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NATURE

Giant sharks spark tourist boom in quaint village

April 16, 1999
Web posted at: 2:19 p.m. EDT (1819 GMT)

DONSOL, Philippines (CNN) -- After diminishing the whale shark population for years through overfishing, residents of a the tiny village of Donsol are beginning to discover that the enormous creatures are worth more alive than dead.

The sharks, which feed on small fish plankton and krill, are slow and docile, making them easy targets.

But thanks to an initiative from local and international environmental groups, fishermen are discovering that whale shark tourism makes good business sense.

Whale sharks appear off the coast of Donsol in December when warm seas bring plankton close to the shore. Traditionally December and January were peak hunting seasons, but this year the whale sharks brought a different kind of boom.

Hotels in nearby Legazpi City were fully booked with tourists eager for a firsthand glimpse of the largest sharks in nature.

They can grow up to 60 feet in length and weigh 15 tons.

With guidance from the World Wildlife Fund, local fishermen are learning how to get tourists close to whale sharks, and shifting livelihoods to become tour operators. Others work as "spotters," trained to look out for the whale sharks.

Standing at the boat's bow, the spotters scan the water for a glimpse of a gray fin or a moving shadow in the choppy waters.

Usually the success of the tour depends on the "spotter." Tourists can stay and observe from the boat or dive into the water quietly and interact with the whale shark using simple snorkeling gear.

To regulate swimming with the sharks, the World Wildlife Fund has designed a "code of conduct" that advises swimmers not to touch or try to "ride" the animals. Most disappear instantly if disturbed.

Diver and tour operator Louie Barrios said many of Donsol's residents are already convinced they can make more money from live whale sharks than dead ones.

"People do not hunt them, a tourism economy has now flourished ... and the locals have more money than before " he said. Tourists say an encounter with the whale sharks will leave anyone with a natural high for days.

"My first experience, I couldn't forget that," says diver Ralph Alejandrino. "When (the whale shark) came towards me head-on, I was sort of scared because it was coming towards me and it was wider than a truck, so I said to myself, I know this is not harmful, I know they do not eat people. So I let it just pass under me."

Reuters contributed to this report.


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