‘Largest number in years’: Over 100 new whale sharks spotted in Donsol

MANILA, Philippines – Over a hundred new whale sharks have been sighted in the waters of Donsol in Sorsogon in the first half of 2019 – the “largest number” of the endangered species sighted in the area in years, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) said on Friday, August 30.

The WWF Philippines reported that 104 new whale sharks, including juveniles, were identified in Ticao Pass off the coast of Donsol from January to June 2019.

The new sightings bring the total number of whale sharks spotted in Donsol to 676, since WWF started monitoring them in 2007.

“This represents nearly 40% of all the 1,724 whale sharks identified in the Philippines. The number of individuals spotted in 2019 is also the largest in several years, with only 22 new individuals spotted in Donsol between 2017 and 2018 by comparison,” WWF said.

The whale shark (Rhincodon typus) is classified as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) on its Red List of Threatened Species. The filter-feeding carpet shark is the largest living fish species in the world. 

‘Pupping ground’

The WWF said that the whale sharks were sighted during WWF-Philippines’ photo identification activities in the first half of the year. There were a total 168 sightings – 64 of them “re-sightings” or reappearances of previously recorded whale sharks.

“Each whale shark can be identified based on the unique pattern of spots behind its gills, which serves as a ‘fingerprint’ for identification. Just as no two human fingerprints are alike, no two whale sharks have the same spot pattern,” WWF said.

WWF noted that “very young whale shark juveniles" were identified among the 168 individuals spotted in the first half of 2019.

“Their presence suggests that the Ticao Pass may be a pupping ground for whale sharks, further increasing the ecological significance of the area,” it said.

WHALE SHARK PUP. A handler cares for a very young whale shark rescued near Donsol and later released back in 2009. The presence of more juveniles in the first half of 2019 suggests that Ticao Pass may be their pupping ground. Photograph by WWF-Philippines

WHALE SHARK PUP. A handler cares for a very young whale shark rescued near Donsol and later released back in 2009. The presence of more juveniles in the first half of 2019 suggests that Ticao Pass may be their pupping ground.

Photograph by WWF-Philippines

WWF-Philippines Donsol Project Manager Manuel Narvadez Jr cited the significance of whale sharks beyond Donsol tourism.

“These whale sharks that pass by Donsol aren’t just important due to their value to local tourism. More than that, they play an important, systemic role in providing resilience to the local ecosystem,” Narvadez said

“The number of whale sharks spotted in Donsol indicates that its waters are now rich with plankton, which is their primary food. They have even come here with their young,” he added. 

Mutual benefit

Dr Andy Cornish, leader of Sharks: Restoring the Balance – WWF’s global shark and ray conservation program – said it was “gratifying” to see local communities and whale sharks both benefitting from Donsol’s whale shark tourism.

“Protecting more marine areas near Donsol could play a key role in enhancing protection for these endangered ocean nomads for generations to come,” Cornish said.

Since 1998, WWF-Philippines, has been actively working with the local government for for the conservation of Ticao Pass and the local whale sharks. 

It began its whale shark census in Donsol in 2007. 

“WWF-Philippines is currently exploring options of expanding the current Marine Protected Areas (MPA) or establishing new ones in neighboring Masbate municipality to further protect the Ticao Pass and its inhabitants,” WWF said.

Aside from the Philippines, WWF’s Sharks: Restoring the Balance program covers similar efforts in Ecuador, Mexico, Pakistan, and Tanzania. – Rappler.com