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This site is for Balyena.Org members to share their experiences in whale and dolphin research in the Philippines and express their views on the conservation and protection of these species. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the position of Balyena.Org or it’s funders and partners.

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Balyena.Org Blog

February 2013
Bohol Dolphin Facility
Jom Acebes and Joshua Silberg

Rumours about plans to establish a dolphin rescue/rehabilitation facility in Bohol first surfaced early on 2011. Ironically just months after, rumours flared up again just as Bohol was preparing for their first dolphin festival in May 2011 and have been subsequently verified by staff of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources in the Province. Then there was silence. In December 2011, rumours spread again that Resorts World Sentosa, the proprietor of the proposal, was going to visit Bohol to check potential sites for the facility. Now, a reliable source has reported that the proposal has been approved by a local government official of the Province.

When I first got into marine mammal work in the Philippines, the first and only dolphinarium in the country was still under construction. Though conservationists at the time were eventually overpowered by the proprietors of the facility (with the help of corruptible government officials), the conservationists managed to stall its completion for several years. Today, Ocean Adventure stands proudly in Subic as ‘Southeast Asia’s only open water marine park.’ They boast their ‘animals live and play in a natural setting of clear water teeming with marine life, coral reefs, and a lovely white sand beach.’ The battle against this dolphinarium continues and has even reached the Supreme courts of the Philippines. A lot has happened since the first proposal for this dolphinarium reached the desk of our country’s government officials. Protests have been made, appeals sent in and campaigns started. The battle is far from over.

Ironically, the Philippines was one of the first countries in Southeast Asia with policies protecting marine mammals. The country banned the catching, selling, or transporting of dolphins and whales in 1992 and 1997 with FAO 185 & 185-1. The Animal Welfare Act has been in place since 1998. The Fisheries Administrative Order 208 conserving rare, threatened and endangered fishery species, which includes whales and dolphins, has been law since 2001. The list goes on and on. This gives the illusion that the Philippines has progressed in terms of environmental policies to join the ranks of more developed countries in protecting marine mammals. Yet, places like Ocean Adventure are sprouting up in different corners of the archipelago. One shocking example is the outfit off of Misamis Occidental who claim to have ‘rescued’ dolphins and are holding them in pens for tourists to swim and snorkel with. The marine park in Manila has been planning to bring in dolphins as well. Such plans have now reached the shores of the Island Province of Bohol, in the Central Visayas.

Let’s take a few steps back and trace how the first policies protecting marine mammals in the country came about. The ban on the hunting of dolphins and whales was triggered by the outcry of conservationists abroad and in-country. It was the ‘revelation’ of the local practice of hunting in Pamilacan (Bohol) on the front pages of local newspapers combined with reports heard in international conferences in the early 1990s that led to the ban. Within the blink of an eye, it was banned. The outcry centred on the fact that the practice was cruel, barbaric, and unsustainable. One proposed solution was to convert whale hunters into whale watchers. After years of discussions/arguments with locals and struggles between communities and NGOs, the dolphin-whale watching industry in Bohol is barely surviving. This is not due to a lack of dolphins or whales. Rather, it is because tourism entails considerable investment, good marketing strategies and business-minded and trained people to run it and is far more complex than merely setting up an operation. Tourism businesses are also seasonal and depend on sea and weather conditions. During the months when the seas are rough, very few tourists come to visit the island. To make matters worse, there are competitors from nearby Panglao Island offering similar tours and non-local business proprietors wanting a piece of the pie. Unfortunately, this pie was promised to the former whalers in exchange for giving up whale hunting, which was a huge source of income for locals.

The tourism business is not a stable source of income for Pamilacan residents. It is seasonal and only a few directly benefit from it. It merely supplements the livelihood that is left for them. The few hundreds of pesos that locals earn from this business is still critical, especially to those who have very little else to earn from. Plans for a so-called dolphin rescue facility are a slap on the face to these communities. A dolphin rescue facility is not just a rescue facility; it is a ‘holding’ and training facility for dolphins. Dolphins that are rescued and rehabilitated will be trained to perform in marine parks. That ‘rescued’ dolphin is a thousand-dollar investment that no one will just let it swim away! It is, after all, a business.

