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.

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WSE Travel - Oslob, Philippines - Whale Sharks safety meeting
The dos and don’ts of swimming with Whale Sharks in Oslob

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.

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WSE Travel - Oslob, Philippines - Whale Sharks swimming gear for rent
Gear for rent – everything from snorkels to Oxygen tanks

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.

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WSE Travel - Oslob, Philippines - Small tourist stands
Not much in terms of tourist stalls yet. A few thatch-roofed huts selling shirts and shells. I’m sure this will change soon!

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.

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WSE Travel - Oslob, Philippines - Off to see the Whale Sharks
Passengers getting in a fishing boat to go see the Whale Sharks

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.

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.

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WSE Travel - Oslob, Philippines - Whale Sharks staff member
A local fisherman proudly sports his “We Love Gentle Giants” T-shirt
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:

  1. Whale Shark Viewing Time Opens at 6 AM and closes at 1PM
  2. 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.

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WSE Travel - Oslob, Philippines - Whale Shark feeding on tiny shrimps
“Nom nom nom.. whale shark hungry!”
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.

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WSE Travel - Oslob, Philippines - Whale Sharks feeding
This whale shark is dining on the fisherman’s catch or tiny shrimp
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.

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WSE Travel - Oslob, Philippines - Swimming with Whale Sharks
Skin diving with whale sharks: priceless!
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.

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WSE Travel - Oslob, Philippines - Whale Sharks skin diving
There are moments in life which you will remember forever

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!

WSE Travel - Oslob, Philippines - Map
Oslob, Philippines – Map
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! 

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WSE Travel - Swimming with Whale Sharks
There are moments in life which you will remember forever

32 Responses

  1. Epic post, mate. Nice debate from both sides too, I’d have also made the decision to have swam with them.

    That pic of you two is beyond amazing!

    1. Thanks mate! I have to admit, I was hesitant at first.. but looking at it rationally, and trying to understand all sides of the debate, I felt quite good about my decision in the end! Your day will come 🙂

    1. Hey BackpackerBecki! I thought the same thing.. the regulations are in place to save the animals. I think the initial guidelines in place will ensure that the animals can prosper happily here. I’m looking forward to hearing about your experiences doing the same!!

  2. I’ve been to Cebu a lot of times, but I haven’t really seen the whale sharks of Oslob! Most of my friends can’t help but share their dream come true experience swimming with the tukis. They also told me that there were some tourists who are not obeying the rules. Hmmm… might as well drop by Cebu once again to swim with them 😀

    1. Hi Micamyx! I’m sure there’s a few bad seeds out there who break the rules, though the locals are definitely doing their best to prevent it. It’s still new to them, and I’m sure they’ll get better at it as time goes by. Keeping in mind, there’s tourists all over the world who are breaking these guidelines.. and there’s no punishment in those other places!

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts.. I look forward to hearing about your experience!! 😀

  3. Great article my friend! Your experience looks absolutely amazing and reminds me of my random encounter with wild dolphins in Maui.

    I love the way they regulate your experience and keep with whale sharks in mind first. Furthermore, I can hardly see any real negative impact due to the regulations and love how the locals are being more kind to their gentle giants.

    What is the best time to go to Oslob to meet with the giants? Are there other places that you may suggest?

    Thanks man!

    1. Hey Stephen! Great to hear from you brother 🙂 Thanks for the comments.. I’d love to hear about your experience in Maui.. do you have it posted somewhere?

      I love how they’ve adapted the rules so early on. If only the rest of the world could catch up to them and start implementing similar environmental initiatives, our oceans may just stand a chance!! 🙂

      Seasonality varies around the world for whale sharks, as they inhabit the entire equatorial ring of the globe.. but in the Philippines in particular, it’s usually best between January to May.. though with the abundance of food in Oslob, they’re sticking around much later into the year now. Malapascua (north of Oslob) is supposed to be another excellent spot for viewing during their usual season.

      Cheers!

  4. Wow! You nailed it! Tell me, you’re the lost merman, aren’t you? Hehe ( journalist merman 😛 )

  5. I’d like to know more about Shark Savers monitoring of the situation… Do you have any more info on this, please? As far as I know, the only group doing regular research is the Large Marine Vertebrates Project who are in the water daily. I really like how you balanced the article, but some food for thought – as a migratory animal, there is a reason why there is a ‘peak’ season… It’s great that the fishermen aren’t finning them, and it’s good awareness and gives a chance for people to connect with the sharks, but the only reason you can see these sharks in this “off” season is because they are sticking around for the feeding. The consequences of that change to their regular migratory cycle are unknown, as you said, but unlikely to be minimal.

