A whale of a tale in Bais

Gregg Yan

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A whale of a tale in Bais
The Philippines is home to 30 types of whales and dolphins. Gregg Yan travels to Bais to look for one of the rarest species of all – the pygmy sperm whale.

Like a sports team before a big game, we clasp our hands and bow our heads in prayer – except we are in the middle of the sea, and are surrounded by sweaty boatmen.  

Captain Ricardo Reynaldo finishes his prayer and gestures to the water, strangely calm this morning.

“The Tañon Strait is famous for its dolphins and whales. Each has its own personality:  bottlenose dolphins stay near the shallows, while acrobatic spinner dolphins ply open waters. Larger Risso’s dolphins like to float upside down, tails sticking out of the water – but the rarest creature of all is the pygmy sperm whale. It is very shy and only passes through our waters. It has been 3 months since I saw one. But perhaps,” he smiled.

“Someone down there heard our prayers,” he added. 

Aboard the M/B Ezrha, our sea-squad sails from Bais to the center of the Tañon Strait to come face-to-face with dolphins.

BOTTLENOSE DOLPHINS. Dolphins can jump! Journeying great distances to find fish and squid, dolphins hunt by echolocation – producing clicking sounds then receiving and interpreting the returning echoes. Fourteen types of whale and dolphin ply the waters of the Tañon Strait in the Visayas. All photos by Gregg Yan

The pod

Thirty minutes on, we are swapping tales and eating breakfast on the boat, eyes occasionally scanning the horizon for our quarry. I am talking with a Marine Corps officer about his adventures in Mindanao when the grizzled boat Captain points to a seemingly empty patch of sea, abuzz with red-necked phalaropes. “There! Look at the birds!”

A league off, blue water begins to churn under the circling phalaropes. In seconds half-a-dozen people are scrambling for their SLRs and compact cameras. Breakfast is swiftly forgotten.

Our boat approaches the site – a roiling, bubbling mass, seabirds squawking overhead. “It is a bait-ball, a giant school of sardines or other small fish driven up from the depths,” explained one of our boatmen. By its fringes I note dark, triangular dorsal fins. Dolphins. And dozens of them!

DOLPHIN TOUR. Tour operator Ricky Andaya Soler sports an Oceana shirt. Oceana is a global nonprofit organization dedicated to saving the world’s oceans to feed a billion people seafood every day, forever.

 Suddenly, they start jumping. Ooohs and Ahhhs fill the air – along with claps and cheers. I grin as I catch myself clapping along with everyone else. I have been watching dolphins for years and it is like this every time.

Whales and dolphins of the Philippines

Cetaceans include about 90 species of whales, dolphins and porpoises. They’re mammals – not fish. About 30 cetacean species inhabit or pass through Philippine waters, ranging from the 2.5-meter Irrawaddy dolphin to the 30-meter blue whale. The Tañon Strait, a 161-kilometer channel dividing Cebu and Negros, is home to 14 types of cetaceans, most of which can be seen around Bais City, a quaint coastal town near Dumaguete in Negros Oriental.

“Cetaceans are extremely important for the marine ecosystem,” says Marine Wildlife Watch of the Philippines Director Dr. AA Yaptinchay.

“Most are apex or top-level predators which regulate populations of fish and squid – thereby keeping the ecosystem balanced to promote diversity. The bigger whales, especially filter-feeders, contribute to nutrient distribution in the sea through a ‘whale pump’ – thereby fertilizing the sea surface with their poop, which encourages plankton growth.”

AA and his Marine Wildlife Watch of the Philippines crew have been working to conserve cetaceans and other charismatic species for years.

DOLPHIN SIGHTINGS. Droves of visitors drive to Bais to get a chance to see dolphins. As with all wildlife encounters, sightings are not guaranteed – but enough good pictures are posted online to keep attracting more tourists.

Once hunted and slaughtered for their meat and blubber, all cetaceans are now protected in the Philippines by the amended Fisheries Code. Still, many die because of accidental entanglement in fishing gear, which can cause the air-breathing mammals to suffocate or drown. Known as bycatch, this causes the deaths of over 300,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises globally every year. Other threats include marine debris and plastic pollution, habitat destruction, overfishing and hunting, which sadly still occurs in remote parts of the country.

“Charismatic creatures like dolphins bring in millions of Pesos from ecotourism, enriching the lives of the people of Bais and other coastal areas. Together with our allies, we work to conserve fisheries in the Tañon Strait by looking at the no-nonsense implementation of our fisheries and environmental laws to protect marine ecosystems and resources.

This ensures that our beloved dolphins will always have food to eat, while protecting the livelihoods of our coastal residents. When done right, tourism is solid proof that many animals are worth more alive than dead,” noted Atty. Gloria Estenzo-Ramos, head of Oceana in the Philippines.  

A special treat

Back on the boat, we observe the Tañon Strait’s stars in action. They’re spinner dolphins, distinguished by their elongated snouts and crazy, acrobatic leaps. Some sommersault, some do lay-outs and some – just to show off – do complicated corkscrews, spinning thrice before landing. They’re best viewed here – in the wild, which is much not comparable to animals performing and suffering in captive entertainment facilities.

LITTLE DOLPHINS. Like little kids at play, dolphins cavort and blow bubbles among themselves. They also use air to corral prey, creating bubble-nets to drive schools of fish like sardines into tight balls where they can be easily caught and eaten.

After a few frenzied minutes, Captain Reynaldo shouts the three words we’ve been waiting for all morning. “Pygmy sperm whales!”

Drawn to the commotion, a pair have come to snap up what the dolphins have missed. We don’t approach, staying the prescribed 100 meters from larger whales. I snap shots as fast as I can but they’re too far out.

Remembering my favorite scene from Walter Mitty, I exhale and, reluctantly at first, lower my camera. I take in the moment and realize that often, the best life memories should be recorded with one’s eyes, not a lens. After a magical minute, they’re gone.   

Soon more boats arrive and we head back to Bais to let other visitors enjoy. Captain Reynaldo unleashes the coup-de-grace – cold drinks and watermelons. Frozen watermelons. We laugh and dive in. As the dolphins and whales have their breakfast, so do we. – Rappler.com

Multi-awarded environmentalist Gregg Yan is the Director for Communications of Oceana Philippines. He is a Master SCUBA diver, a Reefcheck Eco-Diver and is absolutely in love with the natural world.

Please read before you ride! Check out the Marine Wildlife Watch of the Philippines’ rules for interacting with cetaceans here. To see the dolphins of Bais, contact Ricky Soler of Bais City Dolphin Watching Adventures at: Ezrha2012@Gmail.com

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