Nobody completely understands why the tame whale sharks off the Philippines town of Oslob do what they do: they allow themselves to be fed by locals on boats, tagging along like Labradors in search of a kibble.
Word spread fast—presently, an average of 2,600 tourists a day brave the three-hour early-morning drive to Oslob and line up to get their chance to swim with the whale sharks. The practice allows non-PADI certified swimmers to experience something previously reserved to experienced divers in other whale shark hotspots in the region, like Koh Tao in Thailand.
The practice of hand-feeding whale sharks has attracted criticism from responsible tourism proponents, who believe that it amounts to unethical exploitation of nature and could harm the sharks in the long term. Proponents of the practice respond that Oslob’s whale shark tourism brings much-needed income to an underdeveloped, overlooked corner of Cebu.
This writer visited Oslob to see the situation first-hand—are the sharks being mistreated? How do the snorkelers actually interact with these giant fish? Who benefits the most from a whale shark snorkeling expedition to Oslob?
Transportation to Oslob, Booking a Whale Shark Encounter
The municipality of Oslob lies right on Cebu’s main highway, but the main whale shark snorkeling outfits can be found in the far-flung barangay (town) of Tan-Awan. To get there by bus, you’ll need to ride a bus marked “Bato-Oslob” at the Cebu South Bus Terminal; the total trip takes between three to four hours to cover the 70 miles in between, and costs PHP 150 (about US$3.40).
The whale shark feedings take place between 6am and 12:30pm—no extensions—so if you want to arrive before the main crowd comes in, prepare to leave Cebu City at around 3am. There are no bus stops along the road, so you’ll have to ask the conductor to let you off at Tan-Awan. The dive resorts are clustered in a line along Tan-Awan’s east coast, easily visible from the highway.
Our Tan-Awan stop was at Aaron Beach Resort (aaronbeachresort.com); its facilities combine backpacker-style accommodations with a dive shop and boating services to see the feeding whale sharks about 500-700 yards out to sea.
At the time of our visit, the resort charged PHP 100 (about US$2.25) per person for a resort entrance fee; either PHP 300 (about US$6.75) for whale shark viewing from the boat or PHP 500 (about US$11.25) for snorkeling with the whale sharks; and PHP 550 (about US$12.30) for the optional use of the resort’s waterproof digital camera (inclusive of CD burning).
Mandatory Pre-Whale Shark Encounter Briefing
Visitors who choose the snorkeling package are brought to the Whale Shark Watching Briefing Center a few meters down the beach. The five-minute pep-talk is mandatory for all snorkelers and divers venturing from one of Tan-Awan’s resorts. Swimmers are informed of the rules for interacting with the sharks, including –
- No touching of the shark at all times; guests must maintain a distance equivalent to the length of the whale shark itself
- Wear your life jacket at all times, if you’re a snorkeler
- No flash photography, as this may disorient the shark
- No feeding of the whale shark—this is the boatman’s job alone; and
- No sunblock allowed; use the center’s shower facilities to wash off any sunblock on you before going in.
After the briefing, you then go to the beach and ride the outrigger paddle boats that take you a short distance off shore to the feeding grounds.
Your First Glimpse of the Whale Sharks in Oslob
As far as I saw, only paddle boats were allowed around the feeding grounds. About a dozen passenger boats (which could accommodate about 8-10 visitors) were positioned in a circle around a smaller “feeder” boat with a guide throwing krill into the water. Sure enough, as our boat approached the feeding zone, a gray shape could be seen circling the feeder boat and sucking in the water around it. Bingo!
Despite their large size, whale sharks are filter feeders, much like baleen whales; they suck in water and exhale it through their gills, their gill membranes catching krill for the shark to consume. From the boats, visitors can watch the whale sharks circle slowly, following the shower of krill from above.
Over a hundred individual whale sharks have been seen and recorded in the waters around Oslob, although about six to eight individual sharks usually show up on any given feeding morning.
Snorkelers and divers see the fish and the feeding frenzy in a totally different light.
Whale Sharks in Oslob—the Pros and Cons
Each visit to the feeding ground takes thirty minutes; snorkelers have half an hour to see the whale sharks from all angles.
The life vest may keep snorkelers afloat, but it hinders mobility; more than once I had to dog-paddle awkwardly away as the fish drew too close. The shark-length distance is hardly respected and often violated, but not always intentionally—the whale shark may swim in your direction faster than you can swim away. The vigilant guides generally don’t fine you for unintentional contact, but may come down hard on flagrant violations.
The whale sharks are not at all mistreated by the guides and their visitors, though one may wonder at how the local whale shark population is coping with the influx of tourists.
Judging from what I saw on the scene, fears of propellers mutilating the sharks and the circle of tourist boats “entrapping” the fish seem far-fetched.
The boats on the scene are paddle-driven, not motorized; the sharks are free to swim under the boats and away from the tourists; and the rules are clearly laid out before the trip, with penalties imposed by the watchful guides.
In any case, the alternative to the lucrative Oslob tourism industry may be even deadlier for the whale sharks in the long run. If the Oslob boat rides were stopped cold, the guides may turn to their former trade, fishing—which arguably would be worse for the whale sharks than their unseemly domestication for the benefit of tourists.
The best critical look at the issue comes from Physalus, an Italian NGO that has spent years studying the human-whale shark relations around the Bohol Sea. Read this paper for a more detailed discussion: Physalus Report on the Oslob Whale Shark Interaction.