Swimming with whale sharks in Oslob is a tail-in-your-face experience. Literally.
Quite a precarious business, too. And it’s not because a dozen hungry whale sharks can’t keep their flukes to themselves.
The gentle spotted giants don’t see very well and they have just one thing in mind: to chase handfuls of tiny shrimps that local feeders toss from their canoes. Up and down the heaving waters the whale sharks follow the feeders’ trail, wide mouths agape, through a tangle of paddle boats packed with tourists, sucking up the krill.
Thousands of people pay P500 each for half an hour to watch the huge fish pursue their free lunch. So, expect to be buffeted by the wakes of many boats while keeping an eye on the sharks, frenzied snorkelers and scuba divers.
Another eye you have to keep on a forest of clattering outriggers above your head to avoid getting brained.
Out there, it can be exhilarating but crowded indeed.
Count yourself lucky, nonetheless. Oslob, Cebu is one of the few places in the Philippines where whale shark (Rhincodon Typus) sightings are guaranteed. The others are Donsol, Sorsogon and Pintuyan, Southern Leyte.
The difference is, in the last two, the boats chase the sharks. In Oslob, sharks chase the boats.
Either way, it’s exhilarating to be in the waters with the world’s largest fish – harmless filter feeders who consume plankton – the smallest creatures on earth – krill, fish and coral eggs and sperm, marine worms, crab larvae and small squids.
Bicolanos call them “Butanding”. “Buta” means blind – they have poor eyesight. “Ding” means big people. They can grow up to 60 feet long and weigh 100,000 pounds.
Cebuanos call them “Tuki”, “Tiki-Tiki”, or “Tawiki”.
They roam from Australia, Mexico, India, Qatar, Maldives, Seychelles to Mozambique and go by many names. The Vietnamese regard them as deities and call them “Lord Fish”. Latin Americans refer to them as “Domino” for their checkerboard spots.
Whale sharks can live long, 70- 100 years, but only start reproducing at age 30. Little else is known about them aside from their “near-extinction-to-tourist-attraction” story.
For more than a century, fisherman hunted these gentle giants for their fins and meat. In the 1990’s alone, locals slaughtered a thousand whale sharks in the Bohol Sea. After the government banned their killing, researchers identified 800 surviving whale sharks from their unique pattern of spots and stripes.
Over 200 of the whale sharks identified, roughly one fourth of the country’s total population, are in Oslob. Researches monitored individuals in the area for two years and discovered just 19 females, the rest being juvenile males, averaging 18 feet in length. The biggest whaleshark, one of four mature males, “Number 7”, they call him, measures 30 feet long.
While the sharks have been visiting Oslob for generations, the locals never knew how to interact with them. Fishermen either hunt the babies for food and regard them as prey or drive them away as pests. Locals bait their hooks and lines with small shrimps or krill (“uyap”) and often find whale sharks stealing the bait. They pelt the giant fish with rocks or whack them with paddles to drive them off – until they discovered they can be lured away with handfuls of krill.
In 2011, a Korean diver asked a local to feed a whale shark so he can film it. Word got around fast and people started coming to see the Lord Fish. When foreign media got wind of it, tourism exploded. Soon, locals earned more cash from ecotourism than from fishing. They organized themselves into a cooperative and the local government got into the act as well.
At the start, no rules governed the shark feeding, making the encounters dangerous for both men and sharks. The guidelines, schedule of fees and mandatory briefings came later, in 2013.
Todate, 200 local fishermen use their wooden paddleboats for whale shark encounters from 6 AM to 12 noon, every day, all year round. Each thirty-minute session costs P500 per passenger. Half of the fees go to the boatman; 20 per cent, to the barangay; 10 per cent, to the municipal government and 10 per cent, to the provincial government.
On the beach opposite the interaction area, they built a concrete pavilion where guests get a briefing before going to the boats. Locals instruct guests not touch or approach the whale sharks. If you’re caught petting the fish, you pay a P2,500 fine.
Snorkelers and divers should keep a distance of five feet around the shark and stay away from its tail.
Well, the shark’s strongest muscle is in its tail. If startled, it can slap you with its fluke. And although many of the sharks coming out to be fed are juveniles, they’re almost as big as the boats. The few adults – I’ve actually seen one lurking under our hull – are the size of two school buses. Startle one leviathan and it’s like being slammed with a ten-ton mallet.
You can take photos for as long as you don’t use flash. Light is disruptive to the sharks. And you can’t put on sunblock. It contaminates the water.
So far, everyone seems happy. Our boatman says he earns P200 a day just guiding guests, working from morning till noon, on top of what he earns from using his own boat. With seven of us in a boat load, that’s easily P3,500 for half an hour, excluding tips. But the fishermen’s cooperative takes ten per cent of his earnings and he still needs to buy the krill for the sharks.
