Swimming with whale sharks in Cebu is exciting, surreal, fascinating, daunting… and some might even say; unintentionally unethical?
Snorkelling alongside these gentle giants has become a major attraction for travellers who flock to the gorgeous island nation of The Philippines and the province of Cebu in the Municipality of Oslob has received a fair share of the pulling power for those much-needed tourist pesos.
More recently, this has posed a moral dilemma for those who share a concern about animals and the negative impacts of encroaching within their natural habitat.
While there is a lot of conflicting information out there, I’ll try my very best to inform you by sharing my personal experience with what is affectionately known by the locals as “Butanding” when I visited the small coastal town of Cebu with the sole purpose of swimming with whale sharks.
I’ll also spare no effort to untangle the web that is swimming with whale sharks in the Philippines by going into the facts (from both sides of the topic) from industry experts so that you are well-versed in this divisive topic at hand.
How To Get To Oslob For Whale Shark Watching
Your first stop for getting to Oslob is to make it to Cebu City. I flew there on Cebu Airways from the capital, Manila for $40 USD, but if you are elsewhere in the Philippines you can also fly direct to Cebu City from several destinations within the country.
If you are wanting to fly directly from another country your options are Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea to fly right into Mactan-Cebu Airport (CEB) via the airlines Cathay Pacific, Silk Air, Korean Air, Asiana Airlines and Qatar Airways.
I travelled to Oslob with a Cebuana so I was in extremely good hands, taking the 4-hour bus for 350 Philippine pesos from the South Bus Terminal to Oslob’s bus station, before negotiating around $20 USD for the 2-hour taxi drive to our accommodation right near the action.
Maybe lower your expectations with this price if you’re not a Filipina or you aren’t armed with one 🙂
Early Start With Our Oslob Whale Shark Experience
I followed the lead of my local friend, a mere hop, skip and a jump away from the nearby beach house we stayed in and we got to Oslob Whale Sharks (OWS), which is impossible to miss from the relatively small beach.
We arrived bright and early at 6:45 am and we were only a handful of tourists, which was surprising in June as March-July is the peak season for whale watching in Cebu. I’ve heard of people getting there at 7 am and having to wait in long line of queues, my friend suggested it was because we went early on a weekday – apparently, weekends are hectic with human traffic, especially now the secret of a highly probably whale shark sighting is well and truly out.
It’s important to note that if you decide to go on a tour, some of them can amend the time to earlier in the morning, ideal if you don’t want to compete with all the bodies in the water and you’re an early bird.
I paid 1000 pesos and my friend as a national paid half of that, although I have heard whispers lately that they now have to pay the full rate.
We were fully briefed on the institution’s intentions to protect the animals as they confirmed that the OWS is the result of the government teaming up with local fishermen for a symbiotic relationship between the locals, the animals and the tourist industry.
We were then told the rules to abide by when swimming alongside the whale sharks, which lasted around 30 minutes of death by common sense (or lack thereof), but I understand why it’s needed.
9 Rules For Swimming With Cebu Whale Sharks
It’s not a complete free-for-all when swimming with whale sharks in Cebu, there are rules in place, but sadly a few people nodded along in agreement during the briefing and then broke most of the etiquette at any given opportunity.
Filipinos are for the most part incredibly polite people, so the staff admittedly had a tough time enforcing these rules on occasions when foreigners made their jobs harder for them. If you don’t want to be one of those tourists, then these 9 rules will hold you in good stead.
- Do not feed the whale sharks. Only qualified and authorised staff members are allowed to feed them.
- Do not touch the whale sharks, or try to ride on their backs. Accidental touches can realistically occur but don’t actively try and touch one. I wish I was joking about riding one, but enough people try to do this to make it a rule.
- No motorboating. El. Oh. El. Not that kind, but yeah… paddleboats are only allowed so the propeller doesn’t hurt them (that’s out of your control, but in Oslob they respect this rule).
- No sunscreen. The chemicals in the lotion get into the shark’s food and sting their eyes.
- No flash photography. Genuinely can’t remember why, but they were big on it. I was rocking the Go-Pro anyway and I’m not big on photography, but good for you to know.
