Swimming with whale sharks in Oslob, Cebu, is one of the most popular adventures here 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, Cebu
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.
The Better Alternative: Donsol, Sorsogon
As said above, there are still ethical alternatives to seeing and swimming with whale sharks in the ocean.
In the Philippines, the whale shark tourism done in Donsol, Sorsogon, is considered responsible and ethical. In fact, it’s supported by the World WildLife Fund.
In Donsol, whale sharks are not fed by the locals. Whale shark watching is a seasonal activity following the their natural migration pattern, from February to April. Tourists ride boats accompanies by spotters, who then signals them of sightings.
As such, 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.
Recently, there seems to be declining sightings of whale sharks in Donsol since 2011. Also, my close friend Stephanie 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. It’s not yet certain whether this pattern will change in the future.
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:
Here are other articles about Cebu:
Further reading on sustainable tourism:
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