The history of hunting for whales, whale sharks, and manta rays in the Philippines has been largely undocumented. In more recent years, some attention has been given to those who hunt these large marine animals in the Bohol Sea.
Local whaling has been practiced by a small community in the town of Lila, Bohol for at least over a century. Hunting for “bongkaras” or the Bryde’s (pronounced broo-dus) whale was not an easy task as these whales can grow to about 13 meters in length and could swim fast. Only the bravest and strongest of hunters were known to become successful “whale jumpers”, hookmen, or “manuung”. A crew of 5 to 6 men would sail out to sea during the whale season onboard their nine-meter-long wooden boat called “pilang” to search for whales.
Once a whale is spotted, the hunters would approach it and when the timing is right, the jumper with a huge iron hook would leap from the bow of the boat, aiming for the whale’s back, just behind the blowhole. The jumper, landing in the water, would then swim back hastily to his boat. With the hook secured to the whale and its long rope secured to bamboo floaters, the hunters pursue the whale until it tires out. Most of the time a second or third boat would hook the whale again in order to secure it, making it more difficult for the whale to swim away. It could take hours to completely subdue a whale, making the entire hunt a day-long endeavor.
One adult Bryde’s whale landed could also take 3-4 hours to cut up, an activity engaged in by several members of the community. Whale meat was an important and rare source of high protein which could feed an entire village for a month. The meat is often sold fresh while the skin and blubber are rendered for its fat. Consuming most of the internal organs and using some of its bones for furniture, almost every part of the whale is used.
All species of whales were protected in the Philippines in 1997. The practice ended a few years before that amidst declining catches, competing fishers, and a new more lucrative target species – the whale shark.
The practice of whaling was rich in traditional ecological knowledge of the animals and the sea. It was a source of pride for the hunters and their communities. It was entrenched in their culture and beliefs as coastal peoples. Although the tradition has been long gone, let us not forget this part of our history, the story of the sea hunters of Bohol.
Text by Jo Marie Acebes and painting by Aissa Domingo/ NMP Zoology Division