Three hours south of Cebu, the humble municipality of Oslob started gaining popularity because of the famous gentle giants once more popurly seen in Donsol, Sorsogon: The Whale Shark (Rhyncodon typus). Our whole family decided to finally see this majestic creature of the sea despite my earlier apprehensions of how they handled this “ecotourism”.
Barangay Tan-awan, Oslob
Upon arrival we settled in the cottage we rented and then took time to change and get ready. It was eight in the morning and the sun was shining and the weather was good. Water visibility up to 20 feet and was not as clear as I wanted it to be. Current was pretty strong and there were small waves on the surface. The water was just asking for skimboarders to ride away.
We had to take a boat going to the orientation center where there was a one minute orientation. I offered to swim out towards the feeding area but apparently it was not allowed. We finally arrived in the place and there were several other tourists there.
Face to face with the Shark
When we finally made it to the feeding station I jumped into the water for the most anticipated part of this trip.
Just when I was still getting familiar with the surroundings it suddenly happened: I got to see the whale shark up close. Though the rule says we need to be at least 12 feet away from the fish, we just couldn’t help it as the whale shark went up close to us. I did my best to avoid the shark hitting me or my fin. It was amazing how the fish was just so used to seeing humans everywhere. There was indeed a sense of familiarity. Some may argue that this is not good and can cause easier poaching or even potential hazards as these sharks associate the boat with food. Others believe that this is a beautiful way for the humans to become appreciative and protective of this majestic fish.
A lone shark away
I know that I was already expecting to see “standing” sharks as most of the whale shark positions would be them feeding in a vertical stance. To my delight a large one about 20 feet in height, decided to go back to the deeper waters. Taking a huge gulp of air, I dove down to the sea bed (20-25ft depth) and followed the shark. It was beautiful. Seeing the graceful swinging of the tail and the glide of the shark through the water. Swimming beside it was breathtaking!
No boats, no feeding fishermen, and no flailing tourists around. It was just me, the shark, and remoras.
As my mammalian instinct called me back to the surface, I took one last look and then I made a promise: I shall see this beautiful creature in the wild someday and not surrounded with a large crowd of flailing spectators and krill-tossers.
Whale Shark Appearance Origins
While drying up we got to hear the story of one local boatman, the same one who acted as the guide for the National Geographic crew. “Kuya” (big brother) recounted on how the Whale sharks have been visiting their house reef as far back as 1960s. The feeding has been done was done because of two possible reasons: their superstitious belief that giving to the whale shark would lead to a bountiful fish hunt. The second reason being, the mayor of the town wanted to protect this fish because they were seeing these whale sharks were being slaughtered in Bohol. Kuya even told us of how there used to be several carcasses of whale sharks back then when the feeding wasn’t done. This was due to the shark’s fin trade. Thankfully today they know that no such happening of whale shark slaughter has been seen so far.
Interesting to note that the fishermen of Oslob do not do net-fishing. They highly encourage hook line fishing. They believe this allows the fish to grow healthy. It is no wonder I saw many large fishes apart from just the whale shark in the area.
What to Expect in Whale Shark Watching
The visibility is generally bad in the area. This is a common observation of most divers I’ve spoken to but good visibility is not unheard of. The waters are quite warm, though not always the case. Wearing of rash guard and thin swim wear is not a problem but if you’re opting for more skin watch out for Jellyfish season. Even then (we dived around December) there were still jellyfish stings. Snorkeling is fine as these creatures fed on the surface. You are given life vests to wear but you’re not required to wear them. There is generally a lot of people and there will be a lot of flailing. I cannot promise a “peaceful” experience with these creatures. The boatmen don’t seem to allow us to swim over to the edge of the house reef. You are “cordoned” in a particular area and expected to just “Watch” 1 whale shark a time. Me being the freediver that I am, felt encased in a “box”. If you have a monofin, swimming around in a small area was just not right.
The experience was both good and also sad. It was wonderful to finally see these giants of the sea face to face. It was sad that I had to do it in a state where they were fed. It was good to see how the locals really cared for the sharks and even addressing them with names. It was sad to see so many tourists still not following rules and attempting to touch the Whale Shark. I saw a Korean attempt to touch the tail of one shark. I stared at her long and hard and she stopped trying to reach out.
I am not supporting the feeding of the whale sharks but I do support the protective attitude of the fishermen of Oslob. Hopefully someday this will lead to a fruition of conservation projects all over Cebu and the Philippines, but of course without the feeding program.
*All shots were taken using a GoPro HD Hero 2 with Snake rivers Prototyping: Blurfix. The Photographer and Freediver followed all rules and proper practices when encountering wildlife, to the best of his abilities.