A couple of new faces were among the old as the latest whale shark survey came to a close in Donsol.

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) the Philippines identified 58 individual whale sharks during the organizations’ 2021 population survey, held annually off the coast of Donsol.

Of the 58 whale sharks spotted during the survey, 32 were returning individuals that had been recorded during previous surveys. The remaining 26 were new to the site and had never been recorded before in Donsol.

The survey was conducted from March 27 to June 15, 2021, with a total of 27 days and 144 whale shark encounters. The highest number of encounters happened in the month of May, which clocked 78 encounters out of 144.

The previous season’s survey was suspended due to quarantine measures imposed by the government in March 2020 when the Covid-19 pandemic hit the Philippines.

This year, WWF-Philippines pushed through with the annual survey despite pandemic restrictions. The local government of Donsol and the local Bantay Dagat lent their support to the effort.

“We’re always pleased to see new individuals popping up in our annual whale shark survey. The waters off the coast of Donsol are really known for the whale sharks that pass through them. To be spotting new individuals year after year is proof that whale sharks still choose to come here,” said WWF-Philippines Project Manager Manuel Narvadez.

The Ticao-Burias Pass Protected Seascape (TBPPS), located between the provinces of Masbate, Sorsogon, Albay, and Camarines Sur, is a biodiversity hotspot renowned for the presence of the charismatic whale shark.

Since 1998, WWF-Philippines has been working with the local government of Donsol and the Department of Tourism to protect the local whale shark population. Employing a landscape approach, WWF-Philippines and its local partners aim to minimize human pressures threatening the health of the TBPPS.

The conservation organization also helps operate a citizen science effort to keep track of whale sharks passing through the TBPPS. By tasking visiting tourists with documenting and sharing the whale sharks they identify while out on guided tours, WWF-Philippines has helped create employment for locals while developing a database of individual whale sharks that have passed through the area over the years.

While similar in appearance, each whale shark individual can be identified by the unique pattern of white spots across its body. The Wildbook for Whale Sharks maintains an online database of individuals that have been identified throughout the history of species conservation.

“This International Shark Awareness Day is a good time to remind everyone of the need to safeguard places like the TBPPS, for the sake of species like the whale shark. Each new whale shark we identify serves as a reminder of the importance of protecting this precious place,” said Narvadez.