Oslob - Having a Whale Shark of a Time in Human Infested Waters

Oslob and Swimming With Whale Sharks in Brief:

  • Getting to Oslob via a small outrigger from Panglao. The do's and don'ts of booking tickets.  

  • Swimming with whale sharks - a once-in-a-lifetime thrill for humans. Is it safe for the animals?

  • Recommended: George Whale Shark Tour Services 

Whale Sharks Feeding

It’s one of the must-do activities while in the Philippines. Catering to both ends of the adventure spectrum – a rarity in adventure pursuits -  it’s an adrenaline rush that seems to take place in slow motion. I’m talking about swimming in the open ocean with whale sharks – those majestic, spotted fish the size of a bus.

But is it worth bothering about? Environmental issues with the activity have tourists questioning their morals before deciding what’s more important – the ‘Gram or animal welfare?

The whale shark tourist industry has found a home in Oslob, on the coconut tree lined island of Cebu - where datu Lapulapu killed explorer Magellan in the 16th century. Today, the locals are very welcoming to foreign visitors. Although the astute community there has found a way to cash in on the whale shark’s presence in their local waters, the world’s largest fish can in fact be seen (for free) casually swimming by in various locations around the island. It’s not the same experience as being immersed in their environment, feeling the currents from their flexing fins moving through the water. But the sight of animals in their own environment, being a vital cog in the delicate ecology of our planet just by living, is still a sight worth seeing and an activity worth giving due reverence and value. Plus, as we found out, sometimes adventure starts when and where you least expect, long before the one you actually had planned. Its retelling can even prove to be the most entertaining - seeing the value in the seemingly mundane is always a good idea.

Our adventure begins like any that will end well – in a reggae bar parked on the beach. Surrounded by tables covered in red, green and yellow cloth, San Mig in hand and sand between toes, a familiar reggae beat pumped from the small bamboo bar, the crashing waves metres away in the opposite direction added their tropical remix to the rhythm section. Not shy about its theme, Alihahailey Reggae Bar on Panglao Island is about 30kms east of Oslob, and can be found easily on Alona Beach. It was a great place to start our whale shark voyage, relaxed and ready to hit the open sea.

Alihahailey Reggae Bar
Alona Beach

Photo by: China D @projectgoals.ph

Getting to Oslob

Travelling from the island of Panglao (attached by a bridge to Bohol Island) to Oslob in order to swim with the whale sharks requires you to book and pay a guide to take you by boat and show you to the tourist centre that will prepare you for your rendezvous. There are basically two ways in which to do this:

  1. You can go to a licensed travel agent and pay at the counter (recommended) or,

  2. You can give your money to one of the guys wearing a bum bag on the street who claims to be better than an agent with an actual office – cheaper too.

Obviously, because we’re not silly, we went with option 2. Plus, the guy’s name was James Brown – how could he be dodgy?

The next day China and I waited with our luggage to be picked up and taken to where the boat would ferry us across the Cebu Straight to Oslob. Keeping an eye out for a car or van, we almost missed our lift who arrived on his scooter. Any worry about the safety, or even the probability, of this venture was replaced by admiration once me, my fiancé and our luggage were packed on the back end of the seat and foot-well respectively and we started belting along the road with success. These are skills basically only used and seen in Asia and no matter how many times you witness it, it never ceases to amaze.

The Real Cost of Saving Money 

After winding down a number of back roads, we made it to the back entrance of a hotel, beside which was a family café built from what looked like scrap material. While waiting we gave the owner of the cafe something to do by ordering two coffees. She handed us two mugs, two sachets of Nescafe and a spoon, the kettle was on the table. The price didn’t include making the coffee.

Coffee Shop made of scrap material

Photo by: China D @projectgoals.ph

Watching the time, we were starting to wonder where the rest of the group was – or our boatman for that matter. Coffee well and truly finished, we sat by the dirt road waiting. I even had time to contemplate how I could help the poor mange ridden street dog that had parked itself opposite us when kuya showed up again on his scooter. “It’s the wrong place! Sorry, sorry!”

Back in formation on the scooter, we were taken to another spot and told to wait for the rest of the group. Time passed and no sign of them. We began to wonder if James Brown was an actual tour operator or rather a self-made man like his American name sake.

All of this would have been more comical to us except for the problem of time – the whale sharks clock off in the afternoon to go do their whale shark thing away from people. The first indication that this tourist activity isn’t a natural meeting between curious humans and Mother Nature.

Once again, kuya and his scooter showed up. He was now a familiar sight and his actions also predictable: “Ok, it’s this way”.

We were dropped off once again and completely disoriented, but this time we could at least see a boat. The only obstacle now was half a kilometre of swamp-like sand standing between the shore and our vessel. This is definitely not legit. Standing like green sea turtles, our loaded luggage on our backs, we wasted no time catching up with the other innocent tourists who trusted James Brown. As I insist on wearing thongs everywhere, I struggled to make it without either losing one (one thong is no thongs at all!) or getting a cramp from gripping like a monkey onto the rubber.

