The third class town of Donsol in Sorsogon had made a name for itself because of the “butanding” (whale sharks) that congregated in its waters at certain times of the year, so much so that its very name became almost synonymous with the gentle giants.

Local and foreign visitors set out in boats to catch a glimpse of or “interact” with the butanding, the largest of all fish. Some of the creatures became veritable stars: “Putol” with the missing tail fin; “Nognog,” a stand-out by dint of being darker than the others; “Kuping” with the folded back fin; and the obviously-named “Puti.”

This come-on resulted in revenues for Donsol (pop.: 47,000) and lessons in self-sufficiency for its residents, who not only serve as guides and “butanding interaction officers” (BIO) but who also open their homes to tourists under the home-stay program. The Donsol folk came to rely heavily on tourism revenues of some P35 million a year. And the once-sleepy seaside town enjoyed certain developments in the form of resorts and restaurants to cater to the tourists, as well as a now-paved main road. “We were once a fifth-class town,” Donsol tourism officer Nenita Pedragosa recalled at one point during the boom. “Now, we are a third-class town and we are actually applying to be classified as first-class.”

That was then. From reports, butanding sightings have been steadily declining since 2011, and the four stars appear to have gone missing. Says Donsol BIO chair Alan Amanse: “The bigger ones measuring 14 meters long are nowhere in sight.” What has caused this regrettable turn of events? Pedragosa scoffs at the suggestion that the whale sharks have taken off for Oslob in Cebu, where they are fed by hand: “Those who want to see butanding come to Donsol first. They only go to Oslob when they fail to see one here.”

The theory is that the disappearance of Donsol’s butanding is due to a killer combination of global warming and bad sanitation. Amanse notes that the sea temperature has risen from 26-27 degrees Celsius in 2012 to the current 29-30 degrees. Donsol Councilor Rey Aquino says fishermen have overgathered the plankton that the butanding feed on, and, more urgently, the waters have been contaminated by the dangerous E.coli bacteria as a result of the building of household toilets on the riverbanks. And one more significant thing: According to Amanse, the butanding are suffering from stress because of too much interaction in BIO-coordinated events from December to May. (During a standard interaction event, some 40 boats loaded with six tourists each come close to the whale sharks.)

Fewer butanding sightings have resulted in fewer visitors. Per Amanse’s count, the number of tourists has dropped by 2,000 in the first half of the year, from the average of 25,000. Thus, tourism revenues are slipping.

A review of Donsol’s tourism program is clearly in order. The absence of the “regular” butanding is worrisome enough. Donsol BIOs say only two whale sharks—“Curly” and “Lucky”—are regularly seen in the waters. The way things are going, they may also soon vanish.

The Worldwide Fund for Nature Philippines, which had helped build the ecotourism project in Donsol, once sounded the warning that the town’s growth required careful handling. “The popularity of Donsol as a major destination for [butanding-watching] needs to be handled with care to ensure the sustainability of the whale shark interaction activities. The unprecedented increase in tourists wishing to experience an encounter with the whale sharks brings with it much risk and potential danger to these gentle giants,” it said. It also noted that the increase in the number of visitors had led to a parallel rise in noncompliance with butanding interaction rules, and that the habitat of the whale sharks needed to be managed properly.

The story of Donsol and its star butanding is all too familiar, hewing as it does to the now-common narrative of tourism boom, unregulated development, and neglect of ecological imperatives. Let’s hope that it does not end in tragedy: a case of killing the goose that lays the golden egg.

Let’s hope that there’s still time and space to turn things around.

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  • Simon Ward

    It’s unfortunate for Donsol, but basing a business on migratory wildlife is always a risky venture, and doubly so when the wildlife are under water. Whale-watching tours where no whales are sighted are commonplace, as are sport fishing excursions where no fish are caught. Have they not done any tagging to see where the butanding have gone?

  • kayanatwo


    nobody asked me, but…”butanding, dugong, sea cow, or manatee” survived by grazing on sea grass that grows on the edges of the shorelines’ shallow end . the singapore and malaysian govt.s. made a very comprehensive studies on the behavior of these air-breathing sea mammals that inhabits the south china sea and celebes sea.

    the studies found that human interactions, loss of habitat, grazing and pollution would drove the butanding or dugong to seek a new feeding grounds or seek a habitat free from human intrusion.

    did the donsol butanding became the victims of too much human intrusion and pollution?????it could happened….

    • panhase

      Just one thing, butanding is a whale shark, a a shark is a fish. It is not a mammal and it is not air breathing. It does also not graze sea grass, it feeds on plankton, krill etc..

  • Hey_Dudes

    These whale sharks are also of the NPA (No Permanent Address) specie. You see these big animals today but not sure what time of day they come a’calling next. In the USA, it is unlawful for a person to come close to whales. I think leaders in Donsol better think of another lucrative business to tide them over since they cannot rely on this whale business forever.

  • tarikan

    “…the waters have been contaminated by the dangerous E.coli bacteria as a result of the building of household toilets on the riverbanks”. Just the other day there was an article by an Indian academe in the U.S. highlighting her country’s 660 million inhabitants who don’t have toilet facilities. In the Philippines, a study put some 60 million people who make the bushes, river banks, sea shores, any open area as their toilets including “fly by nights”. I heard local health centers distributed water closets to barangay people but some if not most did not install them. Perhaps they want the barangay officials to install it for them. These morons.

  • carpediem123

    Like a moron winning in lotto…

  • WeAry_Bat

    I once had been on a dolphin sight-seeing tour. I realized early on the engine was noisy. The boat kept going after the dolphins but they kept evading.

    Imagine you are holding a plate of food, trying to eat with one utensil and trying to run away at the same time. Or you are just walking along, listening to the natural sounds of the waters then comes a boom boom car beating loud bass sounds. For any animal, the car occupants would look like alien gang hoodlums.

    The first law to be placed upon aquatic sightseeing tours is the ban on the use of engines upon reaching the restricted area. The second is the hours allowed as viewing window. The third is to minimize garbage going to the sea (in the analogy above, your plate of food gets rained with drops of urine).

    If they want the tours to be sustainable, they have to give what these animals are saying, ‘Respect us.’

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