Getting up-close and personal with whale sharks is a bucket list worthy experience for many. But the reality of getting that money shot of whale sharks in Oslob, Philippines may not be quite as picture perfect.
Photo credit: @jonasandtorv via Instagram
A short distance from shore, feeder boats pour heaps of frozen shrimp into the waiting mouths of whale sharks. Every handful of shrimp dumped is a calculated move to get the whale sharks to swim up and down the row of captivated audiences waiting in boats. It almost reminds you of a scene from… a circus?
Although you’re swimming in open water, the number of people jostling around to get closer to the whale sharks might make you feel like you’re actually at the ringside of a famous show — Lunch Time with the Whale Sharks of Oslob.
You probably know by now that swimming with whale sharks is one of the top things to do in Cebu. The best part is, these whale sharks in Oslob can be spotted all year round. But does anything about this sound fishy to you?
The Problem with Feeding the Whale Sharks
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“There’s no such thing as a free lunch in this world.” Sure, the whale sharks have full tummies at the end of the day, but who is really benefiting from all this?
Activists are up in arms about this activity for a number of reasons. For one, consistently feeding animals in the wild is bound to impact their natural behaviour.
1) Nutrition Deficiency
While I wouldn’t normally question the nutritional information of one free lunch, we’re talking about an annual supply! Whale sharks are omnivores, and their usual feed consists of algae, plankton, and a variety of small sea animals.
The shrimp used in the daily feed doesn’t provide enough nutrition, and satiates the sharks to the point of not searching for alternatives. If your entire annual diet consisted solely of chicken, it would probably lead to some severe nutrition deficiencies in the long run too!
2) Disrupted Migratory Habits
Whale sharks don’t usually stay in one place for long, but because of the constant food supply, many of the whale sharks in Oslob have become permanent residents. This might lead to long term dependency on the Oslob food source — which might not pose a problem now that demand is booming. However, it could potentially render them unable to survive on their own should tourism here die down one day.
Disrupting their migratory habits also might potentially affect their breeding cycle, which is a big problem considering that whale sharks are an endangered species.
3) Accustomisation to Humans
Despite repeated “No touching the whale sharks!”, not every tourist heeds these warnings — especially when over twenty people are focused on getting pictures with one shark.
Prolonged interaction with humans and boats have desensitised the sharks. Further out in the ocean, some whale sharks have been reported to mistake other boats for food sources but instead, were cut by the propeller blades of boats. Some of these boats could even be illegal poaching boats, making them easy targets for poaching.
The injuries tracked so far have not been fatal, but since whale shark bodies sink to the bottom of the ocean when they die, the estimated number of injuries and deaths could in fact be much higher.
Should We All Avoid the Whale Sharks in Oslob?
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The short answer is, no.
Totally boycotting the whale sharks in Oslob could pose problems worse than the issues mentioned above.
Before swimming with whale sharks became a tourist activity in Oslob, the fishermen here used to hunt and sell their meat. This is because whale sharks used to be treated as pests that ate their catch.
Turning the whale sharks into a tourist attraction gave the fishermen an alternative source of income. It also incentivised them to take better care of the whale sharks, as healthy, unharmed whale sharks meant more happy tourists! This is what led to the implementation of rules such as “no wearing sunblock” and “no touching, riding or chasing the whale sharks”.
Photo credit: @cebudronepilot via Instagram
Even though the current practices of Oslob may not be what’s best for the whale sharks, it’s a better alternative to the risk of being hunted and sold for their meat.
With the whale sharks around, the citizens of Oslob benefit too. Besides the fishermen’s heavily increased profits, other businesses like F&B and accommodations have also prospered with the influx of tourists.
The people now work less gruelling hours while providing more for their family. Many fishermen can afford to send their children to university. How does one determine the value of education and people’s livelihoods as compared to the wellbeing of the whale sharks?
On the environmental side, fish and coral have also flourished. There used to be overfishing in Oslob as it was the only source of income for fishermen. Now with the focus on whale sharks, the fish population has been given a chance to breathe. A balance to the ecosystem is slowly being restored.
How Does Oslob Compare to Whale Shark Encounters Around the World?
1) Churaumi Aquarium, Okinawa, Japan
My first up-close encounter with a whale shark was in Churaumi Aquarium, Japan. It has one of the largest tanks worldwide, and is one of the few aquariums to successfully keep whale sharks in captivity.
I was in awe, seeing two gigantic whale sharks so up close.
As they gulped down the krill being poured into their mouths, a captive audience watched and scrambled to take videos for their loved ones back home. The scene was strikingly similar to what I imagined the whale sharks in Oslob to look like, even though the ones in Oslob had a choice, while the ones in the tank did not.
As they continued swimming in circles, I realised, no matter how big a tank is, it would never be as big as the ocean.
The aquarium whale sharks may be safe from poaching, but even Bubble Boy wanted to escape the bubble that protected him from the world. Swimming to different parts of the ocean in search of the latest plankton blooms, and finding mates, are all experiences not found in captivity.
Photo credit: @okinawameegle via Instagram
An alternative experience in Okinawa, this whale shark cage lets you swim alongside the whale sharks. These whale sharks are “accidentally” caught by fishermen, and kept in a net-cage for research before being released back into the wild.
In a research paper released on whale sharks in captivity (both in the sea cages and the aquarium), there were instances where the whale shark died. Owing to their large size, whale sharks usually need a large amount of food.
