Adventure DIVING diving Philippines Southeast Asia

Swimming with Whale Sharks in The Philippines – Oslob and Donsol

In this article we tell you all about our experience swimming with whale sharks in Oslob, Donsol and Ligazby and about whale shark swimming opportunities in Leyte and Tubbataha in the Philippines. Even though we had a few interactions we did not feel our whale shark searching expedition was very successful;

  • swimming with whale sharks at Oslob was a negative experience with these gentle giants being exploited for tourism, read about the experience, why it is bad for the animals and the positive spin for the community and the survival of the animals.
  • the Donsol whale shark swimming experience was much more positive from an ethical perspective. We did not have a lot of luck spending 3 days on the boat to only have a brief interaction with a whale shark.
  • Ligazby is not a common site for swimming with whale sharks we were in the water with a couple of animals here, but the water was extremely dirty

I was lucky to swim with a massive whale shark in Mozambique a couple of years ago, we were a couple of friends with our own boat on a dive trip and it was only us swimming when this amazing animal showed up! Stories of swimming with up to 10 whale sharks at a time had me hooked and was my main reason for visiting the Philippines. I ended up traveling in this country for two months with a lot to see and things to do in the Philippines.

Where to swim with whale sharks in The Philippines

More than a thousand different whale sharks have been identified in the Philippines making this the third most dense population in the world. Word got out about the unethical practices happening at Oslob casting a dark shadow over the whale shark interaction industry in the Philippines. There are however a couple of places to swim with these amazing monster around the 7 000 islands that make up the Philippines.

The best places to swim with whale sharks in The Philippines are Leyte, Tubbataha, Donsol and Oslob.

Swim with whale sharks Southern Leyte

Southern Leyte is not that well known resulting in a much more authentic experience and uncrowded waters for whale shark interactions. You will spend hours on a boat with whale shark spotters searching for animals in the bay. Places like Sogod Bay are excellent for sightings. The best time of the year is from November through May, when the animals migrate here so plan your trip around that season to increase your chances of swimming with them.

How to get there: Fly to the Daniel Z. Romualdez airport in Tacloban, from here a three-and-a-half-hour drive down to southern Leyte.

Swim with whale sharks in Tubbataha

The Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park is a protected area of the Philippines located in the middle of the Sulu Sea and is well known for some of the best diving in the world. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the best places in the country to swim with whale sharks, but is difficult to reach and you can only get here by live aboard boat. From mid-March to mid-June, the fish congregate in this remote marine park. To get here fly to Puerto Princesa International Airport and join a liveaboard.

I met Alya surfing at Luzon island, we traveled the Philippines and decided that we were going to go to different sites for whale shark watching and compare the different experience at each location. In this article I discuss our whale shark swimming in Donsol, Oslob and Ligazby.

 

Oslob whale shark watching

Oslob in Cebu was our first attempt at swimming with whale sharks in the Philippines. Whale sharks can be seen in a small barangay Tan-awan, which is 10 km away from the center town of Oslob. I knew that they were feeding the whale sharks over here and read some bad reviews, but the experience was worse than I expected. Seeing these animals in the wild is amazing and Oslob is the easiest place to see a whale shark in the wild, with guaranteed sightings.

Swimming with the whale sharks here is not an authentic nature experience and can be compared to riding an elephant in Thailand being different from seeing wild elephants on safari in Africa or stroking a drugged tiger in Thailand is not the same as seeing a tiger in the bush in India. The animals are being domesticated by being fed everyday.

We arrived early together with many local tourists for the briefing, “do not touch the whale sharks, wear an orange life jacket if you can’t swim, etc.” About 15 small boats packed with tourists rowed the 50 meters off-shore to a row of buoys to which all the boats anchored and the captains started throwing out a chum line of food for the whale sharks. We did this a while ago, but from recent reviews I believe it is just getting worse with about a thousand people per day going through here and many people in line to buy tickets at 5am.

Whale sharks Philippines
Whale Sharks Philippines being fed of a boats at Oslob.

There were 5 or 6 sharks just hanging vertically in the water, mouths open being fed krill (uyap) by the boat captains. The sharks were not swimming like they do in the wild and everybody was just hanging around these beautiful animals taking selfies, getting exited kicking each other and the sharks with a hundred people trying to smile on a photo hugging a whale shark.

whale sharks Philippines
Whale shark being fed krill from a boat. Whale sharks Philippines.

Should you swim with the whale sharks in Oslob, Cebu?

Many international marine conservation organizations have criticized the whale shark tours in Oslob describing it as a non-sustainable form of tourism. Studies have been done to prove the influence of provisioning the whale sharks on their behaviour and migration patterns. Scientists are not in agreement if this has a negative impact on the ecology of whale sharks, we discuss this in our article regarding swimming with whale sharks at Oslob.

