By Hannah Reyes Morales
© The New York Times Co.
TAN-AWAN, PHILIPPINES »
In the predawn light, Lorene de Guzman paddles out to sea in his tiny wooden outrigger to hand-feed the giants living in the water. One of the behemoths, a whale shark known as 180, swims up, its enormous mouth gliding across the surface of the still ocean.
“Where have you been?” de Guzman asks 180, whom he has not seen in weeks, as he drops handfuls of shrimp into the water and gently scrapes off some debris from the shark’s body. “You must have traveled to a far-off place.”
When 180 is done with breakfast, de Guzman gazes out and waits in the calm water, hoping the tourists might return today, or some day.
The waters around Tan-Awan, his town of some 2,000 people in Cebu province, attracted more than half a million tourists in 2019, all eager to interact with the huge and charismatic marine animals, which can reach more than 60 feet in length.
While their size is imposing, whale sharks are gentle giants. Their mouth is gargantuan, but they are filter feeders. Their hundreds of vestigial teeth are tiny, and they cannot bite.
In pre-pandemic days, whale shark tourism was booming in Tan-Awan, which had been a sleepy fishing community until the area’s outsize animals became a global draw starting about a decade ago.
But even before the pandemic all but halted international visits to Tan-Awan, and to Oslob, the broader municipality surrounding it, difficult questions were being asked about a controversial relationship between a species in decline, and a community grappling for survival.
Whale sharks are migratory, but tourism-dependent residents of Tan-Awan like de Guzman have kept at least some of them staying yearround with the highly contentious practice of feeding the wild animals on a daily schedule.
Posing no threat and often frequenting coastal areas, whale sharks and people have long been meeting, often to the animal’s detriment. “The accessibility makes them quite a good target species,” said Ariana Agustines, a marine biologist who has researched the whale shark populations in the Philippines. “In terms of hunting, unfortunately, in the past; and tourism now in the present.”
Human feeding has changed the whale sharks’ behavior. “Typically they have a very varied diet,” Agustines said. “They eat coral, lobster larvae, different varieties of zooplankton, even small fish.”
But in Tan-Awan, they are being provisioned with sergestid shrimp, known locally as uyap. “It’s just one type of food,” Agustines said. “This is a large deviation from their natural diet.”
The regular feedings have also altered their diving behavior, with these whale sharks spending more time close to the surface, resulting in significantly more scarring and abrasions on their bodies from boats and other floating hazards than those in nonprovisioning sites.
But the appeal to tourists of a practically guaranteed sighting means Tan-Awan residents have no intention of abandoning the feeding practice, despite the growing pressure to stop. The tourism money means too much, with whale shark encounters bringing some $3.5 million into the area in 2019.
“The whale sharks lifted us up,” de Guzman said. “They gave jobs to the people.”
Besides, he said, the people who feed the sharks have grown close to the animals — and, they argue, the sharks close to them.
“They’ve taken to us. They will leave if we don’t feed them. It’ll hurt their feelings. They’ll sulk,” de Guzman said. “We feed them even if we run out of budget. We borrow money to feed them.”
The affection is made easier both by the sharks’ agreeable nature and by how readily identifiable individuals are.
Each whale shark has a unique constellation of spots, which bear a resemblance to stars in the night sky, the inspiration for its name in Madagascar, “marokintana,” or “many stars.” In Javanese, it is “geger lintang” or “stars on the back.”
In the past, local fishermen avoided the sharks. But a little more than 10 years ago, one fisherman, Jerson Soriano, started playing with them in the water. A resort owner in the area was struck by the spirited interaction and asked Soriano to transport some of his guests out on the water so they too could swim with the giants.
Soriano started baiting the whale sharks with uyap. More fishermen followed suit. They formed an association of sea wardens responsible for both feeding the sharks and ferrying the tourists to see them. Visitors posted their whale shark selfies on social media. Suddenly, the local waters were crowded with visitors.
The quiet town lit up with resorts and restaurants. Younger residents stayed to work in Tan-Awan, instead of migrating to the city or abroad. De Guzman’s income doubled, then tripled, and he rebuilt his home. The area’s only high school opened. But the provisioning practice has come under strong criticism, with the World Wildlife Fund one of many conservation organizations faulting the idea of whale shark feeding and urging tourists in the Philippines to go instead to Donsol, a nonprovisioned site, to see them.
Almost 1,900 whale sharks have been identified in Philippine waters, the second-largest known population in the world. Scientists give individual whales numbers for names.
Globally, the whale shark population has been more than halved over the past 75 years, and their decline in the Indo-Pacific region has been even more rapid, at 63%, statistics that prompted their listing in 2016 as an endangered species.
Mark Rendon, the president of the sea wardens, is aware of the criticism but is unmoved. “We know the whale sharks better than they do,” he said of the efforts by conservationists to end the practice.
Of much greater and more immediate concern to Rendon are the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. With no tourists arriving, hospitality workers, motorbike drivers and whale shark boatmen have been scraping around for alternative sources of income. Across town, doors and windows were boarded up. “A nightmare,” Rendon said.
As the pandemic stretched on, many of the whale shark wardens started returning to their former — and much less lucrative — trades: fishing and farming.
Conservationists point to the pain Tan-Awan is now feeling as a good reason to shun the feeding model adopted here.
“In most locations globally where they’re not being provisioned, it’s seasonal,” Agustines said of the appearance of whale sharks. “So with that seasonality, there is an opportunity for having a different set of income so that the community isn’t completely reliant on just one type, in the event that something happens.”
Pandemic or not, the whale sharks have continued showing up, right on time, to be fed.
Rendon said the wardens have turned to different government bodies to raise money for the more than 60 pounds of shrimp needed each day. “If that goes,” Rendon said of the small amounts of government aid, “all of this will disappear.”
In September, a fisherman went to Soriano’s home and found him dead. The man known as the father of Tan-Awan’s whale shark tourism boom had killed himself.
On the day he died, Soriano spoke with his sister, Rica Joy, who was alarmed by how thin he was. The family was told he died on an empty stomach. Like many of the other wardens, the money he made during the tourism boom did not last. “He was a one-day millionaire,” his sister said.
When de Guzman heads out to sea to feed the whale sharks, he often thinks of his children. Now that there is little income from tourism, he says, his daughter helps out, sending money home from another province where she went to be a dive instructor.
“I fed my children by hand when they were babies,” de Guzman recalled. “It makes me think that all these whale sharks are my children.”