Animal attractions are a lot of fun and they make for good Instagram photos. Especially swimming with whale sharks. It’s in many tourists’ bucket list. How cool is it to actually swim with the biggest species of fish in the ocean?
Swimming with whale sharks is generally okay, as long as responsible practices are followed. But this isn’t always the case. In the Philippines, two areas are visited for its whale shark tourism. Oslob is the more popular one, but it’s also questionable ecologically speaking. On the other hand, Donsol is the better, ethical choice.
Whale sharks: Get to know them first
Whale sharks are known as the gentle giants. They are the largest fish in the sea, measuring up to 40 feet. They are plant-eating animals, hence the monicker.
They can be seen in a few places on earth, including Australia and select places in Asia. In the Philippines, whale sharks can be seen in Cebu, Sorsogon and even in Palawan. They are locally known as butanding.
Why you shouldn’t support the whale shark tourism in Oslob, Cebu
The whale sharks are a big tourist attraction in Oslob. It draws hundred thousands of tourists every year. People from all over the world flock to this corner in Cebu to swim and take pictures with them.
The locals regularly feed the whale sharks with krills to keep them in the area. This guarantees sighting all-year round.
There are various reasons this is not a responsible practice. One is that the animals suffer injuries from constant rubbing with boats and contact with tourists, despite a regulation that instructs everyone to keep a 4-meter distance from them.
People think that injury from human contact is only caused by irresponsible tourists, but this isn’t necessarily true. We were in Oslob about 2 years ago, and with the enclosed space as well as the whale sharks’ tendency to swim close or beside humans, it can be difficult not to hit or get hit by them. At least 3 in our group then experienced this. While this isolated cases might not be serious, taken collectively it may take a toll on the whale sharks’ bodies.
This leads me to the next item…
Whale sharks become accustomed to being human fed that they automatically associate human presence with food. This makes them easy bait for shark hunters or conditions them to come close to any boat, which is dangerous if the boats sport propellers.
The whale sharks are also not fed enough by the locals. Since the whale sharks miss out on the nutrients from various plankton growing in other areas, they suffer from lack of nutrition.
Lastly and perhaps the most important, this changes their migratory pattern. Normally, the whale sharks would stay in Oslob for about 2 months before moving to another place. With the regular feeding, they become mainstays in Oslob. Scientists fear that this may eventually harm their breeding cycle and thus reproduction.
Donsol, Sorsogon: Swimming with whale sharks the responsible way
The whale shark tourism in Donsol, Sorsogon, is a better alternative. It’s supported by the World WildLife Fund. Here, whale sharks are not fed by the locals.
It’s a seasonal activity following the animals’ natural migration pattern. Tourists are accompanied by spotters and guides to see the whale sharks in the wild. The best time to go in Donsol is from February to April.
As suggested by a fellow blogger, even during peak season interaction is not 100% guaranteed so it’s best to book for a whale shark tour for at least 2 days in Donsol Bay.
I’m not sure how the practice in Oslob affects that in Donsol. My close friend who lives in Sorsogon says that fewer whale sharks are being spotted in Donsol, possibly because many have preferred to stay in Oslob for the food. Another blogger wrote about the declining sightings of whale sharks in Donsol since 2011.
I think we’ll know for sure in a few years’ time, although I hope we wouldn’t have to get to that point.
Swimming with whale sharks in the Philippines
We were in Oslob before and found out about its implications only after our trip. Even today, not many people are aware of the effects of regular feeding to the whale sharks in Oslob and some of those who do are in denial.
In addition, people are divided on the issue of closing down the operation in Oslob, as it supports the local livelihood of about 300 people who work in the feeding site. Income is the primary reason the current practice in Oslob continues despite public pleas from researchers.
I would advise people to skip Oslob based on the facts given above. It’s basically a glorified underwater zoo. A lot of us feel bad about the maltreatment of animals in local zoos, but isn’t the same thing happening in Oslob? Furthermore, we can never really predict how it will affect the reproduction and survival of whale sharks or any ecological effect it may have in the future. Whale shark swimming in Donsol, Sorsogon, remains the ethical choice.
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Note: Featured image is from Wikimedia.