- Maintain a distance of 5 metres from the whale shark. The animal moves way quicker than us so we can’t always respect this rule 100% of the time, but try your best to.
- Try and stay by the side of the animal. This helps in not obstructing the natural path of the whale shark.
- Do not dive in front of the whale shark. As above.
- Keep your eyes and ears on the instructors. They may need to give you instructions at some point so try and make their job that little bit easier.
Swimming With Whale Sharks in Oslob (My Experience)
We waited about an hour after registration after the first two groups of people had their experience swimming with whale sharks. This makes sense as there are only a certain number of people allowed in that area at one given time and even though there weren’t too many tourists, we had to wait in batches for our turn until our number was called out.
The chances of a whale shark sighting in Oslob are incredibly high as the local staff feed the animals between 6 am-12 pm.
We got into our paddle boat on the shore and the boat took us roughly 50 metres into the water where we carefully entered the water.
As soon as I heard Emily squeal I knew that a whale shark had not only appeared but also gotten too close for comfort… and then I saw it while gathering my breath to recover from the amusement. Every bit of the majestic beast that I thought it would be.
The gigantic creature dwarfed me as I paddled around in the water so that I could get my body at an angle to capture it with my eyes. This was almost impossible because of their size.
One whale shark soon become three and before we knew it there were half a dozen of whale sharks around us as we awkwardly tried to keep our distance while observing these beautiful beasts in all their glory.
30 minutes of course flew over, but as promised, we got a very good bang for our buck.
Is It Safe To Swim With Whale Sharks?
It is perfectly safe for humans to swim with whale sharks in their natural habitat! This is admittedly a tough one to get your head around; how can this absolute serial kriller (not sorry) with the bragging rights of being THE largest fish in the ocean at 40 feet long, weighing in at 20 tonnes not be an absolute menace to us physically inferior creatures?
Even though they have a threatening name, whale sharks are not predatorial animals. They are filter-feeders that live exclusively on plankton, algae, krill and fish eggs and they can not bite or chew.
An absolutely nuts fact about whale sharks that continues to blow my mind is that there has not been one single recorded event of a whale shark killing a human being.
Much like elephants, adult whale sharks are largely left alone by predators due to their sheer size. The most significant predators of this impressive species seem to be humans, don’t worry – I won’t shirk the sharks and I will get right into this dilemma as promised.
The Arguments Against Swimming With Whale Sharks in Oslob
Over the last decade, there have been increasing worries about swimming with whale sharks in Oslob. Generally, these centre around the health and well-being of the sharks and whether it has become too touristy to ensure their safety.
- Human dependency. It’s possible that in the future, whale sharks could become dependent on humans for food. Knowing that food will always be here could also disrupt the natural migration pattern of the whales.
- Overtourism. Oslob is an incredibly busy location, and while it’s supposed to be six people to a whale shark, this number is often exceeded, increasing the chances of injuring a whale shark.
- Visitor Ignorance. Despite the safety briefings, humans are not immune to being dickheads or caught up in the moment and some tourists still touch the whale sharks, whether accidentally or on purpose. A 2018 study highlighted that while tourists were well aware of the issues posed to whale sharks, this did not stop them from visiting Oslob, or purposely touching the fish.
- Bacteria. In their natural environment, whale sharks spend most of their time at least 50 metres below sea level and can plunge as deep as 1,000 metres. This change in depth and temperature allows them to regulate their body temperature and eliminate any parasites. By spending more time at the surface, whale sharks increase their average body temperature, making them more vulnerable to disease.
- Malnutrition. There is a good chance of malnutrition due to a lack of natural variation in their diet. They miss out on nutrients from other small fish and squid by eating mainly subpar frozen food from the fishermen.
- Declining reefs. According to a study carried out in 2018, whale shark tourism can also harm the local coral reefs in the Philippines. This is due to increased human activity in shallow areas of reefs and an increase in feeding by whale sharks in the area, disrupting the natural food chain.
The Arguments For Swimming With Whale Sharks in Oslob
It’s up to you whether you think the pros outweigh the cons, but some opposing voices say that tourism is actually having little effect on the whale sharks themselves.
