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 plankton, and they are relatively non-aggressive to anything much larger than that. The Philippine Islands are known for having large numbers of these majestic creatures migrating 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 of June. June, not only is off-season for spotting the spotted non-mammalian vertebrate, but 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 skepticism levels reaching critical for sighting any whale sharks, I decided to head to a region that 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 its 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
He arrived at a pivotal moment, just before the media had caught wind of this going on, and was able to work with local officials to get some tips in for building a sustainable environment for the whale sharks to co-exist with their befriended fishermen. Of course, it will be up to the fishermen, and the other ruling local authorities to ensure that these guidelines are followed and not just posted as a ‘would be nice to have’ kind of bulletin.
I thought, with this in mind, it would be worth the 1000 pesos (or US $25) for a half hour snorkel with the gentle giants, and judge for myself what impact was being made. *Please note: This was the price at time of publication, and is subject to change. Additional fees apply for people wishing to Scuba Dive here as well.
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.
Any breaking of these rules and you will be subject to a hefty fine (far outweighing the cost of the initial tour). As for the locals sticking to the guidelines themselves, it will just take some time to get the system down to a science, baring in mind these are fishermen with no prior experience in tourism management.
The half hour that ensued was one of the most unforgettable experiences of my life! Immediately upon slipping into the water off the fishing boats, we were surrounded by 5 whale sharks. They slowly swam along side the boats, and amongst each other, occasionally circling away and then back again for a closer look at the swimmers in the water. Every moment I spent in the water with them felt like an eternity which I would never forget. The grace and beauty of these creatures left me in awe. The gentle nature of their interaction with the fishermen was truly remarkable. It actually felt more like a co-existence rather than a dependency on either’s part. As quickly as we arrived, we were shuttled back into the boats and off to shore again, to reduce the whale sharks’ exposure to us to a minimum.
Of course, being a new activity, long term effects are not yet known to the habits of the whale sharks. Shark Savers will be frequently monitoring activities here, as I’m sure many activist groups will as well. My hope, for both the whale sharks, and for this small fishing village, is that the long term effects are minimal, thus allowing the whale sharks to relic in the safety of this villages shallow waters, while allowing humans to observe them living happily in the sea.
Diving with whale sharks is happening all over the world at the moment, though even in places with some of the , few places are as regulated as it is here. In fact, in many places, there’s zero regulation, and of course no one’s getting fined for touching or even ‘riding’ a whale shark.. it’s just good etiquette not to, but that doesn’t stop the occasional excited diver out there.
If you happen to find yourself in Cebu, there are plenty of things to do in Cebu, which is the second-most populous island in the Philippines! From exploring churches to beach hopping, to rock climbing, to exploring gorgeous waterfalls, and plenty more, you’re bound to find something of your own interest! Don’t forget, this is just 1 of 7,107 islands in the Philippines too! Have an amazing adventure, and travel responsibly!
I know not everyone will agree with this, and some may say it’s not even an ‘authentic experience’, and I am happy to announce that you are entitled to your own opinions. In fact, I’d love to get feedback on the subject from both sides, if possible. Please feel free to leave your thoughts in the comment section below!