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Sunday, January 3, 2016

Of Moby Dick and Whale Sharks or Butanding of Oslob, Cebu

Owing to the new year's long holiday, I was able to watch "In the Heart of the Sea" (2015) which is a fictional narration of a true event that is supposed to be the inspiration of Herman Melville's book we now know as "Moby Dick." It is a story of how sailors braved the seas searching for oil by capturing whales and extracting oil from them on board only to be met by a big whale that destroyed their ship. Some sailors survived, but not without doing the unthinkable. By the end of the 1800's the whaling industry which provided whale oils used for oil lamps and soap is already giving way to kerosene and vegetable oils by the start of the 1900s. Whaling is now generally banned worldwide.

The movie made me think back to the Whale Sharks of Oslob, Cebu, Philippines. I did not swam with the Whale Sharks or Butandings after reading an article that such tourism industry being promoted by Oslob is actually not animal-friendly because it makes the whale sharks dependent to the shrimps being fed by the boatmen to lure them to go near the shore so that tourists can take closer look at the Butanding and take photos with the giant fish behind. If this industry continues, the baby whale sharks will no longer know how to feed themselves. This is a bane because whale sharks are already a vulnerable species.

How do whale sharks feed themselves? 

With that limited information in mind, I tried to look further. Whale sharks are filter feeder, which means that they strain their prey from the water column. Filter-feeding mechanism of whale shark is when the big fish sucks in a mouthful of water, closes its mouth and expels the water through its gills and during the slight delay between closing the mouth and opening the gill flaps, plankton is trapped against the dermal denticles which line its gill plates and pharynx. 

This fine sieve-like apparatus, a unique modification of the gill rakers, prevents the passage of anything but fluid out through the gills (anything above 2 to 3 mm in diameter is trapped). Any material caught in the filter between the gill bars is swallowed. Whale sharks have been observed "coughing" and it is presumed that this is a method of clearing a buildup of food particles in the gill rakers.

It is known that filter feeders can play an important role in clarifying water, and are therefore considered ecosystem engineers. Thus, filter feeders help clarify the ocean waters and a natural check to the deadly red tides.

Implication to the booming tourism industry of Oslob

If the whale sharks are lured by boatmen with ready shrimp feeds every day, I believe the purpose of the natural feeding mechanism of the whale sharks will be defeated. They will no longer look for areas with planktons and other tiny organism to filter but head straight to where food is readily available and they will no longer filter the ocean because they are already full with readily available food.  

Another point is when the baby whale sharks are dependent to the feeding already and will no longer know how to effectively filter-feed, it could be disruptive to the ecosystem (read: red tides), and also threaten their survival.

Observations in Oslob

Earlier photo posts on whale sharks consist of playing with it and even riding on top of the big fish. Such actions are now being policed by the association of boatmen and sea wardens and punished by an ordinance. The penalty of touching the whale shark is P2,500 fine or an imprisonment of four to six months. Marine biologists and sea wardens are watching under the sea.

I believe the organizing of the boatmen and the local people working for the tourist industry of Oslob is admirable. Rather than letting the free lancer boatmen race in finding whale sharks, it is better that the same be regulated. The synchronized movements of the boatmen pushing the boats to the sea and their manning and rowing the boat are also rewarding to watch.

Other tourist attractions when in Oslob

Aside from the the whale sharks, there are actually interesting things to do in Oslob and its neighboring towns. From Boljoon, one can visit the old church which houses the museum where a pre-hispanic excavation pieces are displayed, pass by the Baluarte of Oslob where an Immaculate Concepcion church and an unfinished Cuartel lends beauty to the shoreline. Also, there are a series of falls to go to. We went to Aguinid Falls which is located a little farther from Santander and I highly recommend it! Of course, the Sumilon Island is just a wink away from Oslob where a marine sanctuary is located...

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