really helping out the conservation of the whale shark, by being another number in the water, regardless that we followed the guidelines.

We spoke to the manager at our hotel who expressed the same thing, saying the numbers are down for this time of year and the tourist association has hired marine biologists to figure out why.

Popping online to do our own research, early evidence suggests climate change may be the ultimate culprit, heating up the oceans and not creating the same plankton blooms for the whale sharks to feast on. This could mean that the animals’ feeding season starts a couple of months earlier and finishes sooner as they seek out slightly cooler waters.

Unfortunately, the problem can also compound itself. As whale shark numbers diminish, the ones left trawling the bay are subjected to way too much stress from eager hands, and so may be moving on to less chaotic waters, to mange in peace.

Obviously it’s a sensitive issue. After spotting our whale shark, I asked our main crew member if there were any other sightings that day, and he replied:

“Seeing 1 is better than 0”, which was repeated by other tour operators who tried to put a positive spin on it.

Of course, it was an amazing experience to see a wild whale shark. I only hope that the Donsol tourist association can get a clear picture of the whale shark fluctuations from marine biologists and other research and help plan for any changes, which may affect the lives of Donsol residents who work in service of whale sharks.

Overall, we both had a relaxing time in Donsol:

 

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Next stop: Pampanga a town North of Manila to see Rose’s family and people crucify themselves for Holy Week. A nice combination.

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The Philippines. (Phinally!)

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Our 20+hr odyssey in the air finally came in to land at the city of Legazpi. When we got off the plane, we were greeted above by steaming, Mount Mayon (in the background) and relentless humidity everywhere else.

After jostling our way out of the airport, getting hit by bags coming off the carousel from an enthusiastic crowd (and Rose returning the favour to one of the perpetrators), we fell in with two other couples who were arranging transport to Donsol – also our destination – and asked them to count us in to their, already, intense negotiations on a price with a driver.

While going back and forth with one van driver who insisted Rose and I could sit in his trunk and keep eight big hiking bags company for the 1.15hr drive, we decided to splurge, and treat ourselves each to a seat in another van.

I know. First a hotel. Now van seats? You’d think we were pampered celebrities.

It all worked out, and we hit the road to Donsol. But why you may ask?

It was a small fishing and farming town until 1998, when businesses, with guidance from the World Wildlife Federation, realized they could make money bringing tourists close to the many whale sharks that regularly migrate off their shores between Jan – May/June.

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Since then roads have been built, along with resorts and a massive increase in tourism devoted to the Butanding – Philipino for “whale shark”.

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But we’re just going for the food.

Kidding.

Though, I think that would be hilarious if someone were to ask: “Have you seen a whale shark?” and I replied, confused: “No, so far, I’ve only eaten snapper.”.

Driving on the way to Donsol, you pass homes and convenience stores put together by dried palm leaves, corrugated metal, and whatever else the residents can find, only to come upon a big church, dressed to the nines in concrete and sound building principles.

Rose read the insignia on the church as we passed, presumably because it stood out in such contrast: “Iglesia de Christo” (that white building in the picture above).

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Our van driver says: “Oh yes. Church is big business”.

But, it seems in Donsol, if you’re going on symbolism alone: the number of whale shark replicas, buttons, t-shirts, and other whale shark paraphernalia kicking around suggests the town has more than enough room for another idol.

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Next stop: putting it to the test by getting in the water, hopefully, with Butanding.