The word eco-tourism seems to be misused a lot of the time. The definition of eco-tourism is defined as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.” Ecotourism is about uniting conservation, communities, and sustainable travel. It’s not easy to find all these elements all together. In Sonok, a little sleepy town in Southern Leyte, Philippines, the people do seem to get it right though.
Sonok and the surrounding area a hotspot for whale sharks (Rhincodon typus), the biggest fish in the world. This charismatic animal is loved by divers and snorkelers all over the world and people travel great distances to get a close encounter with this spotted fish. Whereas in some places money can become the main drive, in Leyte the people care a great deal about the animal and environment and limit tourists to 6 people per whale shark. When a tourist boat comes in, KASAKA (the whale shark tourism organisation ran by the community) sends a few spotters in paddle boats and a guide along with the tourists. The guide gives a briefing and accompanies the tourists on the main boat while the spotters are being towed until the main whale shark area is reached. Once there the spotters do their magic and start paddling around sticking their heads underwater until they find a whale shark. Then it’s time for the tourists to get in the water and enjoy what they came here for. The main boat with propeller is never close to the whale sharks, only the paddle boats who can do no harm to the sharks. With only few people in the water and no diving or flash photography allowed the impact on the whale sharks is very limited.
Since 2013 the Large Marine Vertebrate project has a base here, they also join the tourist boats where everyone can ask questions about these beautiful animals. For eco-tourism to really work the tourists should leave with both a great experience and more knowledge about the animal they encountered. Apart from this the project does continues research in this region and has photo ID’d a lot of sharks resulting in the first match ever in the Philippines with a shark from a different region. This gives us a lot of information about their migratory route.
So if you want to experience an amazing whale shark encounter without too many people around then Leyte might just be the place for you.
For more images of Souther Leyte check out this gallery: Whale shark of Southern Leyte