Swimming with whale sharks in Oslob, Cebu, is one of the most popular adventures in the Philippines. In fact, this tourism singlehandedly put Oslob in the tourism map. People from all over the world flock here for a once-in-a-lifetime experience of swimming and taking pictures with the biggest species in the ocean.
As with other cases of wildlife tourism, there is an important ethical aspect about this activity that we should consider.
Observing and swimming with whale sharks is acceptable if done correctly. That is to stay, if the whale sharks are allowed to stay in their natural habitat and free to move according to their natural migratory cycles.
This isn’t the case in Oslob.
Here I’m going to tell you why you shouldn’t support the whale shark tourism in Oslob (Cebu) and then present a better, ethical choice.
Get to know the whale sharks
Before anything else, let’s take a quick background look at whale sharks. 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, Leyte and even in Palawan. Of these places, Cebu and Sorsogon have the more established whale shark tourism.
Whale sharks are locally known as butanding.
Dangers of the whale shark tourism in Oslob
The whale sharks are a big tourist attraction in Oslob. It draws hundred thousands of tourists every year and it provides income to local households.
In Oslob, the locals regularly feed the whale sharks with krills to keep them in the area. This guarantees sighting all-year round.
Here are the reasons why this practice is essentially unethical.
1. It causes injury
The local tourism enacts a regulation that instructs tourists to keep a 4-meter distance from the whale sharks. However, the animals still suffer injuries from constant rubbing with boats and contact with tourists.
People think that injury from human contact is only caused by irresponsible tourists, but this isn’t necessarily true.
We were in Oslob a few 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. For instance, when my friends and I were clinging to the side of the boat, paddling our feet, a whale shark swam behind us and we only realized that we’d inadvertently hit it later. Also, my boyfriend Hali took a deep dive and when he was resurfacing, he got swatted by the tail of a whale shark swimming by. While these isolated cases might not be serious, taken collectively it may take a toll on the whale sharks’ bodies.
We also read that sometimes there are as much as 100+ tourists crowding the sharks in the given 30-minute period.
2. Lack of proper nutrition
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.
3. It endangers their breed
Lastly and perhaps the most important, the activity changes their natural migratory pattern. Normally, whale sharks stay in Oslob for about 60 days before moving to another location. With the regular feeding, they become mainstays in Oslob for 365 days a year. Scientists fear that this may eventually harm their breeding cycle and thus reproduction.
These are basically the important reasons why you shouldn’t partake in the whale shark tourism in Oslob, Cebu. To learn more about the effects of the Oslob whale watching tourism, head on to Dive in Bohol and LAMAVE.org.
An eco-friendly alternative
If you really want to go on a whale shark watching activity, it’s best to head to Donsol in Sorsogon Province. The community here promotes a sustainable approach and is supported by the World WildLife Fund.
In Donsol, the locals do not feed the whale sharks. Instead, they leave them in their natural habitat. Whale shark watching is done on selected months (particularly from February to April or May) following the migration pattern of the whale sharks to Donsol Bay. Tourists go on boat tours accompanied by spotters, who signals them of sightings.
There’s a small downside to this. Even during peak season, interaction is not 100% guaranteed. Resorts often advise tourists to allot 2 days for the whale shark tour in Donsol Bay. However, the most important thing is the whale sharks are left alone.
P.S. Another place where you can spot whale sharks in their normal routine is in Pintuyan in Southern Leyte.
What you can do to help
The information campaign about the whale shark activity in Oslob is an ongoing practice. Even today, there are still people unaware of its ecological effect.
In fact, we were in Oslob in 2015 and did not hear anything about it until after our trip, when I did further research for the article I was writing.
The local government continues to support this practice since it generates income and basically supports the local livelihood of about 300 people who work in the feeding site and there are no signs that it will be halted in the future.
That saying, there are still things you can do to help:
- Spread awareness about this issue
- Support alternatives such as the ethical tourism done in Sorsogon and Leyte
My personal insight is that the Philippines is a developing country and the ethical side of tourism isn’t a major concern for most people. However, over the years there are signs of growing awareness and it gives me hope that we can still make a difference.
What to read next:
Visiting Cebu? Here are other posts you might be interested at:
- Day Tour in Oslob
- Day Trip in Moalboal and Kawasan Falls
- Travel Guide to Moalboal
- Travel Guide to Bantayan Island and Top Things to Do in Bantayan Island
- Travel Guide to Malapascua Island
Further reading on sustainable tourism:
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Katherine Cortes is a 30-something freelance writer/editor. She likes beaches, snorkeling trips, and relaxing staycations (preferably with bath tubs!).