LAMAVE (Large Marine Vertebrates Research Institute) has pioneered whale shark research in the Philippines through the collective efforts of volunteer helpers. Jessica Labaja explains LAMAVE’s ongoing research and education mission.
LAMAVE Volunteer Whale Shark Research – Dive Happy Episode 32 Show Notes
- LAMAVE: Large Marine Vertebrates Research Institute Philippines – official website
- Dive Happy podcast: Dr Simon Pierce on the reality of being a marine biologist and why he’s a fan of LAMAVE
- Dive Happy Podcast: Diving Sogod Bay
- Marine Megafauna Foundation
- Dive Happy Podcast: Dr Simon Pierce on the thresher sharks of Malapascua and conservation success
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LAMAVE Volunteer Whale Shark Research – Dive Happy Episode 32 Transcript
[0:00:34.9] CM: Hello, welcome to Dive Happy, the podcast about finding the best scuba diving in Asia. I’m your host Chris Mitchell and on this episode, I’m joined by Jessica Labaja. Executive director of the Large Marine Vertebrates Research Institute Philippines, or LAMAVE for short. Jess, welcome to the show.
[0:00:24.0] JL: Hi Chris, hi everyone, hello to all your avid listeners in the show.
[0:00:31.8] CM: Thank you. So, Jess, the way I became aware of the work of LAMAVE was when I visited Sogod Bay in southern Leyte in the Philippines as a diver. Can you tell me a bit more about LAMAVE’s mission and what it is about Sogod Bay specifically that interests LAMAVE?
[0:00:52.2] JL: LAMAVE is a Filipino nonprofit, non-stock, non-government organization in the Philippines that conducts research activities to conserve marine megafauna and their habitats. We envision a future for the oceans and the marine life that is secure and prosperous. We do this by engaging with governments and communities and the next generation of conservationists as well as conducting scientific research in order to provide evidence based management strategies to sustainably manage the protected species such as whale sharks and mantas and turtles and citations in the Philippines and in southeast Asia.
LAMAVE started actually as a citation research project in the Bohol Sea back in 2010 but then we quickly found out that the area hosts other native species as well like whale shark, mantas, and turtles. That’s how we diversified our research projects and moved on to other locations as well where these animals occur. And one of them is Sogod Bay which is a productive area where whale sharks aggregate seasonally. That’s how we came to do research in Sogod Bay as well.
[0:02:22.5] CM: Is Sogod Bay like the primary area that LAMAVE does its research or is it kind of equally between these different sites? The researches speak equally between different sites so whale sharks in the Philippines aggregate seasonally during the year so for example in southern Leyte, it’s normally between late October to maybe early June or late May. That’s when we have a team in southern Leyte to do dedicated surveys and interact with the communities and work with the LGUs and the tour operators in the bay.
For other areas where they have whale sharks as well and whale sharks in different months of the year, we have dedicated teams to do the work there too.
[0:03:09.4] JL: Okay
[0:03:10.1] CM: How does it work then that the scientist will go out and do these surveys on the whale sharks? How can you first start, how do you actually find the whale shark?
[0:03:19.5] JL: In Sogod Bay, we work with the local tour operators there which is a people’s organization which are fishermen and fishermen in the community and they do whale shark spotting and tours during the season for whale sharks. Normally, during this season as well, dive operators from Padre Burgos, which is another municipality in the bay, travel to Son-ok and do their whale shark tours in the area. We work with these guys, we work with dive operators, we work with the people’s organisation and they very kindly allow us to go on the tours with them as well.
We go on the boats, we bring our equipment, masks and fins, we bring a GPS, we bring underwater slate, we bring our cameras — and the dive boats, or the tour boats, normally pick up spotters in Sonok. These spotters are fishermen and they use these small paddle boats to look for whale sharks. They paddle themselves around the bay or in the area where we are looking for whale sharks. They wear a mask. They dip their heads underwater as well to see if there are whale sharks underneath in the vicinity.
[0:04:38.4] CM: Wow.
[0:04:40.1] JL: It’s pretty cool. Meanwhile, people on the boat, the dive crew, the tourist, us, we look for fins on the surface or silhouettes on the surface or maybe even boils of fish. That’s how we try and find the whale sharks. When the spotters see one, they normally raise their paddles and shout, “shark, shark!” We go over to them and drop the tourist and the researchers and we start the interaction, we start collecting the data.
