Whale sharks in Oslob, Philippines
Diving with Whale Sharks has been a dream of mine ever since I learned it was even possible! Rivalling dinosaurs in both size and weight, these prehistoric creatures have been swimming our oceans for upwards of 60 million years. Whale Sharks have been nicknamed ”Gentle Giants”, as their diets consist mainly of microscopic plancton, and they are relatively non-agressive to anything much larger than that. The Philippine Islands are known for having large numbers of these majestic creatures migrating through between the months of January to May.
Having done very little research prior to my departure, and not realizing this seasonality at the time of my booking, I had scheduled my trip to the Philippines in the month on June. June, not only is off-season for spotting the spotted non-mammalian vertebrate, coincidentally it is also the start of Typhoon season in the Philippines. Whammy. This means it is also ‘off-season’ for spotting tourists. Advantages: No-cues, reservations seldom required, feeling less like part of the crowd, and being able to interact more with the locals. Disadvantages: Higher off-season prices (I found this odd, but it seems to happen here), rain with a side of possible typhoons, and very low potential for seeing whale sharks.
With scepticism levels reaching critical for sighting any whale sharks, I decided to head to a region which has recently been getting a fair amount of controversy. There’s a sleepy, little fishing village in southern Cebu named Oslob, which for the most part would barely be noticed on a map… until recently. In late 2011, local fishermen discovered that whale sharks had started to return to the waters surrounding their village. After almost a decade of being absent from the area due to slaughtering for their fins by nearby islands, small numbers had found their way back into these shallow waters in search of food.
Rather than trying to make a quick buck in the old fashion, slaughtering for fins, the fishermen were rather excited to see the gentle creatures, and observed their interaction with the environment here. They noticed that they were eating a very small shrimp several meters below the surface throughout the night. Simply catching a small amount of these same shrimp in a region outside of the whale sharks’ feeding zone allowed them to re-release them into the water in the morning, while the whale sharks still lingered after their nighttime feed. This action has brought the whale sharks closer to humans than ever before. They have started swimming up to the local fishing boats and getting some grub, like an after dinner snack. As a result, the fishermen have been able to now offer observing, snorkelling and diving tours while the whale sharks linger about into the morning hours.
This of course is where the controversy comes in. Feeding wildlife in any region of the world inevitably changes the animals natural feeding habits, and may result in dependencies in humans, along with unnatural behaviours of them approaching humans. Many environmentalists, naturalists and members of various aquatic and animal groups seemed to be a bit up-in-arms about the whole ordeal. As with any controversial subject, there are 3 sides to a story. The accused, the accusers, and the truth.
So where’s the positive side?
I probably would have just listened to all the negative media hype about this and carried on, even though deep down I wouldn’t have wanted to miss the opportunity to be so close to the incredible creatures. It was only after some thorough investigation that I found an interesting article by the organization Shark Savers which turned my head back around. Not very long after the town had it’s Whale Shark population start on the rise again, Blue Sphere Media CEO, Shark Savers’ Board of Directors and WildAid‘s Advisory Board member Shawn Heinrichs wrote an inspiring article about his experience and involvement with the fishermen of Oslob. Within Shawn’s article, he outlined several points which got me thinking.
- 10 years ago, the whale sharks were slaughtered to the point of non-existence in this area.
- The fishermen who are feeding the whale sharks now have a say in their conservation, rather than their capture for their fins and meat
- the diet has not changed through this process, merely just a few hours of the natural feeding times – in fact, when the full moon rises, the whale sharks disappear, as per normal, and in fact, they don’t all come on the same days
- because this is a very new concept, with the proper training and education in sustainability, the villagers can adapt and implement low-impact practices early on, before the habits have had a chance to change to drastically
Right off the bat, we sat down for a ‘Can and Cannot do’ meeting. This is where they covered the newly implemented guidelines:
- Whale Shark Viewing Time Opens at 6 AM and closes at 1PM
- Rules in Watching Whale Sharks
- Do not touch, ride, or chase a whale shark
- Do not restrict normal movement or behavior of the shark
- Flash photography are not allowed
- Motorboats are prohibited in the area. Only paddleboats are allowed.
- Viewing is limited to 30 minutes
- A maximum of six tourists is allowed to view for 30 minutes while a maximum of four divers is allowed to avoid crowding.