When planning our escape to the Philippines, we did not add this activity to our list of things to do after all the controversial articles we had read about it in Oslob. However, on our way from Moalboal to Oslob where we were heading to visit Tumalog Falls the next day, we met some marine biologists who were studying the whale sharks in Talawan. They remained very diplomatic and did not say to either dive or not to dive as they have to be in peace with the locals who make a living out of this touristic activity despite the long term consequences on these outstanding sharks.
The best piece of advice we were given by the marine biologists was that if we did chose to dive with the whale sharks to at least understand what we're doing and to be aware of the consequences.
This article is not a criticism as we all have our own views on certain aspects in life, however I hope this article will raise awareness and consciousness of people thinking about swimming with whale sharks in Oslob.
The activity is sold as a unique experience to see whale sharks from close up. It costs 1,000 PHP for foreigners (or 500 PHP if you don't go in the water and stay on the boat) and 500 PHP for Filipinos. This is quite pricy in comparison to most other activities in the Philippines. We decided to go ahead as we were staying in Talawan, Oslob but when we arrived at the briefing school at 6.00 thinking we would be the first ones to arrive we couldn't believe our eyes...
There were hundreds of people already there being briefed, handed over a life jacket and being led to a small boat to only go 6m away from the shore to see the whale sharks. There were around 5-6 people per boat and we counted approximately 30 boats in the water at one time so you can do the math! In addition, there were around 9 boats of the fishermen who feed the whale sharks to attract them to the boats for the spectators to jump in and get a cool picture with the gigantic sharks.
We saw these floods of people getting on the boats and there was just more and more people arriving by the minute. I must say the scene reminded me of refugees getting in boats fleeing their countries by sea…
We could see the whale sharks from the shore coming up to breath and all the people surrounding them in the water...
We got chatting with a local who was renting Go Pros (this also goes to show the business being made out of this activity) who basically told us that for all these people (can go up to 1,800 people per day) there are around 6-8 whale sharks which seem to come and go every day. The fishermen feed them shrimps to keep them huddled in the bay so I'm assuming they're being fed one shrimp at a time as the guy said that the fishermen only go out with a small bag of shrimps per boat. Clearly this is not enough for an animal the size of a bus... This makes it even more evident that it consists of a tactic to lure the whale sharks into the bay rather than feeding them out of kindness.
He told us that people are meant to keep a certain distance from the whale sharks and not to take photos with flash (these are the main safety instructions given at the briefing) so everything was OK in his view. That being said, if you search for the Oslob Whale Shark Watching location on Instagram you will see pictures of people really close to the whale sharks and some videos where people even touch them!
As the first people started coming back to the shore (after their 30 minutes activity was up) we asked them some questions out of curiosity. The overall feedback was that it was a very short time for the money spent, that they probably wouldn't do it again unless it was to get a better picture because they didn't have the right photography gear, that some people did get extremely close to the whale sharks -touching distance- and that it's something they still recommended doing. Well from our point of view, that was enough to make us not want to do it in addition to everything else we had already witnessed. At no single moment did anyone say that they felt bad or guilty for the whale sharks or what the long term implications were for them.
We were getting more and more annoyed by this whole situation that literally felt like a circus and had to leave because it was rather heartbreaking to see these whale sharks being attracted into the bay just for people to feel as though they're doing something amazing and allowing them to get a really cool photo.
Obviously, the whale sharks are being indirectly tamed and are now unable to survive in the ocean by themselves as they're easily fed by the locals. I'm not a marine biologist so I cannot define the long-term consequences for the whale sharks but as a normal caring and respectful human being I can't see this type of activity being any good for the animals.
I understand that this brings in money for the locals (too much money all of a sudden) but as far as I'm aware, this money is not being properly reinvested, if any at all, in the area or its installations. Surely Talawan would be a ghost town if it wasn't for the whale shark diving. With the amount of money being made why is the government not ensuring that infrastructures, etc. are better?!
I'm not saying that this activity should stop completely but I do think that it needs to be properly regulated and controlled for the wellbeing of the whale sharks. For example, by starting to limit the number of people allowed to go every day. We were told that they can sometimes cancel the outing but only if the weather conditions are bad, not because it might be a bit too much for the whale sharks... Again, this is not carried out in the interest of the animals.
There are other places in the Philippines to see the whale sharks in a more natural way such as in Donsol. Donsol was not on our itinerary so we shall leave this activity for another time somewhere else in the world in a more natural environment.
If you're thinking of going whale shark diving in Oslob at least ask yourself these 3 questions and then make the decision yourself:
- If you want to see such an amazing animal do you prefer to see it in its natural habitat or in a practically artificial place with hundreds of other people?
- What's more important to you - getting a cool picture to share on social media or respecting animals' natural habitat?
- Do you really understand the reasons behind what you're doing and the long term implications of the activity you’re fomenting?
In the past years, we've become more conscious about our planet, its nature and wildlife and it's small changes in our perceptions, values and local regulations that could make a big difference. Let's protect the wonderful world we live in and its living creatures rather than do things that can have long term negative effects. I don't think that man should ever consider itself above animals and that we must learn to respect all living creatures and avoid harming them...
Do you have any experiences to share where you witnessed animal cruelty?
English and French wanderer. Based in Paris. Tasting the world through one escape to another...