Near the town Oslob on the southern tip of Cebu island in the Philippines swimming with whale sharks has become a massive attraction and booming tourism industry. The big difference between swimming with whale sharks in Oslob and many other sites in the Philippines and over the world is the provisioning of the whale sharks here. At Oslob the boatmen feed the whale sharks with shrimps, luring them to the boats for tourists to swim with. Drawing hundreds of tourists every day this draw card is very controversial. The benefits for the community is undeniable, this popular activity and huge inflow of cash lifted this coastal community out of poverty. Conservationists and animal lovers are worried about the impact that swimming with the whale sharks and feeding them will have on the world’s biggest fish. What is more important, protecting these endangered animals or creating jobs in this poor community? Does swimming affect these animals? See our article comparing Swimming with Whale Sharks at Different Locations in the Philippines.
Should you swim with the whale sharks at Oslob? Here we give you some of the arguments defending and criticizing this activity, hopefully it will help you make your own decision.
Oslob whale shark watching – The Experience
Oslob in Cebu was the first site where we went swimming with whale sharks in the Philippines. The whale shark tourism center is a small fishing village Tan-awan, which is 10 km away from the town of Oslob.
In Tan-awan local fishermen lured whale sharks away from their boats by feeding them krill. Divers discovered this and started paying the fishermen to lure the whale sharks to their boats. In 2011 photos of snorkelers with whale sharks were published in a big international newspaper and snorkeling with whale sharks in Oslob started. 177 Former fishermen in partnership with local government formed a company the Oslob Whale Sharks (OWS) and are still running whale shark tourism in this town.
The day started with a compulsory briefing that includes all the dos and don’ts of snorkeling with the sharks such as no touching the animals, snorkelers are not allowed to come closer than 3 meters (9 feet) from a shark’s head and 4 meters (13 feet) of its tail and no flash photography.
Feeding of the whale sharks happens from 6 am to 1 pm every day. We were taken to the feeding site, a shallow coral reef in about 10 meters of water just over 50 meters off shore in small outrigger canoes. About 15 canoes formed a line and started throwing krill locally called ‘uyap’ into the water. The whale sharks immediately approached our boat and tourists climbed into the water.
Snorkelers wear life jackets and no ﬁns, aiming to prevent diving towards the sharks, getting to close and touching sharks. SCUBA divers enter from the shore or come with visiting dive boats, they moor outside the interaction area.
It really is a bit chaotic with more than 50 people in the water, most with cameras and trying to get into the picture with a whale shark. I heard that they were feeding the whale sharks over here and read some bad reviews, but the experience was worse than I expected. Swimming with the whale sharks in Oslob was not an authentic nature experience and I will classify it as the same kind of tourism as riding an elephant in Thailand. The sharks were not swimming like they do in the wild they were hanging vertically in the water, being fed from the boat surrounded by tourists in orange life jackets trying to get into the photo.
There is definitely a good part.
From this section it can be seen that there is no doubt about the massive positive impact the whale shark swimming industry has on the town of Oslob, the village Tan-awan and the surrounding area. Studies also show that funds generated from whale shark tourism are channeled towards protecting the whale sharks and coral reef resources the livelihoods of this community now depend on.
The Guardian Newspaper stated that 60% of the business is owned by the fishermen and 10% by the local village of Tan-awan, 30% of the profits go to the local authority which uses the funds to employ sea wardens protecting the coast.
Research done by Lowe and Tejada through stakeholder interviews with artisanal fishers, their community, local government and politicians and the sustainable livelihoods were used in a study on the impact of the whale shark swimming industry on the lively hoods of the community. More than 750 000 people came to swim with the whale sharks generating $18.4m in ticket sales over the first 5 years. The fishers and local government are now protecting the whale sharks and coral reef resources their livelihoods depend on.
Personally I can say I did not enjoy swimming with the whale sharks in Oslob. I have encountered many amazing marine animals in the wild and will not group this experience in that category, it felt like something between an amusement park and a big zoo. I was not proud of being part of supporting the industry.
Whale sharks are currently an endangered species protected in the Philippines. There are concerns regarding the negative impact of whale shark tourism on the health, behavior and migration of the species.
Many international marine conservation organizations have criticized the whale shark tours in Oslob describing it as a non-sustainable form of tourism. Several studies published showed that residency, migration and behavior at Oslob were influenced by feeding whale sharks such as this by Thompson 2017.
The main concerns with feeding the whale sharks at Oslob are
- Malnutrition due to a lack in diversity in their diets, they only eat krill loosing out on key components in their natural diet.
- Change in Behavior – Sharks have learnt to associate boats and people with food and now actively approach them, even in the absence of food. Boat propellers can harm the sharks coming too close. Touching the sharks remove the mucous layer protecting them against infections.
- The whale sharks have been shown to spend more time at the surface being fed causing stress and making them more vulnerable to disease.
- Staying in one place can influence migration and breeding patterns decreasing their chance of mating and reproducing
Studies have also shown that the intense whale shark tourism leads to degradation of the coral reefs. This destruction of the reef is terrible, but according to the World Economic Forum turning away from fishing to whale shark tourism as source of income results in a decrease in Illegal and destructive fishing, involving dynamite, cyanide, fish traps and drift gill nets protecting the reef and other species
But is it that Bad?
