Whale sharks are the largest fish on this planet. They can grow up to 50 or more feet and weigh up to 20 or more tons! They are sharks not whales. They belong to a group called Chondryichtyes (pronounce that!), which includes rays and skates. These kinds of fish have skeletons made entirely of cartilage instead of bone. The name “whale” was given to them because of their massive size.
Whale sharks are filter feeders and feed mostly on plankton and krill (yay, not humans!).
They dwell in tropical warm waters. Despite its size, whale sharks are known as the gentle giants of the deep. Hence, swimming with them has become a widely adopted eco-tourism activity in the Philippines.
When we went to the Philippines in 2011 for my brother’s wedding, the whale shark swimming in Oslob, Cebu has just started gaining popularity. Donsol, another region in the northern part of the Philippines was originally the sole whale shark watching area in the country. They call them butandings there.
In Oslob, whale sharks are locally known as tuki. They have been around in these waters for years but in the past, they were slaughtered in numbers by the locals and have been valued for their meat.
There have been several controversies and issues involving this activity in Oslob because the fishermen are feeding them hence disrupting their normal feeding habits/patterns.
Because I am no expert in this area, I will stay away from giving opinions and simply focus on the experience itself. I have found a link which talks about this topic, dealing with it more in depth.
TIP: Leave the city early in the morning. From the bus terminal, the trip takes about 3 hrs. If by private vehicle, it may even be faster.
We got there around 7 in the morning. The waters were calm and there were not that many tourists yet. Swimming is allowed from 6 am to 12 noon.
After a brief orientation, we proceeded to meet our boatmen, one to paddle and one to assist. Life vests are mandatory while on the banca (traditional outrigger boat). There are snorkels and underwater cameras for rent. Flippers are free.
In addition to these guidelines posted, swimmers are not allowed to use sunblock/sunscreen and your time in the water is only limited to 30 minutes.
TIP: Bring your own snorkels, obviously, for hygienic purposes.
We were all together in one banca, our little family of four, my dad and mom, and my husband and I. As our boatman paddled, the smell of shrimp instantly hit my nostrils and I noticed that the waters were crystal clear you can see the bottom of the ocean. And then I saw my first tuki. It’s head skimming the surface while a designated fisherman was feeding it. We were just a couple of meters away from the shore!
My husband couldn’t wait to jump in. He was so excited!
It was so amazing seeing these animals up close. Scary at the same time seeing their bodies and knowing that their tails could hit you anytime! I made it a point to watch those tails.
Later towards the end, my mom was telling me that a whale shark was right behind me with its mouth open as it was feeding and that she was yelling for me to watch out. Good thing I didn’t hear otherwise I would have panicked.
From that experience, I could see at least five whale sharks nearby. There are reportedly 109 identified. I hope that no one takes advantage of these gentle creatures and that their guardians, the fishermen of Oslob would continue to protect them. Because in doing so, they are protecting their livelihoods too.
I didn’t have any regrets purchasing an underwater camera. The second boatman? He was an excellent cameraman too!
This was the best 30 minutes of our Philippine vacation! We didn’t even get sunburned because it was early in the morning and we were out in the sun for only half an hour. Would I do this again? I certainly would!