Understanding the Philippines’ Most Popular Big Animal Encounter – Snorkeling and Diving with Whale Sharks.
Growing to lengths of 45 feet, and weighing as much as 15 tons, whale sharks are without question the biggest fish in the sea. These gentle giants are found in tropical and temperate oceans around the world, and are content to cruise the oceans at a no-worries pace while slurping up clouds of plankton and tiny fish.
I have been fortunate enough to swim with whale sharks on numerous occasions in locations from the tropical Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific. And even the knowledge that I am most certainly not on the menu (these sharks don’t even bite) doesn’t diminish the thrill of seeing one cruise slowly past. This is why an opportunity to come face-to-face with one of these gargantuan feeding machines sits at the top of almost every diver and snorkeler’s list of must-do big animal encounters.
A Unique Opportunity
In most places around the globe, a whale shark sighting is big news. But there are select destinations such as Isla Mujeres and La Paz Mexico, the Galapagos Islands, Costa Rica’s Cocos Island and Cenderawasih Bay in Indonesia where the big fish routinely gather to feed, giving humans close to a guaranteed ring side seat for an up close encounters. Of these known gathering points, only a select few are easily reached, and have the travel and tour infrastructure needed to support in-water encounters that begin with easy access from shore. One such encounter takes place in the Philippines, just offshore of the village of Oslob, on the island of Cebu.
What sets Oslob apart from any other destination known for whale shark encounters, is that the interactions take place surprisingly close to shore, and inside a cordon off area that runs roughly the same length as a soccer field. The “interaction area” is marked off at each end by with a buoyed float line running straight off the beach some 262 feet / 80 meters out to a point where a third buoy line bridges the two. Snorkelers remain within this area while snorkelers while fishermen working from small boats deploy ‘uyap (the local variety of shrimp) to attract the sharks. Here, I need to point out that sharks are not restricted in any way. The fact is, the sharks come and go as they please. It’s the humans that are directed to stay within the interaction area.
The feeding takes place between first light and early afternoon, by which time the sharks will often loose interest and go elsewhere. The number of sharks that show for their morning snacks varies from a single fish to as many as two dozen.
Before snorkelers are allowed to enter the water, they must first sit through a briefing that includes all the dos and don’ts of snorkeling (scuba is not allowed) with the sharks. Among the don’ts is touching the animals. Snorkelers are advised to come no closer than 3 meters (9 feet) from a shark’s head and 4 meters (13 feet) of its tail. In addition, the use of strobes or video lights on cameras is not permitted. Fortunately, between the bright late morning sun, shallow depth (20 to 30 feet) and white sand bottom, additional lighting is not necessary.
The In-water Experience
My introduction to Oslob came during a visit to Atlantis Dumagete Resort in 2014. I returned some two years later while on a cruise aboard the Atlantis Azores liveaboard. On both occasions I was able to spend more than two hours snorkeling with as many as 9 to 11 whale sharks at a time. The sharks were of a mid size, averaging 18 to 24 feet in length. The combination of clear aquamarine water and sun reflecting off the white sand bottom made for some excellent photo opts.
As a photographer, the one drawback to the experience was figuring out how to shoot around the crowd of people that are also there to see the sharks. Fortunately, most the of snorkelers I saw in the water lacked good water skills, and stayed close to the boat or hung on the buoy line. Once you move out beyond these groups, the space is pretty wide open. Of course, out towards the middle of the enclosure there is the risk of getting run over by one of the fishermen in their boats, so its advisable to keep tabs on what’s going on above the surface.
Taking that risk and moving into more open water allows provides a chance to observe the actions of the fisherman, who are the only ones allowed to feed the sharks. Even when there are more than a dozen outrigger canoes on the water, the sharks will only follow the ones doing the feeding. Knowing this, you can then position yourself in the line of an approaching fisherman, thereby framing the shark as it passes, rather than chasing it down — which is also not allowed.
