November 24, 2015
We took a day trip from Moalboal to Oslob on the south-eastern tip of Cebu Island, about 30 minutes north of Liloan. This obscure, sleepy seaside town was put on the map when the UK’s Daily Mail published an article in 2011 about fishermen riding on the back of whale sharks and feeding them by hand. This caused a sensation internationally, and a few businessmen took advantage of this publicity and employed a group of fishermen to feed the whale sharks with the intention of keeping them in Oslob for as long as possible. Almost overnight Oslob was transformed into a busy tourist attraction, and the serenity of the past was thoroughly shattered in the process, replaced by tour buses and several dive resorts.
We left Moalboal at 6am. Cebu Island was mainly undeveloped outside of several small urban areas – we passed by wooden shacks, free range chickens and unsupervised kids playing curbside. At 7:30 our car made a right turn and pulled into a gravel lot next to the shore. Some people congregated on a small pier waiting to get on the boats. Whenever one was filled to its capacity of around ten passengers, it sailed out to the shallow sea where fishermen were feeding the whale sharks.
You could choose to either snorkel or dive – our dive shop charged ₱6,100 and ₱7,300, including transport from Moalboal, respectively. We chose to do both (₱7,300 plus a little additional fee) and we began with snorkeling. Our boat was filled with snorkelers; there were around forty in total. Once in the murky water filled with bits of brine shrimps, I immediately felt besieged from all directions; up top were boats and paddles, and my fellow snorkelers to my left and right. When I finally settled down a giant black object swan straight towards me. I quickly ducked to my right and an 8m long whale shark and its 1.5m mouth just missed me by a few centimetres. Just as I was making sense of what just happened, the whale shark made a U-turn and charged towards me again. Another two were looming in the background. In this frenzy everyone was attempting to avoid each other and the boats while concentrating on the whereabouts of the whale sharks without colliding with them.
A short break later we began our dive a few metres from the shore. The sandbar was around 10m deep and we headed northeast for five minutes until we reached the boats. Excluding my buddy, myself and our divemaster there were only three other divers. Even though we were back at the same spot the experience was entirely different – similar to finding a seat in the back of a cinema after watching half a movie on the very first row and at last being able to see the whole screen. A short while ago we were active participants to the chaos on the surface but now we had taken a back seat and observing the action from afar.
Three whale sharks were in a vertical position with their heads above the water. Much to my surprise a 10m long one was disinterested in food and was continuously circling at a depth of 5m. Along with the other divers I stayed at 7 metres for the next half hour shooting photos and videos of this gentle giant. With higher visibility, better maneuverability and much less people, unequivocally the diving experience was superior to snorkeling.
Seeing whale shark up close is an amazing experience, but clearly this entire enterprise is not sustainable. This practice of feeding impacts the whale sharks in a myriad of ways; adapting to an unnatural vertical stance to keep their heads constantly at the surface level; physical injuries from bumping into tourists and boats; an incomplete diet that now consists of solely brine shrimps; an alteration of migration path and a decline in survival ability in the wild.
It is possible to see these gentle giants in the wild without the assistance of feeding, but that’s always a crapshoot. Most people I met in Oslob were fully aware of the negative impact of our collective presence, yet all of us couldn’t wait to get into the water to see the whale sharks up close. The result was one of the most exhilarating and guilt-ridden experiences I ever had while traveling.