After five months of travelling in South East Asia, I was finally heading over to the Philippines, ready for my first ever Whale Shark encounter. The whale shark dive is best experienced in either Philippines or Thailand. My journey began in Cebu, in Central Visayas. Many people come here to continue 115 kilometres down south, to the coastal village of Oslob, famous for swimming with whale sharks. However, I had no plans to travel to Oslob. Let me tell you why.
Donsol vs Oslob
Being the world’s largest fish, the only predators of the whale shark are humans. Human activity is strongly affecting the lives of the whale sharks, and some say there’s only a few thousand of them are left in the world (This article highlights the big problem
). The waters off the coast of Oslob are sometimes called a zoo. Not very surprising when you learn that this small fishing village had 110,000 tourists visiting in 2014, making whale shark tours in Oslob a two million dollar industry. Tourist offices and local fishermen have received massive criticism due to the fact that they feed the whale sharks from their outrigger boats.
Whale Sharks Feeding in Oslob. Pic Credits
The problem is that the whale sharks lose their natural habitat which puts the whole species at risk. The natural season for whale sharks in Oslob is only 60 days per year, spreading from November to May, and after that period of time, the whale sharks normally follow the seasonal paths of plankton. Because of the human feeding going on, some whale sharks never leave the waters of Oslob, disrupting their whole ecosystem and threatening their survival. Therefore, I decided to travel to Donsol - known for its eco-friendly swimming with whale sharks. Donsol is a small and really pretty coastal village close to Legazpi in the Sorsogon province of Philippines. From Cebu, I took a 14-hour (yes!) ferry to Masbate from where another ferry slowly delivered me to Pilar. Despite the long haul, the 30-minute tuk-tuk ride from Pilar to Donsol was all it took for me to fall in love with Donsol. So green and lush and people smiling everywhere! The view of the Mayon Volcano was nothing but extraordinary and the sunset that greeted me upon my arrival was truly magnificent.
As beautiful as Donsol might be, what happens underneath the surface in Donsol Bay is the biggest attraction. No doubt there are violations of the guidelines from time to time in Donsol too but the municipality here is making huge efforts in eco-tourism and they have a good reputation when it comes to respecting the natural habits of the whale sharks (This case study by WWF-Philippines
discusses in-depth Donsol's whale shark tourism).
Swimming with Whale Sharks in Donsol Bay
The day after arriving in Donsol, I visited the tourist office to check around for a chance to go swimming with whale sharks the next day. I had to fill out a whole bunch of information about myself and they sat me down to watch a video about the rules and regulations of swimming with whale sharks in Donsol Bay. On my way out I couldn’t help but stop by the big whiteboard to read through people’s whale shark experiences - "Today we saw 5 big whale sharks", someone had written on the 25th of February. There was only one day in the past month where no whale sharks were to be found in the bay. This was promising.
The town of Donsol has many idols of it's hero. Pic Credits
The next morning started at 6 o’clock. After breakfast, I walked over to the tourist office which, despite the early hour, was full of buzzing people. I could tell that everyone was really excited. So was I. Soon I was put together with a group of seven people, and our guide showed us to the boat. After thoroughly repeating all the safety instructions and the preferred whale shark encounter behaviour, the guide told us to put on our snorkelling gear. Already?!, I thought... We hadn’t even left the beach yet! The captain and his skipper started the engines and we took off. Dressed in full snorkelling gear, I relaxed in the sunshine and tried to build up a little bit of heat before diving into the cool water.
The outrigger boat with the spotter. Pic Credits
I hadn’t been sitting there for more than a few minutes when the guide screamed "Whale shark! Everyone get ready to jump in the water!". My heart actually skipped a beat and I stepped closer to the rail to see if I could spot the whale shark. The next second, the guide jumped and everyone followed him into the water. The guide quickly gathered the group and told us to follow his instructions. What happened next will forever be stuck in my mind. "Whale shark comes, look down!
", the guide shouted. I looked down through my cyclops and there, a fish the size of a London double-decker slowly passed by underneath my feet. The whale shark didn’t seem to be in a hurry, but I had a really hard time keeping up. After roughly five minutes, that felt like five seconds, the whale shark dived deeper and we couldn’t see it anymore. Everyone in the group was shouting and laughing, high on the extraordinary feelings we all felt at that moment. We quickly returned to the boat and my legs were shaking as I tried to make my way back up on deck. I thought to myself, I could die happy now
, and my smile was bigger than ever.
