Whale sharks are the largest of the ocean's fish, weighing up to 20 tonnes. They pose no threat to humans, feeding mainly on plankton in the warm waters of the tropics. These sharks are approachable creatures – docile enough to allow the occasional swimmer to hitch a ride. Although they are a vulnerable species, they continue to be hunted for their meat in parts of Asia.
Whale shark hunting hit a peak in the 1990s, with prices of up to $800 per kilogramme of dried fin meat attracting a fresh influx of hunters to Donsol in the Philippines. In 1997, around 200 of the creatures were slaughtered. Whale sightings started to diminish. After campaigning by the local community and conservation groups, whale shark hunting became punishable by Philippine law in 1998.
WWF Philippines, the UNDP and the local government together developed a community-based ecotourism and conservation programme, with the aim of providing local people with a sustainable income whilst protecting the species. In a few years Donsol had transformed from a small coastal community into one of the world's most popular destinations for whale shark tourism.
Although there are records of whale shark sightings from the early 19th century, relatively few scientific studies have been carried out. An important aspect of the Donsol programme is collecting data using tags which give an insight into the whale sharks' behaviour and habitats. Once this has been established, it may be possible to introduce marine protected areas to help safeguard the species.
As Gelareh Darabi discovers when she visits the fishing town of Donsol in the Philippines, there is growing recognition that whale sharks are worth far more alive than dead. She meets some of the locals who now earn a living from ecotourism, and goes in search of the elusive gentle giant.
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