The incredible whale shark is the largest fish in the ocean and is a gentle filter feeder, posing no threat to humans.
In the Philippines, it is possible to swim with these beautiful creatures.
Before we visited the Philippines for a short holiday, a friend had told us about this unique experience.
Our hotel offered trips to Oslob to swim with whale sharks, so we excitedly booked ourselves in.
We didn’t know much about the trip before we booked and we didn’t do any research.
If we had, we would have known that some people consider the experience unethical.
This is the story of our day swimming with whale sharks.
We were staying in a small resort in Cebu, a few hours’ drive from Oslob.
We had to be awake very early as we were due to swim with the whale sharks at 7am.
As it was so early and still dark, we slept in the car on the way and arrived in Oslob after the sun had come up.
Excitedly, we got out of the car and applied some sunscreen as it was looking like another hot day!
We quickly realised that there were A LOT of people already there and some out in the water already.
First on the agenda was a safety briefing. They told us that we were forbidden to touch the whale sharks or wear sunscreen as the bacteria and chemicals could harm them.
They provided images showing that we should stay a few metres away from the creatures at all times.
I was impressed with the importance that they placed on these rules during the briefing; they really seemed to care about the well-being of the sharks.
Someone gave us a number and, after a quick cold shower to remove our fresh sunscreen, we joined the huge crowd of waiting people.
It was at this point that we realised what we had bought into.
There were multiple boats out on the water, each one packed with tourists. There was very little space on the beach as there were so many people waiting.
We heard someone calling out numbers through a megaphone and realised we were in for a long wait.
Eventually, after about an hour of waiting, we were given a snorkel and a life-jacket each. We kept waiting for the announcer to call our number.
After about another 30 minutes, it was finally our turn, and we clambered into one of the boats.
As our boat joined the others out on the water, our excitement rose again.
Not long after the boat stopped, we could see strange suction holes appearing on the surface of the water, but we couldn’t see what was making them.
Our boat guide threw some plankton off the front of the boat and told us we could enter the water.
Snorkels on, we clambered over the edge and held onto the side, before sinking below the surface.
It was incredible!
Right in front of us was a huge whale shark, unseen from the surface but magnificently floating upright next to the boat.
Being right next to a creature so huge whilst it sucked the plankton-filled water into its mouth was both terrifying and awe-inspiring.
Another whale shark appeared and they both stayed around our boat, feeding from the surface or swimming underneath us.
I was full of wonder at their beauty and their quiet, gentle movements. I felt like I wanted to swim with them forever.
Of course, our 30 minutes of swim time was over way too quickly, and we reluctantly returned to the boat.
Back on dry land, we got changed and headed back to the car park to meet our driver while happily chatting about our experience.
Is it ethical?
Although the Oslob whale sharks are clearly bringing in some much needed tourist dollars to this area, and although the experience was absolutely incredible for us, I don’t think I would do it again here.
Being so close to the whale sharks, we could see that they had many scratches on them, probably from boats and their propellers.
They are so used to being fed from these boats every day that they probably approach other boats too and end up getting injured.
Despite the serious briefing at the beginning, people were still touching these incredible creatures and putting them at risk of infection from bacteria.
I’m sure that this happens ALL THE TIME, by at least one person in each boat.
They do try to prevent this from happening, but there’s no way of actually enforcing the rule when there are so many people in the water.
Whale sharks usually feed on a mix of different types of plankton and small fish, meaning that they get many types of nutritional benefit from each.
These whale sharks are fed on one type of plankton which is bought in for the purpose, and they don’t hunt for themselves as much.
They would normally look for a healthy and balanced diet, but they are not getting that here.
Usually, whale sharks migrate over very large distances to keep up their naturally nutrient-rich diet.
As they are fed daily in Oslob, they tend to stay in this area for much longer than they usually would, which disrupts their migratory patterns.
This could also affect their breeding.
I had an amazing morning when I swam with the whale sharks, and I will never forget it, but I wish I had done some research before taking part.
I feel terrible that I put my enjoyment before the well-being of these wonderful sharks.
Since visiting Oslob, I have also realised that there are other places in the Philippines where you can dive or snorkel with whale sharks in the wild!
In future, if I ever get the chance to experience something like this again, I will do my research first to ensure that my presence is not a disturbance and that the health and well-being of the animals is the first priority.
And I highly recommend that you do the same.
Have you seen whale sharks in the wild? Would you still pay for the Oslob experience? Let me know your thoughts in the comments! 🙂
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All above images in this post are the property of lastminutewanders.com
The below image is from Canva.
Stephanie Simpson says
Wow, what an experience and really great post! I appreciated your points on the ethics of swimming with the whale sharks. I try to think about these issues, too, when I travel as I think more people need to take their actions on local wildlife into account. I would love to do something like this someday, also in a humane way. Thanks for sharing!
Yes, I wish I’d done a bit more research on the ethics of it before I went! It was an incredible experience but I would love to swim with them again in a more ethical, less touristy way.