The Philippines is famous for its abundant wildlife living under the sea. Thousands of people come here every year for the excellent diving and snorkeling. It’s also one of the best places to swim with the world’s largest fish—the whale shark. Also known as butanding in Tagalog, these gentle giants can grow up to 41 feet (12 meters) long and weigh as much as 23.5 tons. Despite their intimidating size, whale sharks are mostly slow-moving and fairly mellow creatures, drifting close to the surface through the world’s tropical oceans, filter feeding on plankton and small fish as they go.
You can find whale sharks pretty much anywhere in the Philippines, but there are two places in particular where they are especially common–Donsol and Oslob. Located on the southern end of the island of Luzon, Donsol has grown from a sleepy little fishing village to a whale shark watching mecca over the past few years. The other locale is near the little town of Oslob in Cebu, where the whale sharks can be found just a few hundred feet offshore.
Getting to Oslob is rather easy. There are daily domestic and international flights flying right into Cebu City. From the airport you can take a taxi to the South Bus Station (about 250 pisos) where you can then take a bus to Oslob. The journey takes around 3-4 hours and cost only 150 pisos for an air-conditioned bus. I found the bus system on Cebu to be really good with buses making several trips between Cebu City and Oslob throughout the day.
Originally I had planned on seeing the whale sharks in Donsol, but since I was coming to Cebu anyway to visit the nearby island of Bohol I figured I would save time by going to Oslob. Upon arrival in town, I was told the best time of day to see the whale sharks was in the early morning as that’s the time of day they come to feed. The cost of swimming with the whale sharks is 1100 pisos for foreigners (about $25 USD) and includes your snorkeling gear, boat, and environmental fee. Before setting out to sea, we were given a quick briefing of the dos and don’ts of swimming with the whale sharks. A few in particular I remember was that we weren’t allowed to wear sunscreen since it’s toxic to them. Another was we were supposed to give them a 3 meter berth and that we couldn’t touch them. Simple enough.
We got in our boat and paddled off from the beach around 06:30 and within five minutes we were at the spot where the sharks were in water. Being only a few hundred feet off shore the water was shallow, maybe only 20 feet deep. As soon as we jumped in there was already one swimming by! Over the duration of the experience, I was surprised not only to see one or even two sharks, but a total of 5 whale sharks! Incredible. We didn’t have to go very far either as they swam right by the boat. They were varying sizes, but the largest one I saw was maybe around 30 feet long. We were given 30 minutes to swim with the sharks and I felt that was plenty of time.
Until 2011, Oslob was just another little fishing town off the southeastern coast of Cebu. The sharks have been in present in the area for years as they are thought to have been attracted to the small shrimps that the fishermen use for bait to do their fishing. Initially this caused some fishermen to see the sharks as a pest as they ate their bait and scared away the fish and some used to capture and kill them. But when tourists began visiting the site to see the whale sharks, the fishermen saw the opportunity to make some money off of the tourism and the hunting stopped.
While the hunting has ceased, the feeding of the whale sharks has become a controversial topic. While they’re by no means kept captive by a net, the fact that they’re hand-fed is concerning to a lot of people as the sharks lose their natural migratory habits and become more reliable on humans for food. I also didn’t like how crowded it was–there must have been a hundred people or so out on the water at once. It was pretty noisy and some people were kicking and splashing around. The only real positive thing about seeing the whale sharks in Oslob is that you’re highly likely to see them. I met people who had been to Donsol and while it’s much less crowded there it’s hit and miss. Some people got lucky and had an amazing experience, others not so lucky. But apparently its more regulated and eco-friendly in Donsol as well, something I think the people in Oslob could learn from.