Photo by: China D @projectgoals.ph

Finally, in the small Banka, the boatman collected balances from everyone and duly counted them. We allowed ourselves to relax a little, thinking that we’d finally be heading to Oslob soon. Suddenly, the friendly demeanour of the boatman changed when he found that someone hadn’t paid in full and he refused to leave. An all-out argument between passengers aware that the whale sharks can’t hang around all day and crew threatened to break out. Frankly this team had already been overpaid for their dodgy service, but this far in, all we could do was push through. Beyond frustrated and tired of the obstacles, China gave us a show of Filipina strength and assertiveness, stripping the loud-mouthed boatman down to silence using his language (a weapon the other foreign tourists lacked) and determining the exact problem. She pointed to a Taiwanese tourist and said, “You, you owe him. Where’s your wallet?”

Sitting in the banka waiting to set sail

Photo by: China D @projectgoals.ph

Crossing the Cebu Straight Headed for the Whale Sharks

Having been placated with pera, Boatman pushed his oar into the sand and we were finally making our way across the Cebu Straight. The boat ride across took two hours in the traditional Bangka with the aid of an outboard motor. Bigger boats designed to carry more passengers and to protect them from the elements take around an hour and a half.

Despite its shaky start, the boat ride turned out to be a highlight for me. I loved sailing along the deep blue water with the wind in my hair and the sun on my face. The flying fish were an unexpected bonus. I’d never seen them before, and until that moment would have put them in the same category as pigs – that’s a thing they just don’t do. They were a source of entertainment for the two hours. I still can’t believe how far a fish can fly across the water before smashing into a wave. Charles Darwin would wet himself at the evolutionary cross over between an ocean species behaving like a land species. The simple yet jaw dropping sight was every bit as valuable as the one we were headed for and would be paying for.

We arrived just in time to wade through more quick sand, climb up the break wall and run to the George Whaleshark Tour Services booking office. After a quick change and a short briefing outlining the rules for swimming near the whale sharks, we climbed into another small Bangka and were rowed about 50 metres off shore. The fact that we were late and were among the last tourists to be taken out actually worked out well for us – there weren’t as many people crowding the circle of boats.

Swimming With the Whale Sharks

The guides just leave you to dive in while they man the boat. Others continually throw buckets of krill in the water to keep the whale sharks where the paying tourists can see them.

The sight of the whale shark is incredible – to be in the same water a metre or two way is terrifyingly beautiful. Even though their wide mouths appear to be able to shallow a human whole, the capacity of their tiny teeth is only for small fish – much like their whale namesakes. Knowing this didn’t stop several of our party clinging onto to the boat in response to a squeal and a splash - a slow moving, bending fin had evidently come too close to someone’s foot.

Whale sharks feeding

Photo by: China D @projectgoals.ph

After a few minutes, you begin to get comfortable with the creatures. I dived just below the surface of the water and watched them through my goggles as they waited for more treats to land in their mouths like massive puppies. Due to the fact that they are just hanging around for food and not there in any natural capacity, their behaviour is likewise a little unnatural. They hang vertically, suspended in the water like torpedoes dropping through the sky from a bomber plane.

Swimming with whale sharks

Photo by: China D @projectgoals.ph

What Is the Environmental Toll for Entertainment?

It’s hard to say if any real damage is done by routinely feeding them every morning – is it any different to them finding a good place to go each day in the wild? They are not fed in the afternoon so they do have to go and fend for themselves. Marine biologists are also there keeping a watchful eye over proceedings, which suggests that everything must be fine. But the scientists are human and don’t live the life of a whale shark.

As with anything in life, moderation must be the key. A little interaction, including the provision of food, still allows for nature to keep its balance. However, if this activity is exploited beyond what is safe and natural for the whale sharks and the marine environment that sustains them, we have a massive problem. Yes, locals have benefited positively from the cash that this activity has injected directly into the city’s veins, giving them a life that they wouldn’t otherwise have to enjoy.

But, the question remains – at what cost? No amount of money now is worth losing a once pristine environment in the not too distant future. As insatiable tourists, what can we do to help in this sustainability and animal welfare area? Apart from choosing not to do the activity at all, we can refuse to give our money to any business that is obviously exploiting the environment – if the area around them is destroyed and seems devoid of life, if human rubbish is rife and the only animal you see looks miserable, stay away. If they’re making every effort to leave a small footprint and to give back to the environment from which they take for monetary gain, then proceed with a watchful eye. Anything you see that seems unnecessary or destructive, tell them. If they’re a good place, they will graciously accept your feedback and should act on it. However we choose to see and interact with it, our planet is here for us to explore and enjoy and we should do so together with nature, not against it.

Project Goals Recommends:

  • Flights from Manila to Cebu City take around an hour and a half. Then it's a three and a half to four hour bus ride from Cebu to Oslob.

  • Alternatively, you can fly from Manila to Panglao Island and take an outrigger ferry direct to Oslob (If a guy named James Brown tries to sell you tickets, keep walking - unless you're feeling particularly adventurous).

  • There are a number of licensed tour guides and operators throughout Cebu and Panglao Island. Use one of these to avoid any headaches.  

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