The whale shark tour in Oslob, Cebu, is one of the most popular adventures here in the Philippines. Tourists from all over the world flock to this little spot in the Visayas region for this once-in-a-lifetime experience: swimming and taking pictures with the biggest species of fish in the ocean.
Here’s what you need to know: Swimming with whale sharks is acceptable if they are just observed in the wild. But this isn’t always the case…
In the Philippines, there are 2 main places for the whale shark tourism. Oslob in Cebu is the more popular one, but it poses a long-term threat to the ecology. On the other hand, the lesser-known Donsol in Sorsogon is the better, ethical choice.
Whale sharks: Get to know them
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.
Why the Oslob whale shark tourism is not okay
The whale sharks are a big tourist attraction in Oslob. It draws hundred thousands of tourists every year. It provides local income, and it has essentially put Oslob in the world map.
In Oslob, 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. We also read that sometimes there are as much as 100+ tourists crowding the sharks in the given 30-minute period.
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 natural migratory pattern. Normally, the whale sharks would stay in Oslob for about 60 days before moving to another place. 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.
The better alternative: Swimming with whale sharks in Donsol, Sorsogon
The whale shark tourism in Donsol, Sorsogon, is a more responsible practice. In fact, it’s supported by the World WildLife Fund. Here, whale sharks are not fed by the locals.
Whale shark watching in Donsol is a seasonal activity following the animals’ 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.
Even during peak season, interaction is not 100% guaranteed so it’s best to allot 2 days for the whale shark tour in Donsol Bay.
I’m not certain how the whale shark activity in Oslob affects that in Donsol, but observations aren’t positive. My close friend Steph 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. Similarly, 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.
P.S. Another place where you can spot whale sharks in their normal routine is in Pintuyan in Southern Leyte.
What you can do
First of all, the information campaign about the whale shark tourism in Oslob is still ongoing. Even today, a lot of people are still unaware of is harmful effects. In fact, we were in Oslob back in 2015 and only found out about this issue after our trip, when I was doing research to include in a blog post.
Moreover, the local government continues to support it since it generates income and basically supports the local livelihood of about 300 people who work in the feeding site.
However, we can also do something on our own to help.
- Spread awareness about this issue to friends and family
- Support better alternatives such as the one in Donsol
Regardless of whether people will listen to you, it’s still worth educating them so at least they can make an informed choice. Some of my friends (and even travel bloggers) have ignored me about this issue when I brought it up, but some listened and it gives me hope to know that together we can still make a difference.
Note: Featured image is by Jon Hanson (Wikimedia).
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