Apart from canyoneering and chasing waterfalls, swimming with whale sharks is one of the most popular activities on Cebu Island, Philippines. In a little village called Tan-awan, Oslob, there is an organized tour that takes you to the sea to swim with the whale sharks every morning from 7 a.m. to 12 p.m.
How to Get There
From Cebu City
Go to the South Bus Terminal (30 minutes away from the airport) and get a Ceres bus going to Bato via Liloan. The journey should take approximately 3 hours, so keep that in mind if you plan to make a day trip from Cebu City. You might have to start as early as 5 a.m.
During my stay on Cebu Island, I based myself in Moalboal. The receptionist at my hostel told me that from Moalboal Bus Terminal, I had to take the bus going to Bato via Oslob. However, I waited for over an hour and saw no such bus. The only ones I saw were the ones going to Bato via Barili. So, I got on one of those, stopped at Bato Bus Terminal, and from there took another bus to Oslob. Just tell the driver that you’d like to see whale sharks and he should know where to drop you.
How Much Does It Cost?
The bus dropped me in front of a resort with a whale shark signage at the entrance. I went to the reception and paid PHP 1,200 for the tour, inclusive of a pair of fins, a snorkel, a life vest, locker service, shower room, and a guide. The guide took me and several other tourists to the briefing station where we had to register our names. In the meantime, she went to the cashier counter to make the payment for all of us.
I later learned that I could have gone straight to the briefing station without hiring the guide. Had I done so, it would have saved me PHP 200. The only extras I got with the PHP 200 were the fins (which I didn’t use anyway), locker service and access to the shower room. Oh, and the guide, whose only job was to walk us to the briefing station and hand our money to the cashier. So, if you can do without fins or lockers, just walk past the resort and head straight to the official registration area near the briefing station. Snorkels, life vests, and outdoor shower are available for everyone.
Oslob Whale Shark Tour Ticket Price
PHP 1,000 (for foreigners)
PHP 500 (for locals)
Here in the Philippines and practically everywhere else in Southeast Asia, I can easily pass for a local. Until I open mouth, that is. And unfortunately, my Tagalog is only limited to a few words (mostly cuss words taught by my Filipino colleagues). So, I had to pay the foreigner’s price.
The Dos And Don'ts
After registration, we went to the briefing station. There were new groups of tourists arriving every few minutes, so the briefings had to be repeated over and over the whole morning. At least three people took turns to brief the newcomers about what they should and should not do during the tour. Here are the dos and don’ts when swimming with whale sharks:
- Do NOT use sunscreen. This is to avoid polluting the ocean and destroying the reefs. Some sunscreens also contain ingredients that are toxic to fish and sea mammals. If you worry about exposing your skin to the sun (it really does get hot and you have to queue for hours to get on the boat), be sure to cover up with a hat and long-sleeved attire/rashguard.
- Do NOT use flash photography. Flash photography may startle the animals.
- Do NOT feed/touch/provoke the whale sharks. For obvious reasons.
- Do maintain a minimum distance of five meters away from the whale sharks at all times. Ditto above.
It Is Very Touristy
If you have been doing some online research on this whale shark tour in Cebu, you would probably notice that it has received a lot of bad rap. I had come across several bloggers who either didn’t want to try it at all, or tried but wished they hadn’t. Some voiced concerns about the welfare of the animals (more on this later). But most of them complained that the experience was too commercialized and inauthentic.
I do have to agree that it was very, very touristy. Once we were done with the briefing, we headed to the beach and were given a waiting number. There was a limited number of boats, each one with only a 10-person capacity. And there were already HUNDREDS of tourists before us. No kidding. The whole beach was filled with people waiting for their turns to get on the boats. A man with a microphone would call out the numbers each time a boat was available. We had to wait for close to two hours.