[0:05:14.7] CM: Cool, with the fishermen, I mean, I’ve seen them do it and it’s remarkable but Sogod Bay like obviously, the name makes it sound like it’s this sort of cute little bay but Sogod Bay is just huge area of water, isn’t it? I don’t know how big it is but it’s a really big area. How do the fishermen know where to go and look? I mean, you can’t just be potluck, can it?
[0:05:38.2] JL: No, it isn’t. It would be like, from reports from other fishermen who have encountered whale sharks. Some of the spotters would see if there is bend-snap in the water or if there are currents around and they kind of like pick those areas where they look for shark.
[0:05:55.9] CM: Okay. Is it the location of LAMAVE on the — so what is it? The western coast of Sogod Bay which is on the opposite side of the bay from the diver resorts that are maybe the most well-known, the most popular, like Sogod Bay Scuba Resort and Peter’s Diving. Is there a distinct difference between — is there a reason why LAMAVE is on that side of the bay rather than the dive resorts are or is it — did that just happen by luck or whatever.
[0:06:26.2] JL: No, it is because the people’s organisation, where the whole whale shark tourism in the bay is being carried out, starts from there. But before we started the project, we did an exploratory survey in Sogod Bay in 2012 and we found the sharks there in that area. We started the project the next year in Son-ok so where the people’s organisation is. They’re called KASAKA by the way, the whale shark, people’s organisation that does the tour.
But then, it doesn’t mean that whale sharks can only be found in Pintuyan. For example, during the last season, there have been consistent sightings in Liloan which is north of Pintuyan, another municipality. So some of the dive operators started going there as well and we had to do surveys there as well because the sharks have been seen in the area. It’s not that they just stay in Pintuyan but they kind of occur in other areas in the bay too. It depends on the year and which area is more productive.
[0:07:40.8] CM: Right, I mean, the whale sharks as far as I remember are a relatively recent phenomenon in Sogod Bay that they’ve only been coming there for the last 10 to 15 years, or discover there, would that be right?
[0:07:53.1] JL: Based on our conversation with the fishers and the KASAKA group, they’d had the whale sharks in, like, 2006, 2007. They have stories from their childhood where they kind of ride the whale sharks because they’re just there, you know, super close to shore. Then they have this year where they don’t see any whale sharks at all. Yeah, I guess they’ve always been there, they’ve been coming, they’ve been feeding in the area but it’s just that the tourism maybe is fairly recent and so that’s how kind of, word got out and it became a popular site for tourist to come and see whale sharks.
[0:08:32.3] CM: Yeah, okay. Now, I interrupted you earlier when you were talking about — once the scientists get in the water and they’re collecting the data, we should point out that scuba diving with whale sharks is actually illegal in Sogod Bay — this is all snorkelling activities on the surface?
[0:08:48.8] JL: Yes, because the sharks are fairly shallow in the water column in Sogod Bay, the interaction is done through snorkelling. You are correct, it is prohibited to scuba dive with whale sharks in Sogod Bay. But, If you are already diving in the area or in an MPA and you encounter a whale shark, that’s perfectly fine but you cannot initiate the interaction doing scuba diving.
[0:09:15.9] CM: Yes, the last time I was in Sogod Bay, I had that exact thing happen, probably along five meters on the safety stop and the whale shark just came steaming by to check us out.
[0:09:29.9] JL: That’s awesome, where were you?
[0:09:32.1] CM: I think we were over on Olly’s Wall, near Napantao, I think.
[0:09:35.9] JL: That’s pretty cool.
[0:09:39.3] CM: Yeah, well, I’ve had friends tell me — yeah, when they went diving at Sogod Bay, I had a whale shark just following them around the house reef. Yeah, that never happens to me and then it happened.
[0:09:52.2] JL: Well, there you go. This is a great surprise. That’s such a special encounter when they just pop up and you don’t even expect them to be there.
[0:09:59.6] CM: Yeah, I mean, part of the research work is actually ID-ing the whale sharks, right? Just like they do with the manta matcher. Do you have any idea of how many different whale sharks have been identified in Sogod Bay?
