Swimming With Whale Sharks in The Philippines (Is it Unethical?)

Buttanding, Oslob
Buttanding, Oslob

Swimming with whale sharks in the Philippines; exciting, daunting… wildly unethical?

For just over a decade now, many tourists have been flocking to the gorgeous islands of the Philippines with one thing on their minds, swimming with these gentle giants. 

More recently, this has posed an ethical 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, with the internet at our fingertips, we’ve never had the opportunity to be more informed about how our globetrotting actions impact the wider world.

In this article, I’ll take a look at four popular spots to swim with a whale shark in the Philippines, including the infamous Oslob, highlighting the pros and cons of each, hopefully leaving you with the information from all angles you need to make the right decision. 

Before we get into it, let’s have a full disclosure on the theme at hand; I did swim with whale sharks in the Philippines a long time ago. I’ll elaborate on that later on in the post with complete candour and try not to come across as too defensive, to be honest, I think I can tackle this subject without being too swayed by my emotions.

What is a Whale Shark, Anyway? (8 Fascinating Facts)

  1. Whale sharks are known as ‘Buttading’ in the Philippines and are so highly regarded that they’re featured on the 100 peso bill!
  2. As the largest fish in the ocean, whale sharks can grow up to 12 metres in length and weigh up to 22 tons. 
  3. Despite their meter-wide mouths, whale sharks can’t bite their food but instead sieve plankton through their gills to get the nourishment they need. 
  4. Even though whale sharks can’t bite their food, they still have around 3,000 tiny teeth. Researchers aren’t totally sure what they use these for but think they might be a vestigial structure (i.e. leftover parts from a previous ancestor)
  5. Only around 10% of whale sharks survive until adulthood, but they can live for between 70 and 100 years when they do.
  6. Wanted for their fins, liver oil, skin and meat, the global population of whale sharks has declined recently, and is now declared an endangered species.
  7. Despite their huge size, whale sharks move at a speed of three miles per hour, making it a little easier to keep up with them.
  8. Even though we know that whale sharks give birth to life young, scientists are still none the wiser as to how they mate, or where they give birth after decades of research! 

Best Places To Swim With Whale Sharks in The Philippines

Not all places are created equal when it comes to swimming with whale sharks in the Philippines. Below I break down swimming with whale sharks in Donsol, Leyte, Tubbataha and Oslob, so you can see how they weigh up against each other. 

Swimming With Whale Sharks in Donsol: The Lowdown 

As the centre of sustainable whale shark tourism, Donsol is said to be one of the most ethically sound places in the Philippines to swim with whale sharks. There’s no feeding, absolutely no getting within four metres of the sharks, and it’s much quieter than some of the other spots in the Philippines.

However, while this location may be great from an eco-tourism point of view, spotting a whale shark in the wild isn’t always guaranteed, and you could end your visit without a single sighting. 

Know Before You Go:

  • Location – Donsol is a small village that sits on the island of South Luzon.
  • Cost – Around 450 pesos for registration and gear rental, and then 3500 pesos for boat rental which will seat up to six people.
  • Opening hours – Whale shark season runs from November to early June, with boats running from the early morning to late afternoon.
  • Time needed – Allow a full day for a tour here, as you’ll also need to find the whale sharks, not just swim with them. 
  • Getting there – Donsol is around a 90-minute drive from the Bicol region’s biggest city, Legazpi. To get to Legazpi in the first place, you’ll find direct flights from Manila (daily) or Cebu (three weekly). For travellers on a shoestring, buses leave from Manila to Donsol daily but take around 13 hours. 

Pros:

  • Part of a Whale Shark Interaction Eco-Tourism Project, which means all safety rules are adhered to.
  • Much fewer tourists and fewer boats to fight out on the water.
  • Interactions can take no longer than ten minutes so as not to interrupt the whale sharks.
  • No feeding allowed – this is a natural sighting.

Cons:

  • Sighting is not guaranteed.
  • In bad weather conditions, boats are often cancelled. 
  • Rumours of overcrowding during peak season.

Swimming With Whale Sharks in Leyte: Things To Consider 

Similar to Consol, Leyte is one of the better locations to go swimming with whale sharks in the Philippines. This isn’t just because it’s a much more ethical experience, but it’s an authentic one too. Sightings of whale sharks aren’t guaranteed, but Leyte has a better track record than Donsol for sightings, especially from December to May.

Yet to enjoy the same popularity as Oslob, Leyte remains a well-kept secret for animal lovers hoping to swim with these gentle giants. 

Know Before You Go:

  • Location – Swimming with whale sharks in Leyte takes place in Sogod Bay on the island of Leyte, which is just east of Cebu and Bohol. 
  • Cost – One of the more expensive places to go swimming with whale sharks in the Philippines, a trip will cost around 3000 pesos per person.
  • Opening hours – Whale shark season stretches from December until May, with tours running most days.
  • Time needed – A full day. As is the case with natural sightings, you’ll need to put aside time actually to find the sharks, not just swim with them. 
  • Getting there – To get to Sogod Bay, first, you’ll need to make it to Leyte. You’ll find regular flights from Manila and Cebu. From here you’ll need to jump on a bus which takes three to four hours. Alternatively, you can get a boat from Pier 1 in Cebu to Massin, which takes around three hours on the fast ferry or six on the regular ferry.

Pros:

  • Very few visitors and much fewer boats out on the water.
  • Practices include no diving, strict no-touching rule and no feeding.
  • Wild sightings rather than forced feeding.
  • Very small group sizes – no more than six in each boat. 

Cons:

  • One of the most expensive places to swim with whale sharks in the Philippines.
  • Sightings of whale sharks aren’t guaranteed.

