Over the last few years, the tiny town of Oslob on Cebu Island in the Philippines has become incredibly popular, if not infamous for offering the opportunity to swim with whale sharks.
From the pictures you’ve undoubtedly seen on Instagram, it looks absolutely amazing, with visitors snorkelling in some of the clearest blue water, with these gentle giants just calmly gliding around them, not phased by the tourists swimming on top of them.
But the burning question lately has been around the ethical considerations of swimming with whale sharks. Is it damaging, stressful or harmful to the animals? Is it disrupting the natural way that they feed in the ocean? Are they becoming dependent on human interaction in Oslob in order to eat for the day?
When we visited the Philippines earlier this year, we were very excited for the chance to swim with whale sharks. In all honestly, we didn’t think about the ethical questions or considerations that surround swimming with whale sharks in this area.
Coming from Australia, most animal encounters of this nature back home are designed to cause minimal impact to the animals, their environment and their way of life.
When you look at social media posts of people swimming with the whale sharks in Oslob, you will generally see a photo of one person, alone in the water, with a huge whale shark swimming around behind them. Although it might sound naive, this is what we were expecting.
We thought that we would be in a small group, out in the ocean, with very few people around. Most likely jumping into the water right off the boat, with just the ocean around us.
Oh wow, we were wrong.
Swimming with whale sharks in Oslob
We left our accommodation early in the morning – around 5am – and arrived about two hours later, just in time to catch a beautiful sunrise over the ocean at a quiet beach. Our hotel had organized the day tour for us which included swimming with the whale sharks amongst other activities, so we hadn’t had to think about any of the details of the day.
Our driver brought out a picnic breakfast for us as we watched the sunrise, and I vividly remember thinking what a peaceful spot it was. There was only one other local family on the beach, and in the distance we could see a few paraw boats on the horizon as the sun rose behind them.
We sat for a while and enjoyed the moment, while filling up on toast, fruits, coffee and cakes. Once we were finished we drove around to the next beach over, and were greeted by the absolute circus of people waiting to swim with the whale sharks.
The whale sharks can be seen in the small barangay of Tan-awan, which is about 10km out of the centre of Oslob. Swimming with whale sharks only started here about 7 years ago, in September 2011, and has quickly grown to this huge phenomenon, with people coming from all over the world to swim with these gentle giants.
Originally, people just came to see the whale sharks in this area. It was one of the only places in the world that could 99% guarantee whale shark sightings every day. As the interest began to grow, local fishermen started interacting with the whale sharks by feeding them in the mornings, and all of a sudden, thousands of visitors were arriving to feed, swim, snorkel and dive with the sharks.
The crowds surrounding the Whale Watching Briefing Station when we arrived were just crazy. There had to be hundreds of people there and it was instantly overwhelming. Our driver ran off to get us our tickets, and then we sat through a very short briefing about the do’s and don’ts of swimming with whale sharks.
The most important things to remember are –
- NEVER come within 5m of the whale sharks or touch them under any circumstances.
- It’s important that you don’t wear any sunscreen or lotions in the water when you’re swimming, as the residue of these lotions can be harmful for the whale sharks and marine life in the water.
- Don’t swim more than 5m away from your boat at any time, you should be able to almost touch the boat at all times.
Then we were lead out to the beach, where we just had to wait for our turn to go out on the boat.
Honestly, it felt like it took forever! Standing in the hot sun, there is no shade and very few places to sit. There’s also no where to buy a cold drink or some water, so it’s a good idea to bring a few things with you, including water, sunglasses and a hat.
Our driver held onto our bags and clothes for us while we were swimming, but there are also lockers available to rent for an additional fee if you’re travelling alone and need to store your belongings.
More than an hour and a half later it was finally our turn, and we climbed into a small wooden boat, with about 35 other people and headed out towards the sharks.
In the water the boats make kind of a ring around the area where you can swim. There is probably 8-10 boats in the water at the same time, all with 30 people onboard. Which means there could be up to 300 people in the water at the same time as you.
Not quite the quiet, peaceful experience we had been hoping for.
The water was beautifully warm as we jumped in and immediately you are surrounded by whale sharks. They’re swimming all over the place and don’t seem to be worried in the slightest about the people swimming above them.
They are focused on one thing and one thing only. Food.
On top of the water, there are several smaller boats floating around inside the ring of swimmers which act as whale shark feeders. The fisherman onboard these boats feed krill to the whale sharks, who are swimming closely behind the boats. The whale sharks seem to be fixated on these boats, greedily chomping down everything they are offered.
Despite all the craziness, this really is undoubtedly a magical experience. Whale sharks are absolutely massive creatures, growing from 5 to 10m in length, and the glide effortlessly through the water. They are simply mesmerizing and truly beautiful animals.
And although we captured beautiful pictures, with no other tourists in the frame and the whale sharks beautifully framed, it was not easy.
Unfortunately, another tourists flipper kicking you in the face, or a narcissistic wanker swimming up and down in front of the group constantly without considering others, or the boat behind you floating into the back of your head is sure to bring you back to earth.
Embarrassingly, due to asthma and sinus issues, I’m also not the strongest snorkeller – there’s something about that air pipe just does not work out for me. So I also spent half of my time trying not to drown, as all the movement of all the boats and people crashed water into my mask and I was constantly struggling to breathe.
For as magical as the view is underwater, the chaos going on around you kind of takes away from it all. It’s kind of difficult to completely immerse yourself in the experience when there are so many distractions and other tourists in your way.