This is definitely not eco-tourism, since eco-tourism is supposed to allow humans in the animal’s environment with minimal impact, feeding these animals and domesticating them in the process has an impact on the whale sharks.

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.
  • 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.
  • Staying in one place can influence migration and breeding patterns decreasing their chance of mating and reproducing.
  • Over fishing the Uyap to bait the whale sharks
  • Changing in behavior, the whale sharks have been shown to spend more time at the surface being fed causing stress and making them more vulnerable to disease.
whale sharks Philippines
Many tourists hanging around the whale sharks can potentially injure these animals.

There are several environmental group arguing this provisioning does not have a good impact on the migration and breeding patterns of these sharks, dive instructors at Moal Boal told me they used to see whale sharks every year, but since the feeding at Oslob started in 2011 they do not see them anymore suspecting they just hang around Oslob all year.

Should you swim with the whale sharks at Oslob? In this article focusing on Swimming with whale sharks in Oslob we give you some of the arguments defending and criticizing this activity, hopefully it will help you make your own decision.

A positive spin on this ecological nightmare that can not really be argued against is that it is good for the community creating jobs. A couple of years ago there was not much in Oslob, today there are more than 50 hotels employing a lot of people.

Whale sharks used to be hunted for their meat and fins, leading to them becoming an endangered species with a single animal being worth thousands of dollars. Today the whale shark interacting industry has over 100,000 tourists visiting the site every year. Better fed than dead is a popular argument defending the feeding of whale sharks, the industry created results in the whale sharks being worth more alive than dead, helping the sharks escape the shark finning industry. Whale sharks have been protected in The Philippines since 1998 with huge fines for killing a shark, the counter argument is that whale sharks were not being killed for fins and meat here before the tourism sector here evolved, but apparently poaching still happens with a very alive market in China.

If you’re looking for more activities to do in Cebu, Kawasan Falls is an amazing and beautiful place where you can swim in the stunning waterfalls and walk through the dense jungle.

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

Pack for a snorkeling trip

MARES STAR MASK |AEGEND FOLD AWAY |RASH VEST| ANTI-FOG|GO PRO HERO 7|MICRO FIBRE TOWEL

Mares Star Liquid Skin MaskI am kicking off the list with our personal masks, both myself and Alya dive with this low volume mask, the liquid skin silicone is very soft, we have smaller faces and the low volume mask fits perfect

  • Extreme low internal volume design
  • Patented liquid skin technology uses two different silicone types for flexibility and comfort
  • Liquid skin is 45% softer than other silicone mask skirts
  • Star mask lens & skirt shape allow for better vision and perception of distance
  • Suitable for both scuba diving and free diving
     
    Aegend soft fold away snorkel

    This awesome, soft silicone snorkel folds away easy to pack in your backpack.

    Thermo guard 0.5mm neoprene vest
  • Thin neoprene, perfect for keeping you warm when tropical diving.
  • In warm water I only dive in board shorts and rash vest.
  • essential for sun protection snorkeling
  • Anti-fog
  • nothing more annoying than a mask that fogs up

Go Pro Hero 7, best waterproof action cam on the market, we love our new Go Pro, image quality and stabilization is amazin

Microfibre towel, quick dry, a must in your backpack

Donsol whale shark watching

To attempt to see some whale sharks in the wild  Alya and I went whale sharks watching in Donsol in the Sorsogon region on South Luzon. Tourism was brought to this little fisherman village by the discovery of whale shark swimming and today it is the location of the Whale Shark Interaction Eco-Tourism Project.

Donsol is a center of sustainable whale shark tourism with feeding of the Butanding  (Whale shark in Tagalog) not allowed. There are strict rules for swimming with the whale sharks in Donsol; only 1 boat per whale shark, not more than 6 people per shark, no interactions longer than 10 minutes, Stay 4 meters away from the sharks at all times, don’t use a flash for photograph, and don’t touch the sharks.

Our whale shark swimming excursions from Donsol were great from an eco-tourism view point, but we did not really find any animals. It is easy for everything to go according to the rules if you are just driving around looking for sharks. We stayed in Donsol for about a week and went out on three whale shark swimming expeditions, extending our stay for another day after each unsuccessful attempt. During these trips there were six tourists on each boat, the whale shark interacting officer really did a great job, standing in the crow’s nest for the full three hour duration of the trip, trying to spot a whale shark.

whale sharks philippines
The whale shark interacting officers on our boat stood like this for hours scanning the ocean for sharks. There were many boats in the area, but rules were strictly adhered to and there was no feeding of the sharks. When we saw an animal after three days of searching the 30 seconds that we spent with it in the water was a great experience.

