This World Wildlife Day is especially significant to us. With the sudden closure of most tourist excursions around the globe due to COVID-19, we are now slowly returning to the thrill of ocean adventures, making us appreciate the opportunity to experience and observe incredible ocean wildlife even more.
This includes amazing places like Donsol, Philippines, which finally opened two weeks ago to visitors after years of being closed due to the pandemic.
The small municipality of Donsol is home to the largest fish found in the sea: whale sharks. Travelers come to Donsol from across the globe to catch glimpses of the 11-ton whale sharks, which migrate thousands of miles across the Pacific. Donsol is one of the best places in the world to dive with endangered whale sharks, but this once vibrant tourism destination was hit with significant hardship due to the global travel closure.
With the help of Royal Caribbean Group, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has worked for the past six years to protect these gentle giants through numerous conservation efforts. Several projects have worked to ensure surrounding water quality of rivers are safe for passage and to increase marine conservation literacy among the local youth.
During the pandemic, WWF’s conservation efforts continued with support from Royal Caribbean Group. Last year the team was able to further its whale shark conservation efforts, namely conducting the annual population survey of whale sharks held off the coast of Donsol. In total, the team spotted 58 whale sharks – 26 of which had never been seen in Donsol before.
Now, not only is the area finally open to travelers again, but volunteer “citizen scientists” can resume in helping WWF’s conservation efforts. Citizen science allows local residents and visitors alike to track and monitor whale sharks, building up the whale shark ecosystem with the help of the local community. Since the start of the program, the ocean region surrounding Donsol has been protected by new regulations, and tourism has flourished, boosting the economy and quality of life for locals.
As Donsol’s economy is heavily reliant on tourism, the effects of the closure from COVID-19 were felt deeply, particularly for locals whose livelihoods depend on whale shark-related activities, such as the butanding (whale shark) interaction officers (BIOs) who receive support from WWF-Philippines.
While tourism brings much needed revenue to Donsol, it must be done in a way that protects the whale sharks for generations to come. WWF is working with the local government to develop the Donsol Tourism Information System to train local government workers about protecting the whale sharks. WWF also provided input for the amendment of the local tourism ordinance to include ecotourism activities.
Royal Caribbean Group’s support has also allowed WWF to continue work to improve the water quality in Donsol, focusing on the health of the rivers that feed into the ocean. The two major rivers, the Donsol and Ogod, are essential breeding grounds for plankton, a major food source for the whale shark.