Butanding or Whale Shark, World’s Largest Fish in the Philippines

(Rhincodon typus)

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Donsol, a fishing town in Sorsogon province, serves as a sanctuary to a group of 40 whale sharks, which are considered as the largest fish in the world.

Locally known as "butanding", whale sharks visit the waters of Donsol from November to May. Being migratory in nature, they travel across the oceans, usually close to the equator. But nowhere else have they been sighted in a larger group than in the waters of Sorsogon.

A group of Filipino divers documented the sighting of the whale sharks in the waters of Poso, the southernmost barangay of Donsol on January 2, 1998. Picked up by television and the print media, the documentation stirred the interest of many tourists, who started flocking in the fishing village.

In contrast to what their terrifying name seems to imply, whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) are not really dangerous creatures. Tourists even find them gentle and playful. They measure between 18 to 35 feet in length and weigh about 20 tons. They are easily recognized for their broad head and a random of white dots and lines along their backs.

Incapable of biting and chewing, they suck in water with prey, which are filtered through their gills. Through their large mouth, lined with thousands of tiny teeth, they feed on plankton, shrimp, anchovy, krill, small crabs, and other small fish. In 1996, a marine biologist discovered that whale sharks are ovoviviparous, which means that the female produces live offspring from eggs hatched in the uterus.

There has been no report of whale sharks taking humans as prey. Rather, it is the fishermen who have been hunting and plundering the stock of whale sharks in the Philippines. Harpoon fishermen hunt these giants to supply the high demand for the meat and medicinal by-products in Asia.

Considered as a delicacy and an aphrodisiac, whale sharks are being bought by Taiwanese fishing firms and Hong Kong restaurant owners. There were reports that a fully grown (more than 30 years old) whale shark is worth as much as P400,000. The meat sells for HK$500 or P1,700 per kilo.

This led to the steady decline in the population of whale sharks in the country. More than a hundred whale sharks were reportedly killed in Donsol alone prior to the documentation in 1998. The situation is worse in other provinces. The gentle giants were hunted to near extinction off the central island of Bohol.

Alarmed by the problem, the Philippine government declared the whale shark as an endangered species in 1998, thereby banning its plunder and exploitation. Right now, the Department of Tourism is promoting eco-tourism to protect the whale sharks in Donsol. Present conservation measures allow tourist to interact with the whale sharks, with the help of trained tour guides.

The whale shark interaction tours include swimming within four meters of the sea giants, under the watchful eyes of the guides. So far, it is the best the government can do to protect the whale sharks.

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