  6. I love your post! Filipinos are very critical, and since everything goes viral whatever happens with our nature were being shared on the internet through social networking sites. Just recently when a concerned citizen took a photo of some local tourists riding the whale for a photoshoot, netizens (Internet Citizens)created a controversy reaching local news about it. Thus, making the local government and environmental bodies in the country to gather their act and do something about the situation.

    1. Oh my… riding one? that’s terrible!! Was that happening in Olsob? I’ve seen some spectacular whale photos lately from all over the world.. though none so irresponsible as that.
      Thanks for the comment love! 🙂 Glad you enjoyed the article!

  7. Ian, had I known you wanted to see Whale Sharks, I would have encouraged you to go somewhere else. There are other places in the Philippines where you can see whale sharks without contributing to exploitation and unsustainable tourism practices. Whatever was written by Shawn Heinrich isn’t true anymore. According a marine biologist currently stationed in Oslob, the fishermen don’t feed the whale sharks if there are no tourists – they fish hook and line during interaction time and push the whale sharks away. There is also increasing competition among the fishermen due to unbalanced revenue sharing(ever wonder where those fees go?). These issues – among many others – will become worse as more people support the whale shark tours in Oslob.

    You can learn more about those whale sharks here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NbhMmPvZUwU

  8. Ordo man, I really enjoyed reading this, thank you for the detailed and thorough article. This is also something I dream of experiencing and have been following the Mexican regulations off and on over the years. It would be interesting to read the findings of an ongoing study focusing on the short and long term effects of human interaction.

    Fantastic photos brother. I am jealous of the half hour life changing awe inspiring experience!!

    1. Hey Gregor! Thanks for the comment, mate! I’m surprised you haven’t yet experienced swimming with the gentle giants! I’m interested too in seeing the long term effects. I believe that human interaction is unavoidable these days, as we are not-so-slowly killing off so many eco systems. Thinking of a wildlife reservation on land (such as for Orang-utans in Borneo) may be a viable short term solution for creatures of the sea as well.. if we cannot properly unite to take care of our planet, we must at least try to take care of the creatures that inhabit it.

  9. amazing indeed…i will go there in january and experience it firsthand myself…this is better than all the animals in the zoo,or the orca whales performing in disney world,or the dolphins being manhandled in the bahamas….western countries are always so tough on the philippines,because filipinos are too nice to them…..these ignorant westerners always feature how philippines slaughter these ceatures now that they are not being sluaghtered they still lambast them…damn if you do damn if you dont…no matter what these bigots say i am going and experiencing this myself

    1. I think it’s going to be an unforgettable experience for you, Karina! I hope it helps one of your dreams come true – it certainly did, mine! Have an amazing time, and if you remember, please come back here to share your experience!!

  10. hey Ian.. Luv ur article!! I hope u dont mind i’ve linked ur article to my post on d whalesharks in my blog. U have a better way of explaining the experience than me.. LOL! Went there sept last yr and like u said its one of d most unforgettable experience ever! Despite what other ppl say or what they post on fb, i still went.. came back with no regrets. I didnt snorkel but dive instead. watching from below it was just insane!
    thanks for d lovely read 🙂

    1. Hi Tee – thanks for the lovely comment – I’m glad you linked to it, thank you!

      Everyone is entitled to make their own opinions, I just merely try to show that there’s two sides to every story. I personally had a great experience – and I’m glad you did as well. I’m interested in revisiting and seeing if anything seems different from my first visit here. Cheers!

  11. Great blog and mission, Ian! I hope you don’t mind if I link to this article on our FB page. Thank you for putting the Philippines in a good light. Although it’s an uphill battle against poachers and other unlawful elements, I believe a lot of improvement has been made in these past few years. Check out Donsol, Bicol too if you wanna swim with whalesharks again. If you do decide to travel in the Philippines, give us a holler and we’ll hook you up. Cheers!

  12. I went swimming with the whale sharks in Oslob in August 2012. It was suggested to me, so I found out more information about whale sharks and I decided to give it a try. I honestly didn’t do research on the effects of feeding them because I guess I was more naive then. It was a truly amazing experience, but I’m not sure that I could suggest it to others without some reserve. The whale sharks were waiting on the sides of the boat for the food which often led to them getting bumped with the boats. I saw several scars on the whale sharks. Those scars could’ve been caused by something else, but It appeared that the boats hitting them were the culprit. The rules said not to follow the whale sharks or get within a certain distance of them, but the fisherman were actually telling the people to get closer for pictures. One of the fishermen even told me that he thought feeding them would change their breeding habits. I’m not sure why he would admit that when it was a source of income for him, but he said it. I really enjoyed the experience, but I can’t believe that this isn’t having an effect on the whale sharks.

  13. Been to Oslob for whale sharks, it was a truly amazing experience, but I’m not sure that I could suggest it to others without some reserve. It’s a bit of a grey area – whales being protected, but also changing their natural habits.

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