Swimming with Whale Sharks, The Philippines

After much contemplation about animal rights and whether or not it was right to swim with the hand fed whale sharks of Oslob, we decided to just head there and judge it for ourselves. We were unlucky not to see them while in Thailand and Honduras and I wanted to see how big these gentle giants were and watch them effortlessly glide through the water. We were thinking about travelling overland to Donsil, said to have the highest population of whale sharks in the Philippines and it’s an eco friendly place to do it; their totally wild so you have to search for them as their not fed. But after doing some research online I was finding mixed reviews; people were disappointed after thinking it was an Eco place to see them but found too many boats chasing the whales there and some being fed. Not only that but the visibility was 3-4 metres so if we did see one and jump in the water likelihood is we’d blink and miss it.

We got 3 of us on one motorbike taxi and were the first people to arrive at Tan-awan (no surprise as it was 5.30am) and we just waited around till 6am when we could buy a ticket for £15. We were given a short briefing about how no one is to touch the whales and not to get any closer than 4 metres.

There were dozens of staff members all in matching blue tops who did a prayer before getting their boats ready to ferry the tourists to the Whales. We were given cheap snorkel gear and four tourists were on each boat which was paddled a mere 50m or so offshore. I couldn’t believe how close it was all happening to the land.
We gently slipped over the edge of the boat and into the dark water. It was quite eery and dark beneath us and I didn’t like it much, but boatmen were soon shouting for us to swim towards them where they were putting food into the water. Within seconds we saw this GIGANTIC whale shark coming our way. It was incredible. He opened his meter wide mouth and gallons of water flowed through and he’d keep the good bits while the water filtered through his massive gills. When their fins raised above the water you could be mistaken for thinking it was a shark.

After a minute admiring him we turned around to see another one coming right towards us, it was impossible at times to stay 4 meters away. Sadly this one was a bit of a horrible experience as we saw him sucking the water through his mouth and along with the water was a plastic bag which made me so angry and it wouldn’t surprise me if it was from the bagged food the boatmen are feeding them with.

As I quickly did a 360 degree spin I saw 5 whale sharks around us. Some were feeding at the surface, others were swimming alongside us and a more natural looking sight was the sharks gliding below us. There were shawls of fish all around too, a lot of them were basking fish with their mouths wide open.

The whale shark is the largest fish on the planet yet it’s made entirely from cartilage and no bones. Little is known about them, they’ve never been witnessed mating and a male isn’t ready to mate till he’s 30 years old, so it’s a very slow process keeping these guys at a healthy population. Each one has its own unique spotty pattern like a human finger print and this is a way of identifying them.

As we were one of the first boats out we had the ocean and whales to ourselves but could feel how much busier it got towards the end of our 30 minutes in the water. There were a lot more tourists and some were so unaware of their surroundings, I got kicked in the groin at one point and it was impossible to take photos without people in them. It was quite funny watching everyone focusing on a single whale though and taking photos, yet they were totally un-aware that another whale was swimming just 2 meters behind them.

It was certainly an unforgettable experience. But at the same time I hate that they’re only there for the food and even though their free to go when they want, and some do just fly by, eat and continue on their way, others no longer leave the area.

A couple of Germans we spoke to had chatted with a marine biologist and she explained how the whale sharks were being fed here way before the tourists arrived. In fact it was a video in 2012 of a man swimming with them that put Oslob on the tourist map. The fisherman had begun to feed them so that the whale sharks would stop eating the fish they wanted to catch…but considering they only eat plankton, small bait fish and squid I can’t imagine them taking many of the fisherman’s supply, but it’s possible.

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