- Local employment. An often overlooked (albeit complex) argument when discussing over-tourism. Whale shark tourism increases employment in a quiet part of the Philippines, particularly in Cebu. According to The Guardian, 60% of the business is owned by the fisherman, 10% by the local town of Tan-awan, and 30% goes to the local authority to protect the coast.
- Protected status. Whales are no longer slaughtered by fishermen for their fins, skins and meat now that they are protected. ‘Better fed than dead’ is a common argument for swimming with whale sharks in Cebu and also the whole of the Philippines as a whole. (Although this part of the country seems to be under the biggest spotlight).
- Lack of solid scientific proof to opposing claims. Some claim the feeding is minimal and doesn’t actually affect the whale sharks’ feeding patterns. In a recent study review, Mark Meekan, a fish ecologist, discusses that whale sharks remain in the area despite the lack of feeding by humans and argues that there is no solid proof that feeding the whale sharks leads to a change in their behaviour.
- Better than alternatives? If it wasn’t for whale tourism and their protected status, these gentle giants could end up in a much worse situation, like in a tiny tank in an Aquarium/SeaWorld on the other side of the world. I’m dubious on this one as I choose not to eat meat and it has parallels to the insincere; “what would we do with all the livestock if we didn’t eat them” argument. However, I do concede it’s not as bad. I suppose a better parallel correlation would be that in essence, the whale sharks of Oslob are now roaming in a slightly bigger, better zoo.
Do I Regret Swimming With Whale Sharks Cebu?
“Regret” is a strong word and a powerful emotion, it can also help us to evolve as human beings… when felt in the right amounts. Going too extreme on (either side of) the spectrum can be harmful, or even a complete waste of time.
If you overstep the regret mark too much, you can become a victim of self-flagellation, mentally beating yourself up about a problem that you were part of, while offering no viable solution to the problem that’s upset you so much. (I certainly have previous).
On the other hand, if you go full-on Frank Sinatra and bang the “no regrets,” drum you run the risk of becoming lost in a life of soulless hedonism, where all you do is take and in return give nothing of value to others. (Also had periods of that in my life).
Regret has a healthy balance though and in a weird way, I do get serious value from looking back on things that I have said, done, or once believed and find myself cringing a little bit. It’s a signal of growth and it suggests that I am not married to my beliefs and open to change if I hear a better argument than my own (or often my own ego).
I personally don’t read too many travel blog pieces about animal tourism. I often feel like the author has suddenly become the self-appointed gatekeeper of animal ethics, and they come across as too condescending and aggressive in the delivery of their message.
It’s always the usual suspects, finger-wagging about the latest animal that is à la mode to talk about. Some of them have even participated in the same event that they’re chastising, but suffer temporary unethical amnesia while berating those who know no better.
For what it’s worth; I have a healthy level of regret for any activity that I participated in during my travels that exploited or hurt defenceless animals. I live in Chiang Mai, the epicentre of concern for elephant welfare. It has become rightly taboo to ride them since I first landed 10 years ago.
Although I have never ridden on elephants in Thailand, I did in Cambodia and Malaysia. I wasn’t aware at the time of the inconceivable cruelty behind the breaking of their spirit.
I regret it.
Also (I am uncomfortable while I write this one) I posed with tigers at the notorious Tiger Kingdom at the start of my journey. The regret admittedly feels stronger with that one. Maybe it’s because I also feel embarrassed by my own naivety – why did I think a giant badass apex predator would be ok with my skinny ass prodding and petting it?! What a silly twat!
From what I’ve read since my whale shark experience and the feelings that I have as the person that I am now, I wouldn’t swim with whale sharks again because I am simply not confident enough about the potential consequences of doing so.
‘Regret’ admittedly feels a bit strong here, as I had a brilliant, unique day with another person, so to say that I wish the whole thing didn’t happen at all feels somewhat insincere and reeks of moral grandstanding.
Regret and guilt are also completely pointless if you consciously make the same mistake over and over again. I started to ponder the implications of animal tourism on my travels after hearing a few horror stories and it led me to make better decisions in the future, and we have to give people the opportunity to do the same by being armed with as much information as possible from all angles.
I’m very interested to read civil discourse from both sides concerning swimming with whale sharks in Cebu and I’d love to be corrected or informed on anything compelling that I may have overlooked.