[0:10:14.6] JL: In Sogod Bay alone? I don’t have the number on top of my head but in the whole Philippines for example, we have identified more than 1,800 whale sharks in the Philippines but this is a combined effort by LAMAVE, WWF Philippines and citizen scientists. Tourists can actually help with collecting these data by sending us their photos of whale sharks and help us identify the animals.
[0:10:46.6] CM: Yeah, that’s fantastic, is there much sense of how much the whale sharks move around? Has that been figured much or is this still not enough data to do that yet?
[0:10:54.0] JL: I mean, through photo ID, we have documented the first international match in the Philippines. For example, with Taiwan and southern Leyte. And then, just recently, through photo ID and citizen science, we have matched a whale shark that was first seen in Indonesia and then re-sighted in Honda Bay in Palawan. They do move around and photo identifications with taking pictures of the left side of the whale shark does help with tracking their movements too. This is the most — like, the cheapest way to do this. But then also, we employ other methods such as satellite telemetry to get more fine scale. Which calls this picture of their movements so we’ve tagged sharks in Sogod Bay and we know that they move around the area and down into the Bohol Sea in northern Mindanao so we’ve matched whale sharks from northern Mindanao as well to Sogod Bay.
We’ve tagged whale sharks in Tubbataha Reef in the Sulu Sea and in Honda Bay, Palawan too and two of the sharks that we’ve tagged in Honda Bay in Palawan have actually moved down to Sabah Malaysia and Malay, Filipino border and returned to Palawan in the Honda Bay area. That was the first documented return of a whale shark in the Philippines. It shows the connectivity of countries when it comes to whale shark habitats and whale shark movement and it shows that even though whale sharks may be protected in the Philippines and in other countries, they can move to areas where they might still be vulnerable to poaching and exploitation. For example, the West Philippine Sea or the South China Sea. Or even the Pacific.
[0:12:55.8] CM: Right, yes. It’s remarkable that those journeys have been identified. I mean, it was kind of like, it was always like the guess wasn’t it? The sharks must move big distances but to actually have the proof of it, it’s quite remarkable. Because I guess they go, the whale sharks actually go really deep and then come up as they sort of move along their journey so they’re not just on the surface the whole time, aren’t they?
[0:13:15.7] JL: No, they aren’t. If I’m not mistaken, we also use what you call this? The TDRs? Temperature depth recorders on the sharks. These are like tags as well that record diving depths of the whale sharks and one of the whale sharks have logged like a thousand meters — diving depths. Yeah, they do use the entire water column and don’t just stay on the surface.
[0:13:46.8] CM: To get the tag on to the whale sharks, they’re obviously — that has to be obviously physically attached to the animal, right?
[0:13:53.8] JL: Yes.
[0:13:55.3] CM: How do you do that?
[0:13:58.7] JL: Yeah, we kind of use, we call it a Hawaiian Sling. It’s an applicator where we shoot the animal, and I mean shoot, with my hands. We put the tags on the base of the dorsal fin, preferably the left side so it’s easier to get the IDs and get the photo of the tags but this is super quick and the whale shark normally just flinches and it carries on doing whatever behaviour it has been doing before we tag the whale sharks.
[0:14:35.7] CM: Wow, do you know off the top of your head like roughly how long those tags stay in place before they fall off or whatever?
[0:14:41.5] JL: It depends on the type of tag as well and how it is placed on the animal. Some tags need a little line so that it can easily float on the surface and transmit to the satellite, some tags just stay right on the skin like super close to the animal and just pops up after a year. So for example, those tags with the line they can easily get entangled with gear, for example, or a net that is just floating in the sea. So that it can be removed by just that.
[0:15:16.3] CM: Right, just changing gears a little bit, you mentioned earlier about working with local people. Obviously you’ve got the fishermen, the spotters and stuff, how things progressed in terms of talking to local communities, making them aware of the value of the whale sharks but also making sure that they get to share in the prosperity coming from tourism to the region and so on and so forth? I mean, it seems to me, just as a complete lay person tourist that seems like it’s been a huge success story. From your point of view would that be about right or is it a bit more fraught?
[0:15:49.9] JL: I mean yes, the community has gained from the whale shark tourism that is happening in their area and for example, like the women’s association in Son-ok, which are composed of like sisters, wives, and daughters of the spotters, the KASAKA group, they made up their own people’s organisation and they started making whale shark plushies or whale shark toys to sell to tourists that come to the area. Yeah, it was one of the first things we did because the ladies were very interested in helping the revenues of the family, right?