Before we knew it, we were being piled back into the boat and heading back to shore. Our morning with the whale sharks was already over and another group was eagerly waiting on the shore to take our place.
Why you should reconsider swimming with whale sharks in Oslob
Although we have some beautiful memories of that morning, if we had to choose again, we probably wouldn’t choose to swim with the whale sharks in Oslob. But that is a personal choice and we want you to be able to make an informed decision if you’re considering this experience.
The circus environment was not what we were expecting, and from the minute we were thrown into the middle of it I couldn’t help but questioning whether this was actually an okay thing to do.
The sheer number of people coming in and out of the water is enough to scare you off alone, but there are also a lot of negative impacts on the whale sharks that are in this environment.
The main reason the whale sharks continue to stay and return to Oslob each morning is because they are being fed. The local fishermen attract them into the bay by feeding them a specific type of krill. Because of this, many of the whale sharks in the area are experiencing a decrease in nutrition as they spend 6 hours a day feeding on the exact same krill, instead of eating a mixture of nutrients from different types of foods.
Continually luring the whale sharks back to the same area is also interfering with their natural migration patterns, as whale sharks generally don’t stay in the same area for long periods of time. It is believed that down the track this could have a negative impact on their breeding habits and ultimately their reproduction cycles.
Although there is a strict no touching the whale sharks policy, there are always a handful of arseholes who think the rules don’t apply to them. Make sure you’re not one of them if you do decide to swim.
Additionally, when they are trying to feed the whale sharks are often bumping into the boats, causing cuts and scratches on their backs. There have also been some reports about whale sharks associating non-tourist boats with feeding, which has led to injuries when they get too close to motors and oars.
Swimming with whale sharks in Oslob without a tour
We had booked our day trip around Oslob directly through our hotel on Cebu Island. It cost us 4,000PHP per person, which included return transfers from the hotel in an air-conditioned car, the fees to swim, snorkel equipment, breakfast and lunch.
If you decide to tackle this experience without a tour, it will be a little more difficult. It’s a pretty long drive, more than 4 hours to get from Cebu City all the way down to Oslob. No matter what Google Maps tells you, add at least 50% more time – as the roads around Cebu Island are very slow.
If you’re travelling on public transport, catch a Ceres bus going to Bato via Liloan from the South Bus Terminal. You can just ask the bus driver to drop you off at Tan-awan for the whale sharks, and they’ll let you out along the way. The bus costs about 155PHP.
Head to the Whale Shark Watching Briefing Stationwhere you can register for the experience, pay the fees and sit through the briefing. Arrive as early as you can to avoid the hectic ques and circus like situation. We arrived at 7:30am and there was already busloads of people waiting for their turn. Avoid weekends if possible, to avoid the largest of the crowds.
Swimming with whale sharks is only available between 6am and 12pm each day, and you’ll be given 30 minutes to swim around in the water. For a foreign tourist it costs 1000PHP, which includes the boat ride, swimming with the sharks and a life jacket.
Alternatives to swimming with whale sharks in Oslob
Oslob seems to have become the most popular place in the world to swim with whale sharks lately, due to Southeast Asia’s cheap prices and the fact that the whale sharks are there all year round.
But there are actually several other places around the world where you can swim alongside whale sharks that are more ethical and safer for the whale sharks themselves.
If you’re weighing up where to swim with whale sharks check out –
- Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia
- Isla Holbox, Isla Mujeres, Cancun, Cozumel & Isla Contoy in Mexico
- South Ari Atoll in the Maldives
- Gladden Spit in Belize
- Wolf Island & Darwin Island in the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
- Tofo Beach in Mozambique
- Cenderawasih Bay in Indonesia
- Utila in Honduras
There are also lots of other places around the Philippines where you can see whale sharks in a more natural environment. They can be seen from the shore as they pass by on a migration, or on specialized diving tours that take you out in a less controversial way.
Although it’s not as well-known, Donsol Bay on the Bicol Peninsula of the Philippines is actually known as the Whale Shark Capital of the Philippines. You’re still able to swim with the whale sharks in Donsol, but it is reportedly much more ethical than in Oslob.
Where to stay in Oslob
There’s not a huge amount of good accommodation options around Oslob. There are a few hostels and home stays available around the town and the surrounding suburbs, but in all honesty they don’t look very appealing.
Instead, we decided to stay in Moalboal while we were on Cebu Island, at The Blue Orchid Resort. Sitting right on one of the few white sand beaches in the area, the Blue Orchid Resort provides a quiet, secluded environment where you can unwind after a long day of exploring.
The Blue Orchid Resort can organize everything for your stay on Cebu Island, including any day trips, activity tickets, experiences and equipment for ocean activities. They are also well known for their diving programs – definitely worth checking out if you’re interested in diving in the Philippines.
Another highly recommended option is the Bluewater Sumilon Island Resort, which is located on it’s own private island surrounded by crystal clear water. It’s found on the southeastern tip of the mainland and is one of Cebu’s best kept secrets. Check into Bluewater for the most luxury stay on the island.
Although swimming with whale sharks was a magical and beautiful experience, I do wish that we had waited to experience it in a more ethical and peaceful environment. Unfortunately, we didn’t do enough research before we arrived and we were quite shocked at the scenes we were presented with when we arrived.
There are so many other options to Oslob where you get so much more out of the experience, and we will definitely be doing more research before heading out on another wildlife adventure.
Have you swam with whale sharks anywhere in the world? Share your experience below.
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