This year’s travels brought me to Dumaguete twice, and it took on a safari theme. If in Africa, travelers hope to see the big five, i.e., the lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros, in Dumaguete, the quest is for whale sharks, dolphins and sea turtles.
Swimming with whale sharks
In August, my friends and I flew to Dumaguete and used it as our jump off point to Oslob, Cebu. After a quick lunch in the city, we caught a ferry from Sibulan Port to Liloan Port in Cebu. A van picked us up from the port and brought us to our hotel. This route was actually a much shorter one than flying to Cebu and taking a four-hour road trip to Oslob.
Very early the next day, we set out to swim with the whale sharks. Our host recommended that we go early as whale watching is only from 6 a.m. to 12 noon. It was good advice since we were able to get an early slot. After a briefing on the dos and don’ts of swimming with the whale sharks, we lined up for our 30-minute encounter.
These gentle filter-feeders, butanding in Tagalog, are the largest fish in the sea. Seeing five of them up close and personal was a truly awesome experience. The sea water was crystal clear and teeming with life.
Although I was happy with this adventure, there is some discomfort too. The environmentalist in me questioned the sustainability of this activity. While the influx of tourists (over 110,000 in 2014) is an economic boon to the town and its citizens, scientists are concerned about the impact on the butandings. Since they are becoming dependent on the feedings, their migratory and breeding patterns are changing. The whale sharks normally spend the winter in the Philippines and other warmer countries, but return to the mid-Atlantic to give birth. However, as they are now seen in the Philippines almost year round, do they give birth here? I did ask the fishermen if they’ve seen baby butandings, and they claim they have.
Just recently, conservationists asked the Miss Universe contestants not to swim with the butandings, for fear of attracting even greater numbers of tourists to Oslob. However, despite their pleas, the contestants did swim with the whale sharks.
Dolphin-watching in Bais
Returning to Dumaguete for the second time this year, my Philippine safari continued with a day trip to Bais to watch dolphins (depending on the season, whales can also be seen). Our adventure started early, with an hour’s drive from Dumaguete to Bais. After a quick trip to the market to buy fresh fish and crabs for lunch, we boarded our 50-seater banca to go out to the marine protected sanctuary, Tañon Strait. This strait is the natural habitat of several whale and dolphin species. After a quick trip to the Manjuyod White Sand Bar, so we can see it at low tide, we headed out to open sea.
About an hour into our trip, we started to see pods of dolphins swimming. Unlike the butandings that were held within a netted area, the dolphins swam freely and only showed themselves to the boatloads of humans as they pleased. Although we did not spot any whales, our goal of seeing the dolphins (and posting our adventure on Facebook) was achieved. Returning to the now submerged sandbar for a quick swim and lunch of freshly grilled fish, scallops, sea urchin, crabs and fresh buco (there was a floating contingent of vendors selling food, drinks, and even souvenir items to the tourists) completed our dolphin-watching adventure.
Snorkeling with sea turtles
The final leg of my Philippine safari started by boarding our boat in very rough waters in Zamboanguita, Negros Oriental, about a 30-minute land trip from Dumaguete. While we encountered choppy waters through out the short ride to Apo Island, once we entered the cove, the waters calmed down considerably.
Apo Island is the feeding ground for female sea turtles. Two species of turtles can be found here, the green and hawksbill sea turtles. Although I opted out of joining the snorkeling trips, my friends and the other tour companions had several amazing turtle encounters. One of our companions, a lady from Spain, came back to the boat shaking with excitement. She just swam with a turtle that was bigger than her. In another spot, the boat parked about twenty meters from the shore. Here, my friends encountered a turtle busy feeding and she (the turtle) went about her business, unmindful of the humans floating above her.
Reflecting on our adventure
Our close encounters with the butandings were truly amazing, but the teeming crowds and artificial enclosure and feeding of the butandings is worrisome. While Oslob seeks to capitalize on the butanding’s presence in their waters, their business model does not seem sustainable. The other whale shark haven, Donsol, developed its model with help from the World Wildlife Fund and their model seems more ideal. In Donsol, the whale sharks are not fed and the rule enforcement, e.g., no touching, is stricter. The butandings are in the open sea, not kept, albeit for only four hours a day, within a netted area. I do not want to hold back Oslob’s dreams of economic prosperity for its people, but I do want to add my voice to the growing calls for greater controls for the growing crowds of tourists (some 2,000 a day this past week).
Apo Island is a wonderful contrast to Oslob. As blogger Nikka Corsin wrote, “Apo Island is actually the first ever successful community-based marine conservation program site in the Philippines, and the abundance of sea turtles acts like a trophy for the residents, reminding them of the good that they have done to their environment [and what still lies ahead!].” The guides from the island had wonderful stories to tell of how much better their lives are now compared to the past when they were just fishermen.
I believe that dolphin watching and snorkeling with sea turtles were better experiences because both encounters were out in the wild, swimming free, as they are meant to be.
I would like to greet everyone a blessed 2017! May the New Year bring us a year of wisdom, prosperity and peace!
Pia T. Manalastas is the Graduate Program Coordinator of the Management and Organization Department of the Ramon V. Del Rosario College of Business of De La Salle University. She teaches Leadership in Organizations, Lasallian Business Leadership, Ethics, and Corporate Social Responsibility and Trends and Issues in Business and Management: CEO Series.
The views expressed here are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official position of DLSU, its faculty, and its administrators.