The season runs between February and May. From January to March alone, the volume of arrivals have already reached about 26,000 which was already 10 percent higher than the 23,000 posted in the same period last year.
Another 23,000 came for the peak season which was between April and May, raising the total number to 49,000 during the first five months of the year. This surpassed the 40,000 recorded for the same period in 2010 by about 20 percent.
Maria Ong-Ravanilla, Department of Tourism (DOT) regional director for Bicol, said the accomplishment exceeded expectations despite the El Niña phenomenon that prevailed over the area during the whole duration of the whale shark interaction season.
“This is a good indication that the tourism industry of this small, far-flung coastal town is continuously growing owing to the popularity it has achieved for being home to the whale sharks, locally called butanding, the Gentle Giants of the Ocean,” Ravanilla said.
The presence of this rare and endangered sea mammal species was first discovered in 1998. With the massive tourism promotion and conservation efforts initiated by the local government and several environmentalist groups, both local and international, public consciousness spread throughout the world and tourists have been coming in, she said.
Impressively, the whale sharks seem to be cooperating very well as during this year’s season, Ravanilla said. Photo identifications and satellite tracking made by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) confirmed the presence of 165 butandings at the coastal waters here, some of them sighted as close as 20 meters from the shoreline.
The largest school of butandings came to feed on the planktons at the mouth of the Donsol River, to mate and even give birth last April. Local fishermen also accidentally caught in their fishing net a newly born whale shark measuring only about 15 inches, according to Councilor Ronald Malilin, chairman of the town council’s tourism committee.
“These creatures that roam around the globe have actually found a home at the coastal waters of this town that is adjoining the Ticao Pass and protective measures are in place while they are around homing in the area and offering exciting interactions with the throng of people coming in from all over the world,” Malilin said.
Ravanilla said the whale sharks have been major contributors to the tremendous growth of the tourism industry in Bicol which is now occupying the second slot among the most visited regions in the country next to the national capital region or Metro Manila.