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….
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″]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.