Asia Dive News : Whaleshark draws tourists to remote corner of Philippines
The enormous grey whale shark glides effortlessly in the murky waters off Donsol in the eastern Philippines, its distinctive pale yellow spotted back and fins clearly visible as excited tourists prepare to enter the water from nearby outrigger canoes.
They swim to within a few metres of these gentle giants of the deep as their guide makes sure they give the whale shark plenty of room to move.
The world's largest fish, some as big as a school bus and weighing up to 30 tonnes, are not aggressive.
"But it's advisable not to get too close in case they decide to turn over," Angela Quiros, a marine biologist and one of the country's leading experts on the whale shark, says.
Whale sharks have been a common site in the waters off this coastal town for as long as anyone here can remember, feasting on the rich plankton between January and June.
Once hunted for its soft white meat, known throughout Southeast Asia as "tofu shark," the whale shark is now protected and has transformed this sleepy corner of the Philippines 600 kilometres south east of Manila into a major eco-tourism centre.
"Since 1998 when the government passed a law protecting the whale shark, known locally as 'butanding,' tourism and revenue numbers have shot up dramatically," said local tourism coordinator Salvador Adrao.
Last year, almost 11,000 tourists visited Donsol, up from around 900 in 1998. Revenues from eco-tourism have risen to an estimated 12 million pesos ($A312,750), from 454,875 pesos ($A11,800) in the same period.
"Swimming with whale sharks has transformed Donsol from a sleepy fishing village into an eco-tourism centre," Adrao says.
"The only problem we have is the infrastructure. We can't cope with the tourism numbers we now have, let alone any increase."
Compared to some of the more developed areas for whale shark watching such as Ningaloo Reef off Western Australia, Donsol is still very cheap.
"That's why the tourists, especially the foreigners, come to Donsol," he said.
Ten years ago environmentalists fought a bitter campaign to end the slaughter of the whale shark, forcing the Philippine government to pass a law protecting the creature.
"I can't believe how this place has changed," said Korina Escudero, an underwater film maker and one of the original campaigners for the protection of the whale shark.
"The attitudes of the local people towards conservation rather than killing has been quite extraordinary. They can see the value in protecting these magnificent creatures. People come from all over the world just to see and swim with them.