Swimming With Whale Sharks in Tubbataha: Know Before You Go

Hidden away in the Sulu Sea, 150 kilometres from the coast of Palawan, Tubbataha is possibly the most exclusive destination to swim with whale sharks in the Philippines. Listed as a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site, Tubbataha stretches across 100,000 hectares of pristine reef systems, is home to 600 species of fish and, even better, remains largely untouched. 

Adding to its exclusivity is that Tubbataha can only be explored during its short diving season that runs from March to June, a season that rewards divers with up to a staggering 45 metres of visibility. Saying that, this is not a spot for novice divers, you’ll need a minimum of 100 dives to consider tackling this underwater paradise. 

Know Before You Go:

  • Location – Tubbataha can be found in the Sulu Sea, more than 150km off the south coast of Palawan. 
  • Cost – A diving spot as exclusive and magical as this doesn’t come cheaply. Prices include environmental fees for the national park, equipment hire, accommodation, food, and travel from Puerto Princesa. Expect to pay between 65,000 and 70,000 pesos.
  • Opening hours – N/A
  • Time needed – Most trips to Tubbataha last at least five days, not including the day it takes to get there and back. Allow at least a week for your trip – you won’t regret it. 
  • Getting there – The only way to reach Tubbataha is on a liveaboard from Puerto Princesa, which tends to sell out around a year in advance. Popular companies include Seadoors, Solitude One, Infiniti Tubbataha and Discovery Adventure. Puerta Princessa is relatively simple to get to, with regular flights from all major domestic hubs.

Pros:

  • The most exclusive spot for diving with whale sharks in the Philippines.
  • Very very few people visit Tubbataha.
  • A huge diversity of wildlife sightings, including turtles, manta rays and tuna.
  • You’ll get ten to fifteen chances to dive during your seven-day trip.

Cons:

  • Very remote and difficult to get to
  • A short diving season that runs for just three months a year.
  • Only available for qualified divers with at least 100 dives on their belt.
  • Tours sell out extremely quickly. 
  • Not guaranteed sighting of a whale shark.
  • Much more expensive than other whale shark swimming spots.

Swimming With Whale Sharks in Oslob: The Elephant in The Room

Butanding Cebu

Oslob is one of the most popular places to go swimming with whale sharks in the Philippines and has come up against a lot of ethical scrutinies in the last few years. It’s a popular choice for international tourists and local tourists, as you’re pretty much guaranteed to see at least one whale, and it’s also a lot cheaper. 

First fed by local fishermen, the whale sharks have started to associate the boats with food, arriving every morning as early as 6 am for a big feed. Whether you agree with this is not is another question.

Know Before You Go:

  • Location – Oslob sits on the south-eastern coast of the island of Cebu.
  • Cost – Swimming with whale sharks in Oslob costs a bargain total of 1,000 pesos and includes a 30-minute boat ride with all of your snorkelling gear. 
  • Opening hours – Boats run from as early as 6 am until 1 pm.
  • Time needed – Allow around an hour for the whole experience.
  • Getting there – Oslob is around a four-hour bus journey from Cebu City’s South Bus Terminal. There are a number of busses that stop off in Oslob, but you’ll need one with the end journey of Bato.

Pros:

  • Guaranteed sighting of a whale
  • No need to reserve your visit in advance
  • Very affordable prices
  • Can view the whale sharks from the boat
  • Limited to six guests per whale shark 
  • Briefing about the safety and well-being of whale sharks

Cons:

  • Very busy – you’ll need to go as early as possible to avoid the crowds
  • Whale sharks are fed here, so not necessarily a ‘wild’ sighting
  • Only 30-minutes to swim with the sharks
  • A small area which makes keeping a safe distance from the whale sharks quite difficult

The Arguments AGAINST Swimming With Whale Sharks in Oslob

Whale shark Cebu

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 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 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 the Philippines.
  • Lack of scientific proof. 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 in nearby Donsol, 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 change in their behaviour. 
  • Better than alternatives? If it weren’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.

Conclusion: Do I Regret Swimming With Whale Sharks in The Philippines?

whale shark Oslob

“Regret” is a strong word and a powerful emotion, it can also help us to evolve as human beings… 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 style and claim to have absolutely “no regrets,” 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 kind of like 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 blogs’ 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.

I’ve been guilty of thinking the worst about people’s intentions (but I’m working on it) so I think my slight rant above is also possibly aimed at myself, as a reminder – it’s better to educate people on the facts and potential harm to these animals, (whilst giving them the benefit of the doubt) than it is to simply tell them that they’re awful people.

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 (including riding on the back of camels, hopefully, this becomes trendy to talk about one day and we will start a discussion about leaving them alone too).

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 (really cringing 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 petting it?! What a silly twat!

From what I’ve read since then and the feelings that I have for the person that I am now, I wouldn’t swim with whale sharks again. “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.

Regret and guilt are also completely pointless if you consciously make the same mistake over and over again. I will continue to make mistakes in life and I will continue course correction when I do. Shortly after swimming with whale sharks in the Philippines, I started to really think about the implications of animal tourism and it led me to make better decisions in the future.

Anthony Middleton

Former loser who took a risk. Visited over 100 countries. Trying my best to not get skinny-fat during Covid.

1 Comments

  1. Dennis on October 16, 2014 at 1:56 pm

    Hi Anthony!

    Just read this entry.

    Thank you for loving the Philippines!

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In November of 2010, I took on a mammoth challenge against the clock in a quest to upgrade my miserable life. I went out of my comfort zone and turned it all around. Ten years later, I’m completely location independent…

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