Oslob’s Vertical Whale Sharks

October 28-29, 2014: Even more than a month after snorkelling with whale sharks at Oslob, I’m still not really sure how I feel about the whole experience. On one hand, the local company guarantees close encounters with these gentle giants, seems to be well organized and provides employment for hundreds of people from the local area. On the other hand, it was a bit of a zoo, they’ve disturbed the migration patterns of several juvenile whale sharks by feeding them, and you don’t really get to see these spectacular creatures behaving naturally.

This may very well be the only time in my life that I ever get a chance to see whale sharks up close and personal, although I really hope to have more opportunities to do so. For that reason alone, I am grateful that I had this experience. But it’s not natural for whale sharks to be swimming head up, running the gauntlet between the boats of the fishermen that feed them, the line of boats full of tourists and the large number of tourists snorkelling in the water. And it happens over and over again all day long, every day with group after group of visitors.

Before we got our 30 minutes in the water with the whale sharks, we had to attend a briefing where they explained that it’s important not to wear sun screen in the water, not to splash, not to get within three to four metres of the whale sharks, never to touch the animals and not to use flash photography. Supposedly there are hefty fines for breaking the rules.

Once we knew what not to do, off we went to the feeding grounds in the first group of the morning, just after 6:30 am. Here they tied about half a dozen bancas together to form the outer perimeter of the gauntlet.

Each banca held anywhere from two to eight whale watchers. Some stayed and watched from the boat. Most of us got in the water. Several boatmen also joined us in the water and pointed us in the direction of each passing fish as the fishermen in smaller bancas dropped pieces of fresh tuna into the water and led the whale sharks along the row. (There was another similar group of whale watchers a bit further down the beach from us.)

It was hard to stay at least three metres away from each of the passing whale sharks. I reckon there were half a dozen fish that passed by us, some of them more than once, sometimes two together. Most were quite small (only four to six metres or so) but one big boy looked to be about eight or nine metres long. These are juveniles and teenagers.

By the time our 30 minutes was up, I had had enough of the spectacle. I can’t fault the operators or the crew for any of their actions, they really do seem to respect the whale sharks. It was fun. I was suitably impressed by even these young, small whale sharks. But I often found myself sitting back and watching the whole scene play out in front of me, wondering what the future holds for these impressive beasts.

Whale sharks are slow moving, filter feeding fish that usually eat plankton and krill and migrate to follow their food supplies. They’re regularly spotted in the Dongsol area of the Philippines around March and April. They live to about 70 years and can reach up to 12-14 metres in length when fully grown.

Additional photos by Tara.

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4 responses to “Oslob’s Vertical Whale Sharks

  1. It was my dream to see a whale shark, and ….. this was definitely less thrilling than I’d hoped. It’s not quite a zoo, but guaranteed sightings aren’t far off.
    I hadn’t realised they were feeding the fish an unnatural diet. Huh. Not great.
    But here’s another viewpoint:
    Conservation needs to increase in The Philippines. This absolutely entices locals to come, see these incredible animals for themselves, get out of the cities and cars, and appreciate that the seas provide more than food and a trash can. It had clear economic effects on the local town, and in a country with widespread poverty, this is also critically important.
    I’d say having whale shark viewing is very, very similar in pro’s and con’s as for any zoo. Conservation education and economic effects are very important. It’s not perfect. It’s not ideal, but I felt the balance was positive at this time.

    • Agreed. I didn’t mean zoo in the literal sense (ie cages), more in the “what a zoo” sense. I did read somewhere that whale sharks have been filmed by NGeo feeding on small fish, so it’s probably not a totally unnatural diet, just not as well rounded as it could be. Anyway, glad I got to see them with you!

    • All the bancas we saw were human powered with paddles, so maybe they’ve made changes or the injury was sustained elsewhere. We had similar problems with boat-friendly Orca whales in Canada.

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