The Ethical Dilemma of Oslob’s Whale Sharks

Snorkelling with the largest fish in the world would naturally be on every travellers bucket list, right? Wrong. Throughout my journey in the Philippines, I came across many a heated discussion about the Whale Shark swimming in Oslob. Opinions from both locals and travellers alike differed greatly, some supporting the enterprise and some declaring it to be a cruel, exploitive venture.

My mind ebbed and flowed, but alas, curiosity got the better of me. On the morning of my 29th birthday, under a rising sun, I snorkelled alongside four of these magnificent creatures. I wish it was as glorious and tranquil as it sounds….

Oslob Whale Sharks

Whale Sharks are the worlds largest fish, and Oslob offers visitors the rare chance to swim with these majestic, docile creatures.

Despite being warned not to go near the Whale Sharks, many tourists cause injury by touching the sharks. The media doesn't help, often publishing photos of swimmers riding on top of the sharks.

Despite being warned not to go near the Whale Sharks, many tourists cause injury by touching the sharks. The media doesn’t help, often publishing photos of swimmers riding on top of the sharks.

A tourist being "dunked" to catch a glimpse of a whale shark in Oslob. The majority of visitors cannot swim and rely on their guides to drag them under to catch a glimpse. This results in flinging limbs and kicking legs, which something hit the whale sharks.

A tourist being “dunked” to catch a glimpse of a whale shark in Oslob. The majority of visitors cannot swim and rely on their guides to drag them under to catch a glimpse. This results in flailing limbs underwater which can, and do, injure the timid whale sharks.

A Whale Shark feeding on the artificial feed that the fishermen constantly pour into Tan-Awan bay. As a result, these sharks are growing up entirely reliant on this feed, therefore losing their ability to feed and migrate naturally.

A Whale Shark feeding on the artificial feed that the fishermen constantly pour into Tan-Awan bay. As a result, these sharks are growing up entirely reliant on this feed, therefore losing their ability to feed and migrate naturally.

There's no denying that it is an extraordinary experience to snorkel alongside these ancient, docile creatures. Whale Shark populations were decimated by overfishing in the 20th century but today their numbers are growing steadily.

There’s no denying that it is an extraordinary experience to snorkel alongside these ancient, docile creatures. Whale Shark populations were decimated by overfishing in the 20th century but today their numbers are growing steadily.

How It All Came About

In the past few years, this tiny part of Cebu Island in the Philippines has exploded in popularity. Amazing videos of snorkellers swimming alongside the Whale Sharks off the coast of Oslob appeared on Youtube in 2012. These quickly went viral worldwide and it captured the imagination of the nation. In a matter of weeks, Oslob became one of most talked about destinations in the Philippines. Fishermen who had been pushed out of work by decimated fish stocks and the ban on shark hunting, suddenly had a viable income. Additionally, the growth in tourism pulled many families out of poverty and provided a future for local children.[mapsmarker marker=”2″]

The whale sharks feed on a nutritionally deficient plankton feed that the fishermen import into Oslob.

The whale sharks feed on a nutritionally deficient plankton feed that the fishermen import into Oslob.

Yet many are concerned and believe that the whales are being exploited, malnourished and traumatised by the constant interaction with clumsy tourists, motorised boats and the poorly educated tour guides who previously hunted the sharks. The fishermen began feeding the sharks artificial feeds close to the shore, allowing them to quickly shuttle tourists in and out of the bay.

Today, many sharks no longer feed naturally or follow their millennia old migratory routes. Rather, they hang around Tan-awan awaiting their daily breakfast which lacks the nutrients found elsewhere in the Pacific Ocean. There is a good article by the LAMVE Institute here outlining some of the ecological issues in Oslob.

Rather than follow the warmer waters in search of plankton, the Whale Sharks have become accustomed to the guaranteed feed in Oslob and do not follow traditional migratory routes.

Rather than follow the warmer waters in search of plankton, the Whale Sharks have become accustomed to the guaranteed feed in Oslob and do not follow traditional migratory routes.

