Saturday, November 04, 2006

Whale of a story

A WHALE is a mammal is not a fish.

This I remembered from the children's book on whales that I dropped on the sand one October twilight when the dorsal fin of a butanding (whale shark) sliced the waters off Matutinao, Badian.

The shadow, as long as a sedan, jostled aside the white buoys no more than 100 meters away from the shallows where my sons were snorkeling.

The fellow was a long way from the coastal town of Donsol in northwestern Sorsogon, the so-called whale shark capital of the Philippines.

In local lore, the butanding translates to a “gentle giant.” According to scientists who’ve studied the Rhincodon typus, its great size and enormous mouth are typical of a filter feeder, whose gills strain water for plankton and krill as food.

But a great blue-black scythe of a fin somewhat alters the facts.

During the brief appearance of that fin, life stalled along this stretch in Matutinao.

Here was the version of a resort owner: “The other day, when two whale sharks circled around a school of fish within sight of the shore, a Taiwanese nearly packed off his children and wife. We could have lost guests.”

This story came from fishermen fixing nets: “A neighbor was down in the bottom, looking for fish to spear. When it darkened all of a sudden, he looked up and saw the biggest fish. And then he lost all the nerve to spear it. Guess who doesn’t want to spread this story?”

From the owner of a two-boat fishing operation. “Nobody knows why but the big sharks show up here when the year is ending. Sometimes one ends up in the nets. These are costly to buy and repair. The fish is a nuisance.”

A friend, marooned in the asphalt wastelands of Manila, texted his reaction to the unusual sighting: “Your lucky 2 have seen 1, always wntd 2 see 1 4 myslf.”

A little belatedly, I remembered to pick up the book on whales I had been immersed in. Written by Vassili Papastavrou, this Eyewitness Book draws many lines linking the lives of mammals in the sea—from whales to dugongs—with the mammals on land.

Although the whale shark is not a mammal, the world’s biggest fish is, like other sea creatures, eloquent about evolution.

Papastavrou writes that 55 millions of years ago, the hoofed ancestors of whales and other marine mammals adapted to their food-rich water colonies by changing form.

Nostrils moved to the top of the head to become blowholes for breathing. Hind legs diminished until they disappeared. Tail flukes showed up.

The evolved torpedo shape, where even the sexual organs are tucked away in a genital slit, keeps marine mammals streamlined for staying alive.

How do we measure up? According to current consensus, modern man appeared less than a tenth of a million years ago.

But to sustain our efforts to remain alive, our seas have only “about 50 years” left to yield fish harvests.

According to the BBC News website, an international team of researchers says we are going through the oceans as if we had others in reserve. True, we have bigger vessels, better nets, new technology—but where is the fish?

Why evolve if only to think in the end, while face to face with a mystery like the butanding: can I eat this?

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* Published in Sun.Star Cebu, Nov. 5, 2006

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