Another fallacy is dolphins in captivity live longer than their counterparts in the wild. Many dolphins in captivity die years before reaching maturity. An example closer to home is the 4 false killer whales kept in Ocean Adventure, Subic that all died at young ages.

How can all this be educational? Behaviours such as jumping up into the air to hit a red ball are certainly not normal in the wild. Dolphin shows propagate the idea that humans have control over wild animals because we are superior to them. Some push the argument, “we bring the animals closer to people. It gives people who normally will not have the chance to see these animals up close.” My answer to this: if these people can afford to pay more than 3,000 pesos (per head) to take the 3 hour trip to Subic to see these animals, why can’t they save a few thousand pesos by taking a 2-hr trip to Batangas? Not only can they see and experience more by going to the coast of Batangas, but they will see dolphins in the wild in their natural habitat doing their natural behaviour! Why can’t they take the one-hour flight to Tagbilaran and go dolphin watching in the Bohol Sea. They can even take several side-trips while they are at it and learn a bit more about Philippine history and biodiversity.

In Bohol, this argument is not even applicable. There is no need to spend millions of pesos to build an artificial ‘dolphin park’ when the Bohol Sea is already a huge natural marine park where you can see whales and dolphins in their natural habitat as well as sea turtles, whales sharks and numerous other species of tropical marine life.

Another argument put forward by some people on why Bohol needs a dolphin rescue/rehab facility (assuming that this is the sole intended purpose of the facility) is in the past several years there has been an increase in the number of strandings around the province, with mostly live strandings. How are they measuring this increase? To be able to make such a statement one must have a baseline or reference point. Once you’ve identified this reference point or baseline, you need to qualify what factors could have influenced this change in the number of strandings. For example, if we take the year 2000 as a reference point, you can count how many strandings were reported to have occurred around the Province. Take note, reported. If it wasn’t reported the stranding won’t have been documented, hence, not counted. What factors may influence whether a stranding is reported or not? One is people’s awareness. The more people are aware of the existence of cetaceans and the need to report such events, the more reports you will get. In other words, the more people who are looking, the more you will see. [Note: Marine mammal stranding response trainings have been conducted around the country since 1999. More have been conducted in the last 5 years.] A second factor is the development of technology. Cell phones are now ubiquitous in the country and this is no doubt a huge factor influencing the increase in reporting of strandings. With just one message, the news of a dolphin stranded in a far flung coastal barangay can reach a city dweller in Tagbilaran City or Manila. With the internet and various social networks, in a second, a photo of a stranded dolphin can reach the media in Manila and bloggers in the U.S. This makes it easier for media outfits to get details on such events and post it in e-news/internet news or their facebook page in a matter of hours. Therefore an increase in the number of reports of strandings does not necessarily mean an increase in the actual occurrence of stranding events.

The second part of their argument is that most strandings are live; hence we need facilities in order to rescue and rehabilitate the animals. Regardless of whether this unsubstantiated claim is true or not, the primary objective when responding to live marine mammal strandings is to ensure the safe return of the animal to its natural habitat. Therefore, responders must endeavour to employ the safest and least invasive way of returning the animal back out to sea as soon as possible. The option of rehabilitation is not only impractical, but also risky. Establishing a rehabilitation facility in itself is very expensive. In order to meet the best standards, it can cost millions. Is it really practical to spend millions to build and maintain such a facility to ‘save’ a few animals when there are possibly thousands out in the wild needing much needed protection in situ?

Why not spend that time and money in mitigating threats to wild marine mammal populations instead? Why not spend that time and money in promoting conservation in their natural environment conducting more research that will allow us to better understand these animals? Why not spend that time and money in helping small fishing communities develop a sustainable livelihood?

Bohol is now known as one of the (if not, THE) prime dolphin and whale watching site in the country. It is a name that was built on the small fishing communities’ long-practised tradition of hunting these large animals, but who now protect them. It is a story of dependency of fishing communities on the animals swimming wild in the Bohol Sea. Forced to give up the hook for the sake of conservation, these people are still trying to adapt to these changes in their lives. This is a place lauded in national and even international circles as a classic victory for conservation by turning whale hunters to whale watchers.