Many of the whale sharks around Oslob are juveniles, and the concern is that the habit of feeding them daily is impeding their natural development.

Many of the whale sharks around Oslob are juveniles, and the concern is that the habit of feeding them daily is impeding their natural development.

Before jumping into the sea, there was safety briefing in the Whale Shark centre. A heafty fine would be issued if you caught touching the sharks or swimming within a 6 metre exclusion zone. Despite this, I was shocked at the behaviour of both tourists and tour guides. Along with a French couple, I was able to snorkel away from the crowds. But in the centre, it looked like a ruckus with dozens of tourists kicking their feet wildly and brushing against the sharks.

Watch out!

It’s an exhilarating experience seeing a Whale Shark gliding towards you for the first time. Top tip is to immediately swim away from the boats and other swimmers. and you’ll discover some relative tranquillity.

Keeping at a safe, respectful distance. Everyone was told to do this at the beginning, but these rules were totally disregarded by many, especially the tour guides who are meant to policing the spectacle.

Keeping at a safe, respectful distance. Everyone was told to do this at the beginning, but these rules were totally disregarded by many, especially the tour guides who are meant to policing the spectacle.

The whale sharks come extremely close to swimmers, but their massive tail fins allow them to swiftly move in an instance.

The whale sharks come extremely close to swimmers, but their massive tail fins allow them to swiftly move in an instance.

The fishermen attract the whale sharks into the bay by feeding them at dawn with artificial plankton that lacks the nutrients the whale sharks require.  It appears the whales have become reliant on this unlimited morning feed, and this is creating friction with environmental and marine conservation groups. They claim the sharks are being force fed and being tricked into staying here rather than migrate to more nourishing, plankton rich waters.

Nonetheless, it is not so black and white. This part of the Philippines is very poor, and without the attraction of the Whale Sharks, the fishermen and their families would face a future of poverty. Or more drastically, they would lobby for a return to hunting the whale sharks, or hunt illegally.

Beautiful and pristine Tan-awan Bay, the heart of the Oslob Whale Shark venture.

Beautiful and pristine Tan-awan Bay, the heart of the Oslob Whale Shark venture.

A compromise must be reached, and it is difficult to predict what will happen. Unless the authorities begin to monitor the situation properly, there is bound to be an accident and potential loss of life. There have been a number of incidences of the whale sharks being injured and this is raising awareness among conservation groups. In the end, it will be interesting to see whether the venture takes the ecological route, or, as usually happens, the road to more $$$ with little regard for the environment.

My Experience
My journey to Oslob began in Cebu city, where I quickly celebrated my birthday at midnight with rum, followed by a healthy 3AM breakfast in the bus station. From there it was a 2.5 hour bus ride to Oslob.

My journey to Oslob began in Cebu city, where I quickly celebrated my birthday at midnight with rum, followed by a healthy 3AM breakfast in the bus station. From there it was a 2.5 hour bus ride to Oslob.

I arrived at the Whale Shark Cente in Tan-Awan Bay, Oslob at 5.30AM after an alcohol fuelled, sleepless night in Cebu city. It was after all, my birthday, so a bottle or two of Tanduay rum had to be opened at midnight with some new couchsurfing friends! There is a brief run down of the rules before descending to the boats on the beach. Once in the bay, you have 30 minutes to swim around with the sharks. The area is quite limited, but is good to swim away from the crowds. The sharks appear quite suddenly, and it’s pretty nerve-racking when one approaches you with it’s massive mouth wide open!

Bus Journey: 150PHP each way from Cebu Southern Bus Terminal to Oslob (Tell the conductor it’s the Whale Watching Area, as Oslob town is 25 minutes away from here). Regular hourly buses beginning at 03.00 daily.

Price: 1000PHP for international guests and 500PHP for Filipino nationals. 

LAMAVE, a conservation organisation, have a base in Oslob where they educate local people about conserving the whale sharks and other large marine animals. Visit their site for further information and details on volunteering and donating.

Let's hope a solution will be found the coming years.

Let’s hope a solution will be found the coming years.

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