Sleepy Philippines village now buzzing tourist attraction thanks to whale sharks

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A tiny village in the Philippines as become a tourist hotspot for people wanting to swim with whale sharks.

The "gentle giants" of the sea are lured to Tan-awan in the sourthern Philippines island of Cebu by fisherman who hand feed them shrimp.

The practice draws divers and snorkellers from around the world wanting to see the magnificent animals up close.

Two years ago, hardly anyone had heard of the village. But, thanks to social media picture-sharing sites and news reports about the fishermen, several hundred people now visit daily, with 2012 numbers peaking at 1,642 on Good Friday, according to the report in the Daily Mail.

The paper writes that the whale shark 'interaction area' is the size of a football field, 80 metres off the beach, and that feeding takes place from 6am to 1pm. On average, eight to 10 whale sharks will show up, but numbers can get up to 20.

Tourists can pay from 500 pesos (£8) to just watch the whale sharks, to 1,500 pesos (£25) - plus normal scuba diving charges - to dive with them.

Locals say than can receive 1,000 to 1,500 pesos (£16 to £25) a day, which is deemed a lot of money in the area.

But, while tourists and residents are delighted, biologists are left less than impressed with the practice, predicting it could lead to long-term problems. They say the whale sharks could develop abnormal social behaviours, like increased aggression or competition between the animals, as well as warning of the spread of disease and parasites.

Italy-based environmental group Physalus, say it is rare to have so many whale sharks in such a small area so regularly and that feeding from humans is totally unnatural.

Alessandro Ponzo, the president of Physalus, told the Daily Mail: "It looks like being in a zoo, a circus, looking at the animal walking up and down being fed. This is not a natural behaviour that you see.

"The experience that you have ... is not the same as when you see them in the wild, in their natural environment. What you learn here is that wildlife is (fine) to be exploited as a tourism attraction."

Physalus hopes his research on the effects of tourism and feeding on the behaviour of whale sharks will help the local government manage whale shark tourism and minimise the environmental impact.

Animal rights groups suggest they understand the importance of tourism, but that it has to be "sustainable", adding that "real eco-tourism is achievable".

Whale sharks are deemed as a "vulnerable" species. Back in January, two models took part in a fashion shoot while swimming with the animals in a bid to highlight their plight.

The largest whale shark ever recorded was 41.5ft and weighed 47,000lbs (21.5 metric tons).

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