Swimming with the Whale Sharks
Finally, after that long, arduous wait (luckily there was some shade), my number was called. I got my life vest and snorkel and hopped on the boat. It was a long and narrow paddle boat with bamboo frames on both sides as stabilizers. My fellow passengers were a group of tourists from China and some Filipinos from other parts of the country. We didn’t have time to socialize because the whale shark feeding area was only about 200 meters away from the shore.
Once we got there, we were given 30 minutes to swim. All of us went in, except for one Filipino lady who was happy to watch from inside the boat. So she volunteered to take photos for us. The current was quite strong, we had to cling on to the bamboo frame. I was glad I was wearing a life vest.
To lure the whale sharks, the local guides who were on smaller boats dropped shrimps into the water. I was not able to see anything from above the surface. It was only when I put my head underwater that I saw the gigantic creature just meters away from me. Its sheer size terrified me in the beginning, but when I realized it was more interested in the shrimps than me, I began to relax.
The whale shark has a fascinating way of eating. It simply opens its mouth and moves forward, swallowing everything in its path. At one point, as I was happily taking pictures, I got distracted and didn’t realize that the current had taken me too close to the shark with its mouth wide open. I got yelled at by the boatmen for not minding my distance.
Whale Shark Fun Facts
- Whale sharks breathe using gills, so technically they are sharks, not whales.
- A whale shark’s diet consists of plankton, shrimps, krill, fish eggs, and very small fish. It’s not designed to eat anything larger. (So, don’t worry, they won’t eat you, but I still wouldn’t advice you to challenge your fate).
- Most whale sharks migrate, but there are populations of whale sharks (like the one in Africa’s Mafia Island) that don’t.
Is It Ethical?
Animal tourism is largely considered unethical, as it tends to involve animal exploitation for financial gain. However, while some animal-related tourist activities are obviously inhumane (like the circus), some are not quite as black and white.
In regard to the whale shark tour, people’s general concern is that the feeding of the whale sharks may cause them to alter their eating habits — relying on the boatmen for food instead of foraging for it themselves. This will also interfere with their migration pattern, and quite possibly, breeding habits too. Plus, tourists and the boats may physically harm the animals.
Personally, I have to disagree with the opinions above. Here are my reasons:
- The whale sharks are not confined in a cage. They are free to roam and swim away if they wish.
- The boats used are paddle boats with wooden oars. So, the whale sharks are not harmed by any propeller.
- Marine biologists are present at the site every day to keep track of the whale sharks, monitor the tour activity, and ensure that nobody violates the rules.
- The amount of shrimps fed to the whale sharks is too little to sustain them. Therefore, it won’t stop them from naturally foraging for food.
- The number of adult whale sharks in the area does not stay the same all year round, which means they still do migrate.
- The tour has actually helped in stopping the killing of whale sharks. In the past, local fishermen used to hunt and kill the whale sharks because they fed on the fishermen’s catch and destroyed their nets in the process. But the advent of the whale shark tour had tremendously improved the economy of an area that previously had a very high unemployment rate. The fishermen soon realized that the tour brought in more income and employment to the village, and since then, the killing has stopped.
So, should you take part in the whale shark tour? Is it worth it?
Well, that depends. I will neither encourage or discourage you. It is very touristy, for one thing. In general, I dislike anything that is ‘staged’ for the sole purpose of attracting tourists, and that includes museums, theme parks, replicas, restored buildings, zoos, and aquariums. So, if I had the means to, of course, I would have preferred getting away from the crowd and seeing the whale sharks in such a way that doesn’t feel staged. But I felt like the tour in Oslob was the best and the only available option for me at the time.
As to whether or not it is unethical, I think not. But please bear in mind that this is just my personal opinion on the matter. You are entitled to have yours, and I, mine. To me, zoos and aquariums are a lot worse than this. Feeding the whale sharks in Oslob is more akin to building a birdbath in your backyard and leaving some food for the birds simply because you love watching them come and go. No harm done.
Have you seen a whale shark up close? What was your experience like? Share in the comment section below.