The list of new experiences here in the Philippines is never ending. The most thrilling one, among all of them, was definitely swimming with the whale sharks in Oslob.
Swimming with the whale sharks
On our trip to Oslob, in southern Cebu, we went snorkelling with the whale sharks. That day we were fortunate to have 8 whale sharks swimming underneath, above, and next to us. Despite their enormous size– they can grow up to 12 meters long— these gentle giants seemed so graceful and calm. The knowledge that whale sharks feed mainly on planktons allayed my fear of being eaten alive but I still did feel nervous around them. I had to keep a respectful distance.
What also pleasantly surprised me was the system in place, making sure the whale sharks’ well-being was maintained. There are strict regulations and guidelines when encountering with them; all designed to make sure that the whale sharks will be in no threat or danger from inappropriate behaviour by visitors. Violators will receive fines and or imprisonment. These are all explained, though, at the briefing center before going out to the sea. One thing worth mentioning that isn’t written in the guidelines is that it’s not allowed to wear sunblock at the encounter area. Turns out that the whale sharks are sensitive to the chemicals present in it. If you have already put on one, like Annika did, you can just rinse them off at the shower facility at the briefing center.
I know there are many discussions about the well being of the whale sharks at these guided encounter tours. Many people criticise the feeding of the whale shark because it interferes with their natural behaviour. I am not an expert nor have studied marine biology, but here are my observations at the encounter site:
- The whale sharks can freely move around and leave the feeding point any time they want
- It is in the open sea with very deep water, so the whale shark can freely come and go
- The whale sharks are being fed under the guidance of a resident marine biologist
- Visitors are not allowed to feed the animals
- Feeding time is around 6am until noon. This is so that the whale sharks also learn to feed on their own in the wild
They have a very well organised system without any waiting times. As soon as we paid the fee, we immediately went to the briefing area. The briefing is mandatory as you don’t get cleared until you’ve attended one. The briefing lasts less than 5 minutes anyway.
There is a different fee structure for two types of visitors. Filipinos pay P500 while foreigners pay P1000. I personally find the price reasonable considering it includes the following:
- An outrigger boat bringing you to the whale sharks which is about 50 meters away from the shore
- Two guides that not only paddle the boat towards the site, but also assist and watch out for you at the site
- Snorkel gear consisting of a mask and a snorkel
- Life vests (that you can also wear in the water while swimming with the whale sharks)
- Free use of facilities (e.g., showers, toilets) at the briefing center, and the
- Support for the systems in place designed to make the livelihood of the locals sustainable as well as the maintenance of the well-being of the whale sharks
Cafes and restaurants
Next to the briefing center are a few cafes and restaurants facing the sea. You can see
the boats, swimmers, and even glimpses of the whale sharks from there.
We ended up staying for almost two hours, just taking everything all in— from the whale shark encounter in the distance, to the sun, to the refreshing mango shake, to the light breeze and the relaxing sound of the wind chimes and waves. This day was surely a highlight of my gap year. A memory I get to keep for life.