Then, Now and the Future
It’s not completely clear how and when Oslob transition from a relatively poor fishing community to a major tourism attraction, but by the year 2012, the event was drawing nearly 100,000 visitors a year. The most prevalent back-story on this unique encounter got started involves a conflict between the sharks and the local Oslob fishermen. For many years, the fishermen would set out in their small outrigger canoes to fish for shrimp using fine mesh nets. Confrontations occurred when the whale sharks showed up to feed on the same shrimp the fishermen were after, often fouling and even destroying nets in the process.
The fishermen tried various deterrence methods, including throwing rocks, to stop or at least discourage the sharks from coming too close to the nets. Somewhere along the line, they came up with a rather in genius solution. Rather than attempt to fend off the feeding animals, they discovered that if they fed them a small portion of their catch they could effectively lead the sharks away from the boats still actively fishing.
As with most any human/animal interaction, the whale shark encounters at Oslob have received criticisms. The most negative belief is that feeding practices modifying the shark’s behavior by teaching them that boats and humans mean food, thereby creating a new set of inherent risks for the sharks when they travel outside of protected waters. This would include wrongly approaching instead avoiding fishing boats. Some have even raised the theory that feeding will cause the sharks to become more competitive and thereby more aggressive, both between one another and even to humans.
So far, there has been no research to support these conjectures, as there is one very significant obstacle involved in studying whale sharks. They are a highly nomadic species with a propensity to wander thousands of miles a year, often following the seasonal path of nutrient-rich aggregations of plankton. A whale shark tagged in the Bohol Sea months later turned up off the Taiwan, nearly 1,000 miles to the north.
Even with the advent of modern satellite tracking, knowing the whereabouts of any given animal has proven to be quite difficult, as whale sharks also have a knack for flat out disappearing from monitoring for weeks or months at a time, most likely due to traveling and staying deep. Then there are the variables crated by differences in age groups and migratory routes.
Most of the sharks that come to Oslob are youngsters, measuring 18 to 25 feet in length. The ones in other areas of the Philippines such as Donsol and Tubbatha were significantly larger, but still not adult size. Keep in mind that a mature female runs between 35 to 45 feet in length. Making things more interesting is the fact that the number of individual sharks that have been documented passing through Oslob numbers well into the 100’s. So where do the Oslob sharks eventually go?
What is certain is that open ocean is no longer a safe haven for whale sharks. In addition to the dangers of ingesting plastic garbage that is being increasingly thrown into our seas, there is still the eminent threat of collisions from large vessels and ships as well as the fact that some countries still allow the practice of whale shark hunting. Even the Philippines had a dark history regularly hunting and slaughtering whale sharks. In the early 1990’s, World Wild Life Fund records show that Philippine fisherman landed and processed between 627 and 800 whale sharks for their meat and fins for the Asian market inside a span of 7 years. In those days, one of the most active whale shark fishing communities in the Philippines was Donsol, which has since ben identified as having one the highest concentration of whale sharks in the Indo-Pacific. At the time this fishing hamlet was quite poor, with unpaved roads and few open wells providing the only source of drinking water.
In 1997, environmental groups starting bringing the slaughter of Donsol’s whale sharks to the attention of world media, leading the Filipino government to change direction in 1998. As a result, the Philippines become one of the first countries in the world to protect whale sharks by prohibiting their capture, sale, transport or export, ad also declaring the first-ever municipal sanctuary for these animals within the 6,000 islands of the archipelago.
A decade later, the business of snorkeling with whale sharks has transformed villages like violates like Donsol and Oslob into viable eco-tourism destinations, and provided local fishermen with a viable alternative to hunting the sharks. Oslob in particular has thrived, due the easy access and affordable prices of encounters, which current run $8 for locals, and $12.5 for foreigners. A large portion of these fees is pooled back into the local villages. Villagers working as a guide or boat driver can earn 1,000 to 1,500 pesos a day, which is a good wage for the rural Philippines.
While there will always be proponents and opponents to Oslob’s whale shark interactions, my feeling is that compared to the alternative of hunting these remarkable animals, or attempting to chase them away from feeding grounds, the current practices are something I can live with it.