So, we got in touch with this lady from Hong Kong who was super talented in making plushies out of materials into whale shark plushing or sea turtle plushies or manta plushies. So we invited her to Son-ok to train the ladies to do these and then after a couple of years, the ladies made their products into their own. So they added the designs on the whale sharks because they said — “oh, the whale sharks have unique spot patterns so we should make these designs on them. And it should make these eyes and the pelvic fin should be just right there.” So they are making a really good, anatomically-correct whale sharks as products for tourist.
[0:17:21.6] CM: Fantastic.
[0:17:23.4] JL: Yeah, it is super awesome and we’ve also been doing community engagement too in Pintuyan. So we do lectures in schools, we organize a snorkeling club where we took a few kids to snorkel in the reefs because some of them haven’t actually been in the water and haven’t seen a reef or a turtle or any of the species in their area with their own eyes and we did an art day where we painted a wall in one of the schools with the whale sharks and invited the whole community to do it with us. And we do field nights as well, so showing marine themed documentaries or films with the whole community every Fridays on their basketball court because that is where everyone aggregates in the villages right? Yes, it’s been pretty fun, engaging the community and working with the local government.
[0:18:18.6] CM: Right and also LAMAVE has kind of been in all of these different hotspots, like you’ve been there for several years so you sort of become part of those communities as well right?
[0:18:29.6] JL: That’s true and we are really proud of these relationships with the communities that we have built. It makes the work easier in a way that if we need something, the community is always ready to help. So it’s been fruitful for us and for the communities as well. So work in five hotspots in Donsol, in Cebu, in Southern Leyte, in Honda Bay, and then the Tubbataha Reef Natural Park, which is located in the Sulu Sea and we work on the ground at the grassroots level there in all of these areas.
[0:19:07.5] CM: Yeah that is fantastic. So how does it go about? I noticed from the LAMAVE website that you have a lot of staff and quite a few of those are Filipino interns up there for a year or so. I mean, can you progress from there into a fulltime job at LAMAVE or is it kind of a proving ground for a lot of people? It is what basically solidifies their interest in marine biology, what is the kind of career ladder if there is one?
[0:19:34.1] JL: It’s both. So most of the staff at the moment are Filipinos and we’ve got — normally we have internships for the research assistant position and we have volunteer positions as well. So specifically for Filipinos, we have this program called Iskolar ng Dagat, or ‘Scholars of the Sea’. So they can join and volunteer with us without doing a contribution for volunteering. So yeah, some of the volunteers that we’ve had throughout the years have stayed on and have become leaders in conservation and managing projects with us in LAMAVE.
[0:20:23.6] CM: Wow and being a volunteer is that open to anyone like can tourists come and do it or is it a bit more difficult?
[0:20:31.3] JL: So for doing the volunteering program in most of the projects, we require at least three months commitment so that they would have enough time to learn the techniques of data gathering and then can actually contribute to the data and the other work that we are doing in the communities like education, information awareness, or media exercises. If they are interested — and in some of our projects as well, it requires a month of commitment. This is another project, the Manta Conservation Project but for most of the project it is a three month commitment to do research work with us.
[0:21:15.7] CM: Okay and so the day to day task would be, obviously, in the water, collecting the data but then also back on land collecting that data and what else? You tell me.
[0:21:27.9] JL: So yeah, so a lot of the work, especially with the whale shark projects is ‘in-water-work’. So we go out, you collect whale shark data with tourists or with the dedicated LAMAVE pump boat. So it is just us without any tourists with us and when we go back on land, we process that data. So we try and match the sharks, they’ve been seen before. We encode the tourist compliance data that we collected and the environmental data that we collected. And there are other tasks involved, for example, the project leader might ask you to do a specific responsibility like collecting the number of tourists that have been visiting the area or sending questionnaires, asking them to answer the questionnaires for another study. So these are some of these things that we’d be able to do. If you are interested, as well with the approval of the supervisors, you can help with the data analysis and the writing of the paper too. By the way, we also accept thesis proposals for undergraduate and graduate students but yeah, subject to approval of the supervisors as well.
