Flying into the Philippines, I remembered the last time I was here. I was mesmerised by the beautiful coral reefs, so I was excited that we had chosen to film in the Philippines as a part of our documentary about protecting the sea. However, we were not yet sure which part of the Philippines to focus on. There are so many great locations to visit and explore.
Whilst studying marine science, the Philippines kept coming up as one of the great adopters of marine protected areas, so it was likely that the Philippines would become a big part of our documentary's narrative.
We hopped on the cheapest flight we could find and set off for the beautiful archipelago.
It was the right time of year to spot whale sharks, so our first stop would be Donsol in the south of the island of Luzon. Every year, between November and June, whale sharks migrate to Donsol to feed on the dense concentrations of phytoplankton, so what better place to start our filming trip in the Philippines?
When we arrived in Donsol, we went out with one of the local boats to swim with the whale sharks and got talking to our whale shark spotter. He was a young Filipino named Rector and we asked him if he would like to share some of experiences as part of 'The Map to Paradise' documentary project.
Rector remembers fishing with his dad as a child when suddenly a giant creature with a large dorsal fin emerged from the deep. His father said it was a shark and Rector screamed. He remembers its big wide mouth capable of swallowing a young boy whole. Nobody knew at the time that these sea creatures were not monsters of the sea. They were rather gentle giants - whale sharks. He did not know at the time, but young Rector was never on the dinner menu of a whale shark. Nature had designed their giant mouth to scoop up microscopic sized-plankton scattered throughout the sea column like a vacuum cleaner - a little boy was far too big and boney for the acquired taste of a hungry whale shark.
In the 90s, the commercial demand for whale shark meat grew in Asia and so this misunderstood creature became a prized target for hunters in the Philippines.
In 1998, the municipal government declared the bay of Donsol a whale shark sanctuary (where Rector lives), recognising that whale shark numbers were in sharp decline. A project to create sustainable ecotourism was also set up with the support of WWF. The project put in place systems to manage future tourism in a way that it would have the least impact on the whale sharks of the bay.
Today, Rector swims with these gentle giants, which ironically he once feared. He is now a tourist guide, sharing his experience with foreigners who travel from around the world to see these creatures.
Rector's story is one of hope, because it goes to show that community attitudes can change towards the way we perceive nature and care for the wild, even if there remains to be something unsettling about seeking the company of a migratory giant of the sea. It is great that the whale shark tourism provides an alternative income to fishing in the region and takes the pressure of overfished stocks. It is also good that Donsol has strict tourism rules concerning getting in the water with these magnificent creatures and making visitors watch a video on how to interact with them in the water.
However, with figures like about 1,000 tourists visiting Donsol in 2002 and rising up to almost 6,000 by 2005 and 11,000 in 2007 you do have to question what our impact is on these creatures. Are we impacting on their feeding behaviour? Or, other social behaviours?
We were more curious about how the community runs its local tourism operation and the ethical challenges behind protecting nature, wanting people to connect and engage with nature, and what that means in terms of keeping places wild.
These are big questions that we think about every day.
If you ever get the chance to swim with the whale sharks in Donsol, don't miss the firefly sunset trips. The trip involves a relaxed trip down the river to observe great numbers of fireflies lighting up trees on the banks of the river. In 2011, WWF supported an initiative to plant 10,000 mangrove seedling to keep the rivers healthy. This helped to create habitat for the fireflies, which maintained the nutrients needed to support the abundant phytoplankton communities that keep the large populations of whale sharks returning each year. It was great to see the local community creating new initiatives to offer guests alternative activities whilst staying in Donsol - one way of taking some pressure off the tourist demand to see the whale sharks.