Guidelines to Whale Shark Watching in Oslob
Before we embarked on a trip to Oslob, so much have been written about the whale shark interaction in this southern part of Cebu, Philippines. Save Philippine Seas have written the cons of the whale shark feeding activity (Read: Why feeding of whale sharks should stop). The Shark Research Institute has also made a report on Oslob’s whale shark interaction (Read: Report from Oslob).
I admit that I had hesitation about going there myself. However, I wanted to write about it, but all are based from what I hear or read. I have been to Donsol in 2005 (Read: First-time in Donsol, Sorsogon). The experience of seeing these gentle giants, called butanding, was so magical that my friends and I went back in 2012, seven years after (Read: Be Gentle with the Gentle Giants).
Still, there was that part of me that wanted to see the whale sharks in Oslob – to relive my awesome experience and, more importantly, to know the real story there and how they were treating the whale sharks. It’s hard to make a stand when you only base things from what others say about it.
Getting to Oslob
We took the opportunity to go to Oslob as it’s only across the sea from Negros Island. As we are from the western part of the island (Negros Occidental), from Bacolod City, we had to take a bus to cross to the eastern part (Negros Oriental) where our bus bound for Cebu loaded a barge and crossed the strait to Cebu City.
Our travel time totaled to 8 hours: 6 hours by land from Bacolod City to Sibulan; 1 hour by sea on board the barge; and 1 hour from Bato, Cebu to Oslob.
Originally, we estimated our departure time at 11:00pm and our arrival time in Oslob at around 7:00am. Since it was only at the terminal where we found out that the bus to Cebu via Mabinay was scheduled at 2:00am, which meant we would arrive in Oslob at 10:00am, we were no longer too optimistic that we would still do the whale shark watching. It would be a major change in our itinerary if it happened.
We went on with our travel and when we crossed to Cebu island, we informed the bus attendant to drop us where the whale shark watching is done. The bus stopped right in front of MB’s Sunrise View, so we immediately went inside to check if we still made it to the activity. We inquired and the manager informed us that we could still do the whale shark watching, which is only 30 minutes long, as it happens every morning until 12 noon. We opted to do snorkeling, which cost P500 (app. USD 10.87) for Filipinos. Rates are different for foreigners, which is higher, and for Oslob residents, which is cheaper. These rates may vary as time goes by.
There is some extra cost that we paid at MB’s Sunrise View but it granted us the use of their shower and they allotted us lockers where we kept our valuables. There were additional rates for the underwater camera, with the boatman as our photographer. The manager also assigned Chuchay, 14 years old, to be our coordinator, who accompanied us to the orientation area.
Whale Shark Interaction
The orientation area was crowded with so many tourists, I was surprised myself. From there, we could see from the distance rows of boats lined up. They were the current batches that were doing the whale shark interaction. They seemed too near to the shore.
We registered at the logbook and listened to a lady telling us the do’s and don’ts when it comes to whale shark interaction. Here are some of the rules and my observations on them:
- Do not touch the shark – so far, I haven’t seen anyone touching the whale shark except the one feeding the shark and his assistant. Regarding the feeding, I believe it has to stop.
- No more than 6 tourists per shark – there was only one whale shark and there were so many boats (which was almost the same thing that happened the last time I was in Donsol). Since it was moving around so at a time, it can accommodate only one or two boats. Still, all the people were there in the water while it swam in the circle or semi-circle where the boats were positioned.
- Do not throw trash in the water – I didn’t see anyone throwing trash but there were just too much seaweeds floating at sea, the area looked dirty. The fishermen said the whale shark didn’t want to get near us because of the sea grasses because they don’t like them.
- Keep a minimum distance of 4 meters from the shark – we tried to stay near the boat, but the whale shark can often come near you, without you going near it. The fisherman feeding him is leading the whale shark and the animal was really too close to the boat.
- No flash photography – good thing this was followed.
- No feeding from tourist boats – only the lone fisherman did the feeding.
And the last thing I caught from the orientation is that violation could lead to 6 months to a year of imprisonment. I’m not sure if anyone has been caught going against the rules and if penalty has been implemented.
That day, we were group 275, and the organizers announced that they were already stopping the issuance of tickets since the activity is only until 12 noon each day.
