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Tiny Whale shark pup caught and released in the Philippines

10/03/2009 10:34:48 Smallest Whale shark rescued in the Philippines
By Jose Ma. Lorenzo Tan, WWF-Philippines Vice-Chairman and CEO

March 2009. Whale sharks are the largest fish on earth, and Donsol, a sleepy town in the Philippine province of Sorsogon, hosts what is arguably the largest known annual congregation of whale sharks in the world. For several years now, WWF has been working with the people of Donsol, continuously improving a unique ecotourism program that allows visitors to snorkel with these giants of the sea.

Is this the smallest whale shark ever recorded? The rescued whale shark, or butanding, measured a mere 15-inches (yes, INCHES). Credit WWF Philippines.

Is this the smallest whale shark ever recorded? The rescued whale shark, or butanding, measured a mere 15-inches (yes, INCHES). Credit WWF Philippines.

Over the last six years, visitor records reveal that 95% of tourists that travel to Donsol in the season that runs from December to mid-May, actually get to interact with whale sharks - an amazing record. From being an economic laggard in the Bicol Region, Donsol's is now regarded as the chief tourist attraction in the region on the island of Luzon.

We know that whale sharks congregate and feed here. Over the last two years, new scientific evidence culled from a satellite tagging program and an innovative photo-ID project funded by WWF Denmark, revealed that although some sharks leave the area at the end of the season, some of them actually just hang around the archipelago. This week, WWF and the people of Donsol learned something new.

Whale shark caught
On the morning of March 7th, word reached Nitz Pedragosa, Donsol's Tourism Officer, that a whale shark had been caught on in nearby San Antonio, a barangay of Pilar town, adjacent to Donsol. It was allegedly tied up, and being sold. Very quickly she sent Embet Guadamor, a Butanding Interaction Officer (BIO) from Donsol, to inform the town's Municipal Agricultural officer. Elson Aca, WWF's Project Leader in Donsol, also came to investigate.

A veteran of several years of fieldwork, including a multi-year stint with humpback whales in the Babuyan Islands, Elson knew instinctively what to do. Now in stranding response mode, he grabbed his camera, cellphone and a copy of Fisheries Administrative Order 193, protecting whale sharks - and rushed to the Tourism Office.

Response team
When the report was confirmed, the team - made up of the Tourism Officer, the Agricultural Officer, the BIO and Elson - quickly drew up an operational plan. The Chief of Police of Pilar was informed. Mr. Rabulan, the Municipal Agricultural Officer, relayed the report to all municipal and provincial officers of his department. Regional Director for Tourism Nini Ravanilla was called, and she assured the team that she would alert the resorts closest to the site. An hour after the first report was received, the response team was on board a local banca, headed for San Antonio.

Smallest whale shark ever seen
As they pulled up to the seashore an hour later, the team was met by Captain Berango, the Pilar police chief. They expected to see a giant animal helplessly stuck, its tall dorsal fin and tail sticking out of the water. But there was nothing there. All they saw was a small stick, stuck in the sand, with a small rope leading away into the water. Elson walked up to the stick and was amazed to find the smallest whale shark he had ever seen - a mere 15 inches long!

Freed in deep water
The team freed the shark from the rope that was tied around its tail. After checking to see that the animal was unhurt, documenting the discovery, and measuring the shark, they transferred it into a large, water-filled plastic bag to allow it to swim freely while preparing for its release. Less than three hours after the report first reached Donsol, the response team was back on their banca, shark safely in hand. They took the shark out to deeper water, where it was less likely to get entangled in a fish net, and there - they set it free.

No breeding data
In spite of all the research that is being done worldwide on whale sharks, to this date no one knows where they breed or give birth. The Pilar "pup" was so small, it was probably born here and could have been what biologists call a neo-nate. Not only is this animal the smallest live whale shark on record ever to be captured and released here in the Philippines (and arguably, anywhere in the world), it is also the first indication that the Philippines, at the apex of the Coral Triangle, is probably one of the places on the planet where these giants of the sea are born.

For many years, scientists thought that Donsol was merely one of many "gas stations" along the global network of marine highways where whale sharks cruised. This new discovery is the first ever indication that this coastline may actually be a "birthing site". This comes as no surprise. After all, all this happened in the Coral Triangle - the nursery of the seas - where life begins, and many things remain possible.

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