Why then would Bohol want to tarnish its reputation by hosting a facility that will take these wild animals from their natural habitat into enclosures that will, no matter how large, never be able to imitate their natural home and further risk the livelihoods of small island communities? All for what? For the benefit of a few, already well-off business people? For the entertainment of tourists who cannot be bothered to go on an outrigger boat and see the animals in the wild?

Hopefully, for the locals and the dolphins alike, this proposal can be stopped.

A Common Past
Hussein Macarambon

Before the fluttering sails and the varnished hardwood of its hull had been spotted by the sparing eyes of Sikatuna, the Spanish galleon had already been detected. Violent waters lapping against forecastle made of timber and the creaking sound of conquest were nothing short of inviting to the snoopy swimmers of the deep. Before long, swords had been sheathed, the canons quieted down, and blood filled a cup that sealed a pact of friendship. The tribesmen of Bohol witnessed this historic event while dolphins waded around Legazpi’s anchored ship.

The Blood Compact is an important part of Bohol’s history. It captures stories of the past and kindles a sense of imagination among readers, historian and layman alike. Imagine if a changing gale did not sweep Miguel Lopez de Legazpi off his path to the shores of the island. Imagine if Datu Sikatuna died of an infection after he cut himself. Imagine if the dolphins could tell the story from a non-anthropocentric point of view.

Regardless of how history is told and retold, the past will always be a collection of events that elapsed in time, names that are forgotten or etched on a Siniguelas tree, or memories of people, of birds and of creatures in the sea. The past is thus bigger than history because it lets the sea muse over dolphins and whales departed; it lets the moonlight guide a hundred generations of fishermen; it triggers a feeling of nostalgia as a lone lumba-lumba breaches from afar.

Men and dolphins share the same past as inhabitants of Bohol. The Lutaos of Mindanao sailed and reached its coast in early 1200s; the dolphins, who knows. The people of Bohol caught and ate fish from the sea; the dolphins, maybe more. The Boholanos frolicked in the beaches of Jagna, Pamilacan and Panglao; the dolphins watched in amazement of their two-legged cousins. The locals celebrate their history through the annual Sandugo Festival; the dolphins wonder why new faces appear in early July each year.

With limited knowledge of the lumba-lumba, Boholanos never ceased to understand these creatures. There are local myths on how dolphins are the guardians of the sea but so far, nothing historical has been written on their relationship with people. Do they really save fishermen who lose their boats to a storm? Do they chase off sharks that are about to attack an oblivious swimmer? Do their smiles always mean happiness? These questions do not take another myth for an answer. They certainly cannot wait for historians and marine experts to document whether or not these stories are true. The important thing is that Boholanos are beginning to understand the value of this common past and the need to keep them protected from harmful human activities, lest they swim away and never return.

The Dolphin Festival of Bohol is an example of this realization that dolphins should be celebrated without the need for history to validate relevance or consequence. In the continuum of time, a pod of dolphins bow-riding to the Manila galleons would be just as remarkable as a group of volunteers working up a sweat to make the Month of the Ocean a successful event.

The theme for this year’s celebration was “Protecting our seas, saving our lives, saving our future.” It was the first time that the dolphin festival was included in the annual celebration of the Month of the Ocean. The Bohol Coastal Resource Management Task Force (BCRMTF) invited Balyena.org and Physalus, some of the organizations that study cetaceans and other aquatic wildlife, to organize the festival. The festival took place on the last day of May 2011. The dolphin festival consisted of a costume parade, a concert, face painting activities, training/simulation on marine mammal rescue, photo exhibit, dolphin mural painting and a film screening of the movie “The Cove.”

Prior to the dolphin festival, the BCRMTF, which is composed of thirty different government agencies and civil society organizations, jointly planned a program of fun, interactive activities. The Bohol Environment Management Office, the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, the Bohol Rescue Unit for Marine Mammal (BRUMM), and the local governments (municipal and provincial) were the lead agencies that facilitated and organized the month-long event. The line-up of activities included a kick-off parade, an awareness campaign on coastal law enforcement and climate change, mangrove planting, beach clean-up, and a fun run for the ocean. To make their efforts at protecting marine mammals sustainable, students from coastal municipalities were exclusively taken around Pamilacan Island for dolphin watching trips and a whole day of educational games and movies at Baclayon.

It is through these local initiatives that Boholanos are showing their appreciation of this treasured past and their commitment to a sustained relationship with marine life in the long run.