But based from what I’ve heard before and from what I see, there seems to be a development because the first time this broke out around 2011, tourists were touching the shark and riding them. And from what I’ve read, more environmentalists and activists have been in dialogue with the local government, so certain restrictions are now being enforced. I hope that as time goes by, the whale sharks will be allowed to follow their natural patterns, just like how they are treated in Donsol.
Donsol vs. Oslob
There is a difference with the way humans interact with the whale sharks. If you have read my second blog on Donsol, the 6 tourists per shark rule is also somehow not followed. Here are what I have observed.
- Boat type – Donsol uses bigger motorized boats because they had to go to deeper waters to look for the whale shark, while in Oslob, they only paddle because the area is just a few meters from shore. In Donsol, once whale sharks are spotted, the motor is turned off so as not to disturb the whale sharks because the sound and vibration may affect them.
- Distance from shore – since whale sharks in Donsol are free-roaming, guides and spotters had to take us to various parts of the sea to look for them, while in Oslob, they are just a few paddles away. However, whale sharks are more used to deeper waters as they are migratory. I can’t tell if there is a portion in Oslob that is cordoned off (I have no proof on that), but one can wonder how come the whale sharks stay within the vicinity all year round. I can even relate my Oslob experience to going to the Ocean Park and watching the animals in the aquarium.
- Feeding – the whale sharks in Donsol are wild and they themselves look for their own food as they feed themselves on planktons. The ones in Oslob are being given small shrimps. This does not provide them with the right nutrition needed by their body. Compare a child eating healthy organic food versus those eating junk. And since the whale shark swims closely to the boat of the fisherman feeding it, it is often injured by the boat or even by those bringing the tourists close to it.
- Size of whale sharks – the ones in Donsol, which are wild whale sharks, are really huge, that’s why the experience is simply breathtaking and magical. The one is Oslob looks like a baby whale shark, or maybe because they seemed tamed, they are smaller.
- Availability of whale sharks – ever wonder why whale sharks in Oslob are available all year round? It’s a plus point for tourists, but not for the animals. As I said, they are migratory, so there are seasons wherein they have to be in another place. That’s why in Donsol, they are available around February to July and there are even lean months within this period, that is why there is no guarantee that you can see them.
But, of course, for those who come all the way from other parts of the world wouldn’t want to go home empty-handed after spending a lot of money just to enjoy this kind of experience. So, it’s no wonder why many of them opt to go to Oslob than Donsol. And we can’t fault those who want to see the gentle giants. My only wish is that stricter rules and enforcement should be put in place to make sure that these travelers won’t hinder the natural habitat of the whale sharks.
What Should We Do
While I was chatting with Chuchay, I asked her how life was before this whale shark tourism in their locality exploded. She said that locals only thrived through fishing and copra making from coconuts. This latest attraction is a blessing for them. This coming school season, she will be in 9th grade, and she is doing this summer job to save some money for her studies. And though she will be studying, she said she will still spend her weekends working at the resort as additional income for her and her family.
Whether the whale shark interaction will continue or stop in the future, there is a need to strike a balance that can offer a win-win solution for the local community and the whale sharks. The locals find this as their source of livelihood that puts food on their table, sends their children to school, pays their bills, and provides for their other needs, but we have to care for these animals as they are part of our whole ecological system.
There is more reason to engage the local government and the communities and to further educate the public to ensure that the whale sharks are protected and cared for, allowing them to live in their natural habitat. My bet is that if these whale sharks in Oslob will be released to the wild, their routine and habits have already been altered by the feeding activity. Thus, it is imperative that the feeding of the whale sharks be stopped.
Also, even with an orientation, tourists are still bound to break some rules or circumvent them, so it’s important that the sea wardens themselves become responsible in making sure that the whale sharks are not harmed. And for tourists, we must take it upon ourselves to follow the guidelines set for whale shark encounters.
As this activity continues, there is no guarantee that tourists themselves will voluntarily boycott whale shark watching in Oslob. My take is that it has to be regulated well, like how it is being done in Donsol or close to it, while stakeholders provide alternative livelihood to the locals for the lean seasons.
And for tourism, there are other things to see and do in Cebu, such as the Canyoneering in Badian or diving in Moalboal, or other attractions within the Oslob area, like the heritage park, which I will blog next.