On the last day after our three hours were finished we were lucky and our officer spotted a shark on the way home. All 6  of us were in the water in seconds and had about 30 seconds swimming with this magnificent beast, before it dove to deep. I was lucky to shoot a couple of seconds of video before it disappeared into the deep; visibility was not very good at about 5 meters. There were a lot of boats trying to find whale sharks, but this excursion and the 30 successful seconds were definitely much more enjoyable than the circus we experienced at Oslob.
Rules for the protection of both the sharks and the tourists were strictly adhered to  during our expedition and the crew did an excellent job.

Whale Shark Season Donsol November to early June

Not everything is perfect at Donsol, I spoke to some tourists that had just as bad an experience here as in Oslob. Stories of 10 boats clustered around the same sighting, so up to 60 snorkelers swimming over each other, fighting to get to the whale shark to get that awesome selfie, orange life jackets and fins everywhere with many touching the sharks. Also even with a whale shark spotter seeing the sharks is difficult in windy or choppy conditions, so skippers drive zig zag to cover the area presenting a big chance of hitting a shark on the surface. They are not feeding the sharks here, unfortunately in peak season it does not really sound like eco-tourism here either.

Accommodation in Donsol

  • Budget – Donsol Aguluz Homestay, excellent home stay for a good price
  • Mid range – Vitton Resort Beautiful spot with a pool on the beach, less than a 5 minute walk to the Whale Shark Tourist Center

Ligazby whale shark watching in a rubbish dump

whale sharks ligazby
The whale shark interacting officers on our boat stood like this for hours scanning the ocean for sharks. There were many boats in the area, but rules were strictly adhered to and there was no feeding of the sharks. When we saw an animal after three days of searching the 30 seconds that we spent with it in the water was a great experience.

While we were at Donsol many whale sharks were seen in the harbor of nearby Ligazby, apparently this was very unusual. We heard that there were spur of the moment whale shark watching trips were being organized and made our way to Ligazpy by Jeepny. This is definitely the  dirtiest water I have ever swum in, not just bad visibility but so much rubbish; an ecological nightmare, you have to look at the photos to get any idea of how bad this was.

The whale sharks did not seem to mind and soon we were snorkeling with six whale sharks. The visibility was so bad that at some spots I could not see my hand in front of my face underwater. Out of a health view point, I don’t think swimming around in this harbor full of sewage and floating plastic is very good for either human or whale shark and I hope for the shark’s sake that hanging around here was a once off incident.

Whale shark watching rates 2019

  • Oslob whale shark watching rates/fees – $19 usd (1000 pesos)
  • Donsol whale shark watching rates/fees 
    • $3 (150 pesos) registration
    • $6 (300 pesos) mask, fins, snorkel rental (optional)
    • $67 (3500 pesos) boat rental, the boat can take 6 people
  • Compare this with $100-$150 in Cancun or Isla Holbox Mexico, $90 in Utila Honduras

FINAL THOUGHTS

When hundreds of people swim with whale sharks anywhere in the world surely the direct impact on these animals can only be a negative one. You have to weigh this up against the positive economic influence and the fact that they are not getting slaughtered because of their financial worth to the tourism industry.

I did not enjoy the feeding that goes on at Oslob and will not recommend anybody to go there. We hope they change to  controlled viewing only, similar to that in Donsol. Even with controlled viewing and no feeding in Donsol, there seems to be a significant impact on the animals and any impact can be seen as negative. Tighter control and regulation or stopping the inter actions seems to be the only options to stop the negative impact of viewing on interacting with these animals.

Currently South Leyte seems to be the best place to go for an authentic whale shark experience, but learning from Donsol this will probably become overcrowded and harmful to the sharks in time.

Whale shark tourism definitely benefit the human population at these sites, creating jobs and a huge inflow of cash to these areas, but I do not think it is eco-tourism anywhere, with humans having a huge impact on these animals, unfortunately not a positive one.

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2 Comments

  1. Just stumbled upon this blog from the kilimanjaro post, and so excited to see that you’re a dive instructor too! If I may ask, I know you list your occupation as a scientist, but what exactly do you do while travelling around the world?

    Also, how do you go about transporting your dive gear from place to place? Do you rent your gear or always bring all of it to locations?

    • stingynomads@gmail.com

      Hi Kasper, I used to work as a research scientist (PhD, molecular biology). I am a scuba instructor and started my travels working as instructor in a couple of places. Now I haven’t worked as a instructor or researcher in a while. We try to blog professionally. I am currently in Russia, but have dragged my dive bag all around South East Asia for a long time. I find it important to have your own gear if you work, otherwise it is not worth it. You also an instructor?

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