A privilege and a responsibility

Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) choose Donsol as one of the beneficiaries for their global partnership to support ocean conservation.

Photos by Star Sabroso

“So how was your experience?” asks my seatmate as we depart Legazpi City to Manila. All I could muster was a sigh and a whimper: “I didn’t see the whale shark.” I was still feeling sad about not seeing this massive 18-meter creature since I especially went to Donsol hoping for a close encounter with the fish. 

“Well, that’s nature for you!” exclaimed my seatmate while smiling. Well, hu-hu for me, but not for them since on both days they went in the open water, they got to see two different whale sharks. Nature, it is out of your control. It comes when it wants, and it leaves you without saying goodbye. And that’s how it is supposed to be. 

The magnificent butanding in Donsol (Photo courtesy of WWF Philippines)
“Because this is an encounter with their natural environment and not in cages or aquariums, their appearance is not guaranteed,” says the brief info video the organizers play before visitors head to the open water for the whale shark encounter. And that’s exactly the reason why Donsol is the first and only whale shark sanctuary in the country – and also why Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. and WWF chose it as the place to announce their global partnership. 

“We wanted a place where WWF is making a difference, and the Philippines is a good example. They have a very strong presence here and they’ve been doing an outstanding job. There are a lot of other places in the Philippines but we chose Donsol because it sets an example,” says Richard Fain, chairman and CEO of Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd. 

Having a good spotter is key to getting a glimpse of the whale shark
“Donsol is a showcase of a place where conservation and development can come in,” explains president and CEO of WWF Philippines, Joel Palma. “The need to protect the area is already coming from the stakeholders. Now, their rivers are also protected because it was requested by the firefly tour operators (referring to the fireflies in Ogod river in Donsol where these insects’ nightly feeding on the mangrove flowers made it look like a spectacle of a Christmas tree glistening in the night), because they all know that they will lose their livelihood if they lose the mangrove,” he adds. 

Philippine laws have forbidden the killing and sale of whale sharks since 1998 and WWF has been working directly with the local government for over a decade in conserving the eco tourism of the place. Over the last eight years, WWF was able to identify 469 butandings coming to and fro the waters of Donsol. This aggregation is by far the highest in the world and the area is also not just the feeding ground but at the same time a breeding site. So far, the smallest recorded whale shark found in the area is 23 cm. “It is not a coincidence that we are protecting the rivers,” explains Palma. “By taking care of the rivers, we found out that the nutrients in these waters produce the food for these 18-meter animals.” 

It was very hard to take photographs of the shimmering trees with dancing fireflies at Ogod River, at this slow shutter speed you can see the yellowish dots on the trees 
Tourists all over the world have been visiting the place to have a close encounter with nature’s gentlest giants. And through the years, the community has embraced these giant fish like they are family, therefore protecting them and preserving their natural way of living. By coming to see the whale shark, tourists contribute to their welfare by helping a tourism industry that is protecting these animals (and not exposing them) at the same time providing sustainable livelihood for an entire community. WWF has been tagging and observing the movements of these migratory animals and the group has discovered that some of them reach as far as Taiwan and as far as 600 kilometers east of the Pacific. 

“The only way to interact with the whale shark is in this kind of situation because they are highly migratory. If you feed them they won’t migrate,” adds Palma, referring to the way Oslob in Cebu is treating the whale shark tourism in that area.  “The story of this town and how it benefited from setting aside nature and enabling people to see nature is a parable of what the world needs to do as well,” shares Carter Roberts, WWF-US president and CEO. “I’m so happy to have been here and to see the work of the mayor, this community, and our local staff here because it is an example for the world to follow.”

The fireflies of Ogod River have been a part of Donsol's eco tourism spots
With the partnership of RCL and WWF, a $200,000 donation will be given to WWF Philippines in support of conservation programs in the Donsol area. The place will undergo a one-year intensive educational program. Part of it is the educational tours for the children of the municipality with the use of donated e-jeepneys that will go around villages and barangays. The program aims to reach out to the younger members of the community through education and ensure that the future generation of Donsol will take care of the place and the butandings. 

“Our mantra is ‘Continuous Improvement’ and we are better now than we were last year,” says Fain. “Our partnership with WWF is a big leap and a big step, because we are setting tangible goals in three key areas – greenhouse emissions that affect global climate change; sustainable fishing – the amount of over fishing in general are major problems; lastly, destinations – we want sustainable tourism,” he explains. 

'I am not plankton,' says RCL's and WWF's campaign button down shirts
Specifically, here are the tangible targets that the partnership is committed in accomplishing by 2020:

Carbon Emissions 2020 Target

•  Reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 35 percent by 2020.

Sustainable Seafood 2020 Target

• Responsibly source 90 percent of its wild-caught seafood by volume from MSC certified sustainable fisheries, fisheries in full assessment for MSC certification, comprehensive Fishery Improvement Projects (FIPs), and/or sourced from International Seafood Sustainability Association (ISSA) member companies. 

• In North America and Europe operations, responsibly source 75 percent of its farmed seafood by volume from ASC certified responsible farms, farms in full assessment for ASC certification, and/or comprehensive aquaculture improvement projects. 

Mt. Mayon's grand welcome to the visitors of Legazpi 
• In addition, by June 30, 2016, RCL will set specific traceability goals with targets for obtaining MSC and ASC chain of custody. 

By June 30, destination stewardship will be addressed to strengthen RCL’s destination sustainability assessment and selection process. RCL has set aside a $5 million contribution to WWF for its global ocean conservation projects. 

“What we hope to achieve is to make a meaningful difference, and also to serve as an example to others. The science gets better, the attitude gets better and we improve the problem,” says Fain. During their visit in Donsol, he went diving in the open water together with the WWF team. “We went diving and what we saw serves as a reminder of why and how important it is to stand on what we’re fighting for,” he says. 

'We’ve watched what WWF can do–they are forward thinkers who really want to save the planet–and we wanted to be part of that,' says Richard Fain
Joel Palma and Richard Fain present the e-jeepney donation to Donsol Mayor Josephine Alcantara-Cruz
Unfortunately during the trip, there were only a few people who got to witness the marvelous butandings of Donsol. And I am still sulking about it, but I feel great that I tried seeing them the “right” way without having to disturb their normal ways. It just means I have to pack my bag and catch a glimpse of one of these fish in another trip to Donsol. Fain also didn’t get to have an encounter and we had a good laugh about it. “You know, we had an appointment with the whale shark, but they didn’t cooperate. I have to tell you, I’ve never been this stood up since high school,” he jokingly said. 

However, we all got to see the magnificent Mt. Mayon the moment we landed in the airport of Legazpi. They say sometimes the mountain is covered in fog or clouds that you have to wait for a day or two to actually see it during this season, so I guess we were lucky. We also got to marvel at the shimmering mangroves of Ogod River where thousands to millions of fireflies feed on the healthy mangroves offering. 

Every boat has a Butanding Interaction Officer who guides at least six tourists for their whale shark encounters 
WWF Philippines CEO Joel Palma, WWF-US president and CEO Carter Roberts and  chairman and CEO of Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. Richard Fain
“I’ve been to the world and to so many places and what you’ve done here in Donsol makes me smile,” says Roberts during the presscon. Nature – it is a privilege to see and marvel at its beauty, yet it is also a great responsibility for us tourists to conserve and protect it, for it to thrive, and for future generations to experience. Seeing and experiencing the sleepy town of Donsol makes me feel proud that our country is helping conserve the planet. I hope that other places in the Philippines will do the same. 

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Topics: Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. , World Wildlife Fund (WWF) , Donsol
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