[0:22:52.1] CM: Wow, so just to be clear, if you are interested in being a volunteer for LAMAVE, you don’t need to have any previous scientific background because, like you said, they will be taught the techniques of how to do surveillance and so forth, is that correct?
[0:23:07.6] JL: Yes that is true, you just need to be a very good swimmer and not be scared of the deep because sometimes you’re in the blue and you’re like — yeah. So like I didn’t have a scientific background and I learned the techniques through LAMAVE as well when I started as a volunteer way back in — I don’t even remember, 2012 I think.
[0:23:34.5] CM: Wow, okay. Yes because I was recently speaking to Dr. Simon Pierce from the Marine Megafauna Foundation and he was singing the praises of LAMAVE as a great organisation to go and volunteer to really understand what it is that a marine biologist does and the kind of task that you would be asked to do — and he was just saying how much he really loves the organisation and working with LAMAVE.
[0:24:01.3] JL: Well, Simon is a friend of LAMAVE and we have worked with him and Marine Megafauna Foundation, which is the NGO that he works with, in some of the whale shark projects that we have here in the Philippines too — and Simon has always been super kind. But yeah it’s, true, because we work on the ground and we engage with the communities so it is not just data and science all the time but you have the opportunity as well to try to make a change in the community level as well.
[0:24:35.2] CM: Yes, how many volunteers roughly do you think LAMAVE has per year? Is it like 10, 20?
[0:24:42.7] JL: Oh throughout the season in all of our projects? We have maybe like 40, 50 volunteers throughout the year.
[0:24:51.2] CM: Wow! that is a lot of people.
[0:24:53.1] JL: It is a lot of people because we have maybe seven projects running in the Philippines. So not just with the whale sharks but including mantas and turtles.
[0:25:05.8] CM: Awesome, so as we start to close this up, what do you think is the future for LAMAVE? Do you think you will try to get lots more volunteers to expand that program or do you think there is going to be a particular new goal for research? Is there a future road map for what LAMAVE will do?
[0:25:26.5] JL: That is kind of a tough question to answer at the moment but yeah, so we planned to involve volunteers in the future projects. So we are constantly looking for people who can share their skills and talents with us. So it is not just if you are super interested in being a marine biologist and seeing how it is to be a field researcher, then yes that is kind of one of the highlights that we provide but also like for example, if you are a finance expert or if you are a website guru, these are also skills that are important to an organization doing conservation.
Even though it is not directly, like in-water-work, science-y work which you are doing, right? So people who have marketing skills and communication skills who can help us with the other bits of running the NGO and making a conservation impact that’s not about field research are also welcome to come and say, “Hey, I really like to help and these are the skills that I think can be of service to the cause or the goal.” LAMAVE wants to promote science-based and evidence-based policy development and management strategies in protecting an endangered species, not just the whale sharks. So we are engaging with governments and related agencies to do this work.
[0:27:03.1] CM: Yeah, awesome. This is the thing, it is this continual, ongoing process that is not the sort of thing that people can just show up for six months, talk to some local fisherman and then go away again. It is like this constant year-on-year process of actually being there and becoming part of the local community and helping expand the local knowledge and also the protection for the wildlife.
[0:27:28.3] JL: That’s true. It is a long-term conservation action, right? But then the ultimate goal really is that we can step back and let the community manage their own resources sustainably so that they will be able to do that without our help kind of thing.
[0:27:50.8] CM: Yeah exactly. Jess, thank you so much for talking about the work in LAMAVE. It’s been really interesting.
[0:27:58.1] JL: Oh my gosh Chris, thank you so much for inviting us and allowing us to talk about LAMAVE and the work that we do with you as well.
[0:28:07.4] CM: Okay, thanks very much.
[0:28:09.0] JL: It’s been such fun, thank you so much.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[0:28:10.5] CM: Thanks very much for listening to the Dive Happy Podcast. You can see the show notes for this episode and browse all the other episodes at divehappy.com/podcast. You can also sign up for the Dive Happy newsletter so you get notified when the next episode comes out. Sign up at divehappy.com/podcast. I pinky promise I won’t spam you and finally, if you enjoyed the podcast, please tell other divers about it. Please rate the podcast on iTunes, it really helps boost the show’s visibility. If you’re not sure how to rate a podcast in iTunes, please go to divehappy.com/podcast for details on how to do that.
Thanks for listening, until next time, dive safe, dive happy.
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