Exposing The Whale Shark’s Exploitation In On The Brink

The majestic whale shark, a gentle filter feeder painted in dichromatic patterns of dots and stripes.  A colossal sea beast so massive it can grow beyond 40 feet in length and weigh more than 20 tons.  An animal classified as the largest fish in the world and endowed with a gaping cavernous mouth used to devour plankton, small fish, and shrimp.  Humanity hasn’t been kind to this impressive animal.  Though little information on population trends is available, it is suspected that after decades of hunting, shipping traffic, pollution, and other ravaging human activities, whale shark populations have significantly declined.  This year’s Ocean Film Festival explored the plight of the elusive species with the screening of On the Brink: Uncharted Waters.  

Led by narrator-cum-reporter Neela Eyunni, the film explores the Philippine’s conflicted and often exploitative relationship with the whale shark.  Despite the country’s ban of commercial whale shark hunting nearly 20 years ago, the animal continues to be exploited by the nation’s burgeoning tourist industry.  Eyunni, donning both journalist and tourist roles, investigates the dichotomous treatment of whale sharks in two municipalities, Oslob and Donsol.  At Oslob, where paying tourists are almost guaranteed to swim with whale sharks, former fisherman on small boats lure the sharks to eager snorkelers through the use of shrimp feed.  Critics argue such artificial feeding disrupts the fish’s natural hunting, breeding, and migratory behaviors, and dangerously acclimates the shark to floating vessels and their harmful propellers.  Conversely, Donsol takes a less evasive and reliable approach, by rushing snorkel ready tourists to the whale shark locations once they’re sighted in their natural environment.

Eyunni’s experiences show contrasting attitudes between the municipalities.  At Oslob, the sharks exhibit pet-like almost clumsy behaviors, bumping into feeding boats and blindly gulping droughts of sea water and shrimp feed.  They become more elusive and natural at Donsol, swimming gracefully along snorkelers before fading mysteriously into the ocean’s abyss.  Such differing perspectives show progress has been made in respecting the animal’s place in the ocean world, though human meddling still exists.  The feeding at Oslob may not be all bad, as it allows the fisherman a more intimate relationship with the animal they call the Butanding.  This closeness increases their awareness and fondness for the vulnerable animals.  Like one fisherman states, “When we touch their skin, we are no longer afraid.”

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