In a recent review of studies that claim a negative impact of this
industry on the ecology of whale sharks, Dr Mark Meekan from the Australian Institute of Marine Science based in Perth showed that these studies are characterised by a lack of baselines, limited methodological approaches and poor interpretation of results.
Influence on migration
- Dr Meekan pointed out that studies showed the sharks in neighboring Donsol stay resident there for even longer periods of time even though there is no feeding to keep them there.
- A very small group of sharks stayed resident in Oslob, the study showing residency showed only 9 of 208 sharks stayed in Oslob for longer periods of time.
Change in Behaviour
He also said that there is no proof that feeding the sharks leads to a change in behavior such as vertical swimming and approaching boats. Since this behaviour also happens at sites where there is no provisioning of the whale sharks.
In conclusion this review said there is no scientific evidence that provisioning at Oslob harms whale sharks.
Whether there is scientific proof that this practice is harmful to the whale sharks or not, this is definitely not eco-tourism. Eco-tourism is supposed to allow humans in the animal’s environment with minimal impact, feeding these animals and domesticating them in the process with more than 90% of tourists not adhering to the rules given at the briefing is definitely not minimal impact.
Most People Just Don’t Care
Many studies, blog posts and articles have been published criticizing whale shark tourism in Oslob. In a study done by Ziegler et al. (2018 ) it was shown that tourists were aware of the potential negative impact but still went ahead swimming with the whale sharks, many enjoyed it is classified as a ‘guilty pleasure’. Doing something bad even though you know what you are doing because you enjoy it.
The opinion of Dr Meekan, a fish ecologist with 25 years of experience, in reviewing the studies done is ‘As there is no evidence that provisioning negatively affects the ecology of whale sharks at Oslob, the central claim of the work by Ziegler et al. (2018) that tourists visiting the site should feel guilty about enjoying their experience is not grounded in reality. Furthermore, the argument that local communities are only motivated by money and are acting unethically by pursuing this industry is entirely unfounded and an unjustified slur on their reputations.’
Even though evidence about how bad this is for the sharks is not conclusive, I will not swim with the whale sharks here again or recommend it. After experiencing the whale shark circus swimming with whale sharks in Oslob, it is difficult for me to believe it does not have a negative impact on the sharks.
Is it just because of the feeding?
If the feeding does not change the behaviour of the whale sharks in Oslob, I do not know if the animals at other popular whale shark watching sites are much better off.
We also swam with the whale sharks at Donsol, 390 km away. Here there is no feeding of the whale sharks, boats cruise around the massive bay searching for whale sharks, rules are only one boat per whale shark. Meaning there would be 1 whale shark 6 tourists and 1 guide (BIO). Tourists must stay 3m from the whale shark. We spent 3 days on a boat cruising through the bay without seeing a whale shark, but the boats were in constant contact. We saw one whale shark on the way home, at the end of our last day. I jumped in immediately and had a couple of seconds with the animal before it dived to deep. A couple of other boats immediately arrived, but just to late.
Based on how quick other boats arrived when we spotted one shark and on many reviews telling stories of up to 8 boats arriving with more than 40 people around a single shark, getting very close to the animal, it does not sound like the animals are better off at this site with no feeding than at Oslob.
Swimming with whale sharks at sites with less people such as Leyte seems to be a more authentic experience. The amount of people swimming with the whale sharks at Oslob seems to be at least as big a problem as the feeding of the animals. Drastically limiting the amount of people in the water and much tighter regulation of snorkelers sounds like a great place to start to protect the animals without destroying the industry feeding the community.
Accommodation in Oslob
- Budget – La Lune Oslob Hostel Situated in Oslob, friendly owners, good ratings dormitory for a bargain. quick bus ride from Tanawan
- Mid range – Susada’s Inn Located in Tanawan, perfect location for whale shark watching in Oslob just a few minutes walk. New, clean, good hosts, great ratings.
- Gingging hotel and resort is located in Oslob and features a terrace and a bar. 3-star hotel, well price
Going on a Dive Trip? – Dive Trip Packing List
More South East Asia Diving by Stingy Nomads
My two favorite dive spots in South East Asia is Sipadan in Malaysia and Komodo National Park around Flores island in Indonesia. Malaysia has a couple of other nice spots, we have been to the Diving Perhentian more than once for some great diving, but nowhere in the world will you find the diversity and amount of world class dive sites like Indonesia, see the Best dive sites around Indonesia. Bali is the most popular holiday and surf places and also has some good diving Dive Nusa Penida is great for diving with mantas, Bali also has some good muck diving.
Sulawesi is a big island with a variety of amazing diving. In the north Lembeh strait is known for some of the best muck diving in the world, in the south Bira has some good diving and Wakatobi has some spectacular creatures to see, in mid Sulawesi the Togian Islands is an unreal hidden paradise to explore. Indonesia has a lot more than diving to offer, see 17 Awesome places in Indonesia. If you are not a qualified diver or want to do more dive training Koh Tao in Thailand and the Perhentian islands in Malaysia is great places to go.
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The strong half of Stingy Nomads, a nomadic aquaman that would be happy to spend all his life in the water diving, surfing and spearfishing but often has to compromise with Alya and go hiking instead. Campbell is responsible for all our marine adventures and following them with write-ups. He loves traveling, braai (BBQ in South Africa), red wine and spending the day in a wetsuit.