Known locally as the butanding, the whale shark is a timid titan resembling a whale more than the shark it is. It can grow up to 20m in length, making it the largest fish in the seas. These gentle giants gather around Donsol every year around the time of the northeastern monsoon to feed on the rich shrimp and plankton streams that flow from the Donsol River into the sea, sucking their food through their gills via an enormous vacuum of a mouth.
Whale sharks were rarely hunted in the Philippines until the 1990s, when demand for their meat from countries such as Taiwan and Japan escalated. Cooks have dubbed it the tofu shark because of the meat’s resemblance to soybean curd. Its fins are also coveted as a soup extender. Tragically, this has led to its near extinction in the Visayas and further south in Mindanao. Though the government is trying to protect the whale sharks by fining fishermen who catch them, it’s an uphill battle, largely because enforcement is difficult and a good whale shark can fetch enough to keep a rural family happy for months. In Donsol, however, attitudes seem to be changing, with locals beginning to realize that the whale sharks can be worth more alive than dead, attracting tourists and thus investment and jobs.