However, due to bad weather, the cage shark that died was not fed for up to six days per month. The eventual cause of death wasn’t mentioned, however the cage greatly limits their abilities to fend for themselves.
Other than research, it seems to serve a different purpose too.
Some dive shops in Okinawa offer options to snorkel outside, or dive with the whale sharks inside the net. As a precaution, only certified divers with recent experience are allowed to swim beside the whale sharks from the inside of the net. Although reviews mention that the rules “do not touch” aren’t strictly observed here.
Like in Philippines where locals disagree on how to treat the whale sharks, Okinawa too, faces these problems. One dive shop specifically states they don’t support keeping the whale sharks in a net. They discourage it as it goes against everything divers are taught, such as respecting marine life in their natural habitat.
Experiences like this make Oslob’s Whale Sharks experience look a lot more palatable. At least there, they still have the freedom to come and go as they please. In contrast, the ones in Okinawa are purposely cramped together in the cage, in order to maximise chances of the divers getting up close.
Since they’re fed by divers who can only carry down limited amounts of food, their sustenance isn’t nearly close enough to what their normal portions would be like.
It also seems pretty fishy that there is a never ending supply of accidentally caught whale sharks to show off to tourists. At least in Oslob, it is clear that they are feeding the whale sharks for tourism purposes, and not under the pretext of preventing them from starving.
3) Ningaloo Reef, Exmouth, Western Australia
We had the chance to swim with whale sharks at Ningaloo Reef last year and this is possibly one of the most guilt-free ways to encounter them. Unlike the experiences mentioned above, the whale sharks spotted on this tour are absolutely wild.
You ride out on a cruiser that gets intel from a spotter plane, so chances of spotting them are pretty high even though they’re out free-roaming in nature!
A price tag of almost S$400 may sound steep, but what you’re paying for isn’t just the chance to see truly wild whale sharks. You’re paying for them to continue being that way. It doesn’t hurt that you get to spend the whole day with them, and around seven different dives to meet them.
Since it isn’t a contrived meeting, you get to savour the thrill of successfully spotting one. To put things into perspective, spotting whale sharks in the Philippines is like visiting a zoo whereas this is like hunting for animals in a safari, in their most natural habitat.
4) South Ari Atoll, Maldives
Photo credit: @jakemasondiving via Instagram
Due to their migratory habits, whale sharks are usually seasonal. However at South Ari Atoll, they can be spotted almost all year round — without being fed by humans. We have the lush plankton bloom found in the area to thank for that!
While they don’t feed the whale sharks here, they’ve been known to shine floodlights on the sea at night. This is to emulate daytime and encourage whale sharks to surface, as they think it’s time to feed. This causes the sharks to surface less in the daytime, since their biological clocks are confused.
It’s a cycle because if they don’t surface in the day time, more people go away disappointed. The night tours then feel more pressure to show tourists what they’re expecting to see.
The effects of impacting the sharks’ behaviours and their sleep cycle by shining floodlights are not yet known. In Oslob, at least the whale sharks are still getting fed. Shining the floodlights to give tourists a higher chance of seeing the whale sharks sends the wrong message. It tells people that certain actions are okay just because they’re not directly harming the sharks.
5) Donsol, Philippines
Photo credit: Thephilippines.com
Another place to encounter whale sharks in the Philippines is Donsol (located on the other end of Cebu). The people of Donsol make a clear distinction between their practices and that of Oslob. While Oslob’s objective is profit, Donsol’s is conservation.
They make it a point not to feed the whale sharks, in order to minimise intrusion into their routines. They also have a cap of 30 boats per animal per session, to lessen stress on the whale sharks.
The downside of this is that Donsol’s waters are much murkier, with a visibility of 3-5m. This makes catching glimpses of the whale sharks here much rarer than its touristy cousin. There have been occasions when tourists have paid, only to leave dejected without seeing any whale sharks.
Some might argue that catching a glimpse at Donsol is even more precious, because you never know what to expect. Again, it depends on your priorities and personal beliefs!
Swimming With Whale Sharks Around the World
Whether you swim alongside the wild whale sharks of Australia, or get up-close and personal in Oslob, your level of satisfaction depends on your personal motivations.
If you’re environmentally conscious, you’re far more likely to get satisfaction from a trip where you know the whale sharks are well taken care of, with minimal disruptions to their routine.
Depending on the infrastructure of the country and its priorities, there are bound to be differences in each experience with the sharks.
Balancing my thoughts on whale shark experiences also meant reconciling that things weren’t as simple as good versus bad. Even if you dislike the idea of them in an enclosed space, there are merits to temporary captivity.
What Else Can Be Done?
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In moderation, I believe that it’s possible to find a compromise with minimal negative impacts for all groups. Strictly limiting the time and people that interact with the whale sharks daily is one possibility. $55 for an experience of a lifetime is pretty affordable, so raising ticket prices could also help in managing crowds.
A stronger emphasis on education about whale sharks is necessary, so more people are aware of their actions before diving in. As swimming with whale sharks increase in popularity, more people are also questioning how ethical the practices really are.
Simply banning them entirely is putting a plaster on a gaping wound without solving any issues. A governmental “watchdog” being formed to police these experiences might also help regulate their behaviour.
What are your thoughts about Whale Shark tourism in Oslob? Share them with us in the comment section below!