As you may know, I’m crazy about wildlife. So when I was planning a Southeast Asia trip and heard that I could swim with whale sharks in the Philippines, you know I was all over that. A Filipina colleague told me that Oslob, Cebu was the place to see them, so I immediately started researching how to get there, where to say, etc. Literally the day I was ready to book, I somehow came across an article about how ecologically irresponsible the Oslob whale tourism is.
Table of Contents
Whale Sharks are slow-moving filter feeding fish, and the largest known of all fish species. The largest on record is 12.6 meters (41 ft). They are considered endangered by wildlife organizations. Whale sharks are not a threat to humans but sometimes can be curious. They only eat plankton, which is why the water may appear murky in areas where they feed. They live in tropical seas including Australia, the Philippines, Mexico and the Maldives and may live to 70 years!
Butanding the word used for the whale shark in the Philippines. Thirty years ago, fisherman used to kill them as recently and sold the shark meat. Once it became known that tourists wanted to swim with them, the whale became a protected species and the whale tourism industry was born. Swimming with whale sharks has transformed these small fisherman villages and brought tourism dollars to the areas.
The sharks typically migrate and have specific feeding spots for each season. In Oslob, the fisherman began feeding the sharks to ensure that they stay in the area and give tourists a guaranteed a sighting all year round. Disrupting migration patterns in this manner has long-term effects on breeding and lifespan. This could eventually lead to fewer sharks for everyone to enjoy.
Furthermore, conditioning sharks that boats and humans equal food is incredibly irresponsible and dangerous for the shark. They may approach shark hunting boats in other places thinking they will be fed. They can also be injured while getting too close to propellor boats (which don’t operate in Oslob). The sharks become easily scarred and injured from rubbing against the boats where they are fed. ≈Also, they are not getting their proper nutrition. They migrate all around the ocean to eat different types of plankton that provide different nutrients. The fisherman who are feeding them in Oslob only wants them to follow the boat for the tourists. They don’t always give them enough food, just enough so they swim near the boat. Sad, isn’t it?
The whale shark is a protected species in the Philippines and harassment of the sharks is illegal. However, the code of conduct is not followed by tourists and certainly not enforced.
Compliance to interaction regulations was monitored by LAMAVE (Large Marine Vertebrates Project Philippines) for over 3,000 minutes. This study recorded over 1500 touches of the whale sharks equating to around 30 touches per hour! I don’t understand why the government allows Oslob whale tourism companies to do what they do, knowing how much harm is done. It’s shameful that Oslob whale tourism is permitted to run amok. Furthermore, I am disgusted with tourists who know about this yet still go because they need their perfect whale selfie to feel validated on the internet. Yes, I’m being Judgy McJudgerson again. #sorrynotsorry.
For more information on LAMAVE and their work or to volunteer or donate, read here.
In Donsol Bay, the sharks are not fed. They naturally migrate here during December to May, with best sightings between February to April which is also the busiest time. They only allow 30 boats out on the bay at one time. There are trips at 0800, 1100 and 1400. It’s best to go on earlier boats. Personally, I think 30 boats is too many but at least only 6 people maximum per boat, which is nice. Book in advance! I saw tourists who showed up the day of the trip turned down.
The difference between Oslob and Donsol is like the difference between seeing a lion in a cage or on a safari hunting prey.
During whale shark interactions, you will go out on a small boat with a guide and a spotter. The local fishermen have now learned to be guides and spotters. The spotter hangs out on the top of the boat searching for the sharks. As soon as they see a whale shark, it’s go time! You get ready with the mask, snorkel, and fins, while the boat gets into the idea position, slightly up current from the shark.The current takes you, along with the plankton right towards the shark. Suddenly you look down, and there it is!
The adrenaline rush I felt the first time was so intense, that it bordered on panic. I didn’t realize how fast my heart was beating or how crazy my breathing had become until after the whale shark had swum away. They are faster than they seem. I am a strong swimmer but became breathless after the interaction because of my hyper response. The next interaction I was much calmer and remembered how to breathe normally! LOL!
You can get a direct flight from Manila to Legazpi or take a super long bus from Manila. From Legazpi you have to arrange transportation to Donsol Bay. It’s a two-hour drive. Most companies will provide a pickup and drop off service.
I used Donsol EcoTours and they were very well-organized, which is kind of rare in SE Asia! I stayed at the Elysia Beach Resort and I enjoyed this place so much. It is adorable and right on the beach with a really great vibe. There are hammocks and a pool as well. The staff are all wonderful. I enjoyed the pineapple and mango margaritas quite a bit!
Other things to do in the area are Firefly Tours, in which you go on a boat at night along the river and see the fireflies in the bushes lit up like Christmas lights. It was really beautiful and relaxing. You can also see Quintinday Caves, go diving or trek Mt. Mayon. I did the trekking, but honestly didn’t enjoy it that much. At least I got some exercise. I heard the caves were very nice.
*This is not a sponsored post. All opinions are my own. Cover photo courtesy of National Geographic.
Would you swim with whale sharks? If you have, where and how was it?