The feeding is the most controversial aspect of the wildlife encounter in Oslob.
Whale sharks are migratory because they follow their food – the plankton blooms, traveling thousands of kilometers each year, staying for less than a month in each stop. But because humans are feeding them, some whale sharks like Mr. Bean, stayed in Oslob for over one and a half years.
Before fishermen started provisioning, the whale shark season lasted two months, at most. Now, Oslob has sharks all year round.
Clearly, a dozen or so whale sharks forsake their migration because of the year-round food supply. Problem is: Are they getting the kind and quantity of food they need? Will staying in one place rob them of the ability to breed?
If non-migration impairs their breeding cycle, we endanger the survival of this entire vulnerable species, considering they mature slowly and reproduce late in their lives.
Also, if they are underfed and undernourished, they won’t live long or breed.
In the wild, a juvenile 18-foot whale shark, like most of those found in Oslob, spend at least eight hours a day feeding and consume about 46 pounds of plankton. They gulp mouthfuls of water in their five-foot wide mouths, forcing it past their gill rakers to filter over 1,500 gallons of water per hour.
The feedings in Oslob are supposed to be supplemental. To encourage the sharks to forage on their own, fisherman only dole out 10 per cent of their daily dietary requirement – 100 pounds to over 300 pounds of krill, depending on the number of sharks and tourists present. But there’s always the danger the sharks will become totally dependent on the feedings. Already, some hang out in the interaction area all day.
Also, the natural plankton in Oslob consists of 12 different types of organisms but when this runs out, fishermen import plankton from IloIlo and Bacolod, 400 kilometers away. Imported plankton loses nutritional value due to storage and transportation, aside from containing barely half the variety of organisms the sharks usually eat.
Yet nobody says no to handouts.
During my time in the water, at least five sharks circled the interaction area. And some are quite brash.
I’ve seen other shark species feed in the wild – great whites, specifically. They showed good table manners, eating in the order of their size. The biggest sharks eat first.
Here, I was surprised to see a whale shark cut in front of another who’s being fed. And the interloper wasn’t even reprimanded.
Another worrying trend was that many sharks are scarred.
Only paddle boats are allowed in the interaction area. Still, ferries and motorboats ply the route between Oslob and nearby islands. Fermin, a resident whale shark, couldn’t tell one from the other. He probably mistook a ferry for a feeder vessel and suffered propeller gashes on his head and eye.
Normally, sharks avoid humans. But once they equate boats and humans with food, they learn to approach vessels. Many sharks would even nudge the boats with their heads, demanding to be fed.
Just as they can’t distinguish motor boats from paddle boats, they can’t tell well-meaning feeders from hunters and poachers. Once they’re out of protected waters, they become prey for shark fishing vessels. Despite their vulnerable status, whale sharks are still being slaughtered in other parts of the world.
On the other hand, sharks opting to stay in Oslob all-year round draw thousands of people. Already, this once unknown, quiet, coastal town is changing fast. The biggest challenge remains: developing rules and impact monitoring to give tourists an unforgettable adventure without changing the animals’ natural behavior and doing them harm.
Personally, I’ve interacted with wild big fish coming out to people of their own free will in other places in this planet. It’s an indescribable experience.
Along the Pacific coast of Mexico’s Baja California Sur, in the protected waters of Laguna San Ignacio, a group of wild grey whales, 40-foot behemoths called the “Friendlies”, approach people and allow themselves to be petted. The mothers even nudge their calves to come up to people, despite the fact that whalers have hunted them a couple of centuries back in these same seas. Strikingly, the “Friendlies” are not food-motivated. Humans never fed them.
Australia has two places famous for wild dolphins going out of their way to interact with people – Monkey Mia in the West and Tangalooma, in Queensland, where Tangles, a pregnant wild dolphin, swam out to meet me and playfully mouthed my fingers. Perhaps she meant to shake hands. She never put a mark on me.
Again, food is not the prime motivation here although the dolphins accept hand-feeding. At times, they’ll even turn the tables on you and offer fish. Monkey Mia guides advise guests how to deal with it: If a dolphin gives you fish, don’t give it back. Accept it and say, “Thank you.”
Although food is the sole incentive for whale sharks chasing boats in Oslob, I’m glad to see that a number of fisherfolk have bonded with the animals. Most have their own favorites, whom they know by name and regard as personal pets – some sort of gigantic dogs in the water.
Of course, a lot of cash rides on the backs of those fish.
Whale shark tourism is the most lucrative shark-based tourism in the world. It lures hundreds of thousands of tourists, each paying around US$400 for a single encounter. The trend started at Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia in the 1990’s and spread to Seychelles, Mexico, Belize, Mozambique and Maldives. In all, the industry hauls in over US$50 million per annum.
If Oslob’s whale sharks only knew how much money they’re bringing in, they’ll demand tons upon tons of shrimps.