Conquering Cebu : The Gentle Giants of Oslob

Friday, March 11, 2016

Of the things we did during our Cebu trip, this is the destination I'm extremely passionate to talk about. Swimming with the Whale Sharks has been on my imaginary bucket list for a while. My first option was Donsol, since I first heard about it through my instructor in college; who happens to have a family-owned resort in Sorsogon. In 2009, we were already planning a trip to Donsol; but unfortunately, my instructor died a few years after due to an accident. And my plans to visit the place sort of went with him since he was the one spearheading our visit. 

Fast-forward to 2013, my boss at work tried Whale Shark watching in Oslob; and that reminded me of this item on my bucket list. Honestly, I don't want to call it a bucket list because it's NOT that. But for the sake of this blog, let's refer to it in that manner. When the boyfriend and I got together, this was one of the places we wanted to visit first. While doing my research, I found out that a lot of people are against this activity in Oslob due to several reasons; which we'll talk about further. Despite the articles online, of course a part of me still wanted to try it out and see for myself if these allegations are true. Let's find out more about these gentle giants, or as the locals call them, Tuki. 

For complete instructions on how to get to Oslob from Cebu City, I've detailed the instructions on this post. Once you get there, you will see which resorts offer the activity. Most of them have the same rates and packages. Just like my previous note, 'most' resorts offer this activity so make sure you don't settle for the first one you see. 

For the actual activity, rates for P300 for locals and P500 for foreigners. With the resort that we stayed in, our P300 included snorkel gears, transportation to and from the drop-off point and the boat ride. And as mentioned in my previous post, we decided to rent an underwater camera for P500. We brought an underwater cam with us but we weren't confident with our skills. For P500, we get our own photographer and a soft copy of all our photos. But if you have your own underwater camera, I would highly suggest not renting a camera anymore. Just have the boatman take your photos. 

After being dropped off, we were told that we had to undergo a short orientation at the briefing center on rules for interaction with the Whale sharks. When we got there, the person in charge of orientation was still working on a current batch so we had to wait for about 3 minutes before we finally got settled in. Here are the rules when interacting with the whale sharks. You can skip this if you're not a fan of text. I'll be posting an infographic towards the end of this post. 

  • All whale shark watchers must undergo orientation at the Briefing Center on the rules for interaction with whale sharks
  • No feeding of whale sharks by unauthorized personnel
  • Do not touch, ride, or chase a whale shark
  • Do not restrict normal movement or behavior of the shark
  • Do not use flash photography
  • Do not create splash when entering the water.
  • Do not wear sunscreen if you are going to enter the water.
  • Motor boats are prohibited in the area. Only paddle boats are allowed.
  • Viewing is limited to 30 minutes
  • Maintain a minimum distance of 5m from the head, 6m from the tail (this differs from the 2m from the head, and 5m from the tail stated in the ordinance),
So, given the rules, I had to take a shower since I put sunscreen before we left the resort. I also read the printed instructions over and over to make sure I don't violate anything. When we rode the boat, I immediately made friends with the rest of the group. One couple mentioned that they had a chance to visit Donsol last year, and they came to Oslob to compare the experience. 

The minute we were out of the boat, we immediately saw one whale shark feeding off of a fisherman. He was like the captain, in charge of the krill being fed to the whale sharks. The whale sharks would usually follow where the fisherman would dispense the food. It was amazing because I saw about two or three. I'm not a good swimmer so I was clinging on to the boat and would dive every now and then to look at them. The boyfriend on the other hand was able to follow them around, making sure though that he follows the required distance. I wanted to get a photo so bad, but since there were a lot of tourists that time, it was difficult to get one--which is quite apparent in the set of photos shared here. 

The boatman/photographer would push my head to the water (lol) so I would stay there. Frankly, it felt like a scene from a torture film. But since I wanted a photo so bad, I endured it. Which didn't honestly yield any good results since I look like shit in all of my photos. The boyfriend on the other hand was able to get a decent shot since he was able to follow them around; and he didn't have any problems staying underwater--unlike me. Most if not all photos on this post were taken by our boatman. 

Now, about the not-so-nice things. Even if there's a briefing before you do the actual interaction, no one checks if the tourists boarding the boat actually follow them. I also personally think there were too much boats and tourists at the time of our visit. There were probably 5-6 boats surrounding the 'feeding area'. Assuming there are about 8/pax per boat, that would amount to roughly about 30-40 people trying to swim with the gentle giants all at the same time. 

Some tourists didn't bother following the instructions once they were in the water. There was no one to 'police' them anyway. Some tourists stayed too close, some tourists even deliberately touched the whale sharks. The boat men were to busy trying to position the boats properly or helping out tourists have a glimpse of the Tuki's; which is why I wouldn't be so quick to judge them. 

Some of our photos would appear as if we're too close to the whale sharks, but I assure you, we followed the recommended distance hence the whale sharks appearing smaller than they really are. Of all the ones that we saw, the smallest one was bigger than our boat. So, with that, hopefully you can paint a mental image of how big they are. Note : Simply taking a photo with the boyfriend was a pain in itself due to the number of people--as evident in this set. 

I'm also well aware that this sanctuary has been opposed to by a lot of people for several reasons. One of which is the reason that it is not their habitat, and for these animals being migratory by nature, we should be letting them hunt for their own food and not condition them--which is what's being done in Oslob. So to feed or not to feed? Steve De Need of DPS shares this extensive analysis on the whale shark controversy.

Personally, I think swimming with the whale sharks is one of those memories that will stay with me forever.  I know it's a once in a lifetime opportunity and I'm more than lucky to have swam with them, albeit the absence of a decent photo. But I also think the government should step in and implement a fair and sustainable set of rules and regulations, not just here in Oslob but also in Donsol--so as to make sure there's a uniform process being followed all across the country. I also think the measures that are currently in place can actually be effective, if implemented properly. It would help to consult with marine biologists and environmental groups so they can come up with a sustainable way of maintaining tourism while making sure the whale sharks are not harmed. Lastly, as tourists, we should always, always practice responsible tourism. We're lucky to live in a place that offers so much of the wonders of nature. Let's make sure we don't abuse it while we still have the means and resources to enjoy them.

In a nutshell, while I did enjoy the whole experience, I don't support the practice since it's unregulated and it still has a lot of room for improvement. I believe there are several ways that we can enjoy the company of these wonderful creatures without compromising their natural habitat, their health and their migratory pattern. I'm also confident that there are several solutions in making Oslob a sustainable tourist destination because it's a beautiful place that has so much to offer. 

With that, I would like to end this post by saying that if you wish to visit, please consider these factors. There are a lot of online resources that will tell you about the impact of this activity to the whale sharks. After reading and doing your research and you still choose to go, that's ultimately still your decision. However, I would ask that you take these considerations seriously since there's a ton of other destinations in Cebu that are worth your time as well. Glad that I've managed to finally put this post out! I've been contemplating for days how I'll go about introducing the topic without sounding condescending. I'll be posting our full itinerary and total expenses at the end of this series! Happy weekend! 

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