'I had a big smile plastered across my face!' Pic Credits
The captain kept going further out in the bay and now there were five other boats out in the water, searching for the beauties. I watched the skipper as he stood on deck, looking for that big shadow that would let you know there’s one close by. It didn’t take long until the whale shark was back again and the guide told us to get ready to jump. Snorkelling gear on and soon I was back in the surprisingly cold water. This time, the whale shark let us follow for quite some time and I was blessed with a wonderful view of the beautiful creature. I was paddling with all the muscle strength I had, fighting the current, while I refused to take my eyes off the whale shark. I was amazed by its gracefulness and elegance. Like the queen of the ocean.
The London Double-Decker bus underwater! Pic Credits
The whale shark came back one more time after that but didn’t stay with us for very long. We spent roughly another hour in the bay, searching for them, without any success. It didn’t really matter. I couldn’t have been happier! We were lucky to be able to go swimming with whale sharks, a one-of-a-kind encounter. Most of all, after reading so many stories about the negative effects of human impact, I was so happy to have seen them in their true habitat - free, out in the ocean, with no guarantees at all. This day, I felt truly blessed.
Fun Facts about the Whale Sharks
- The London double-decker is roughly 36 feet, 11 metres, long and weighs 13 tons. A full grown whale shark is approximately 40 feet long, just over 12 metres, and weighs about 20 tons.
- As you can see in the pictures, whale sharks have beautiful white spots around their gills. The spots have the same function as a human fingerprint. The pattern of spots is totally unique on each whale shark.
- Whale sharks are filter-feeders and use a technique called cross-flow filtration. The whale sharks swim with its two-meter wide mouth fully open, filtering all the goodness that comes in its way.
- Whale sharks don’t like cold water and are therefore to be found between latitudes 30°N and 35°S, close to the equator.
- Whale sharks start to produce offspring after the age of 30.
- Whale sharks can live for as long as 70 years.
- The first whale shark was discovered in 1828. However, it’s believed to originate from the Jurassic and Cretaceous period approximately 250 million years ago.
- Whale sharks migrate great distances following the seasonal paths of plankton. Once a tagged whale shark swam from the Philippines to Taiwan.
The Donsol Experience
Sunset by the Donsol river. Pic Credits
- The whale shark season stretches from December to May, peaking in February, thanks to nutrient water flooding out of the Donsol river.
- Only snorkelling is allowed in Donsol Bay. This is usually for safety reasons as one cannot have both divers and snorkelling boats in the same area moving around. There are designated diving spots.
- Good swimming skills are preferred, however, life vests are available.
- If you don’t have your own snorkelling gear - No worries, it’s usually included in the price.
- There is a maximum of seven people allowed on each boat, and one single boat is not allowed to swim with a whale shark for more than ten minutes.
- There can be a maximum of ten tour boats in the bay at once
- You are not allowed to swim in front, swim too close or touch the whale shark. You are not allowed to dive down and disturb the whale shark. No sunscreen allowed.
- The price for a boat is 3500 pesos (~70 USD) which implies that if you are seven people on the boat (maximum) you pay 500 pesos each (~10 USD). Tourist fee and registration fee applies.
The Oslob Controversy
- Whale sharks are being fed by fishermen. The natural season for whale sharks in Oslob is only 60 days per year but some whale sharks stay for the whole year. If the whale sharks don’t leave Oslob as they are supposed to, migratory patterns and breeding might be affected for a very long time.
- Whale sharks are protected under the Philippine Republic Act 9147 concerning conservation and protection of wildlife which states that it’s illegal to interact with, and harass whale sharks.
- Studies have shown that the whale sharks in Oslob encounter boats instead of avoiding them. They associate boats with food. This can be very dangerous for the whale sharks if they approach shark fising boats outside of the Oslob territory.
- Many whale sharks have scars from swimming too close to the outrigger boats.
- There are other risks with feeding whale sharks since they are very sensitive to infections. Fishermen might have bacteria on their skin that the whale shark might react to.
Hard Facts about the Whale Shark Industry
One part of the problem is whale sharks getting stuck in fishing nets or losing their habitat due to marine pollution and disturbance from tourism activities. All of these things are messing with the healthy ecosystems the whale sharks need in order to live and breed. The other part is where human activity endangers the whole species by shark finning, meaning that whale sharks are captured and their fins cut off (used in medicine and served as a delicacy in some restaurants). National Geographic went on an expedition in 2014
and found at least one factory in China that killed approximately 600 whale sharks on a yearly basis. Whale sharks are considered the most precious shark and thus a single fin can be sold for more than $10,000! Header picture by Steve
Have you swum with these magnificent beasts before? Where would YOU go swimming with whale sharks
? Oslob or Donsol? Share your thoughts in the comments below!