Tête-à-tête with whale sharks
Even though we didn’t want to believe it: the day where it wasn’t possible to pospone our departure from Siquijor any further finally arrived. We had never stayed for that long at one place during our whole trip, neither had we started to feel that close to home somewhere before in Asia, so that it is not necessary to say that saying goodbye to our cottage, the people from The Bruce, the beach, the splendid views of Apo Island, the woman running the little food store we bought bread in every morning… was a sad moment.
At least the four of us where leaving together, heading towards Oslob on the Southern tip of Cebu island, for one of the most breathtaking experiences – both in literal and metaphoric sense – getting in physical touch with the largest fishes in the world – whale sharks.
Their name in combination with their body size tends to cause some confusion, as one may easily wonder what they actually are: sharks or whales? Well, as previously mentionned, full-grown whale sharks are classified as being the largest living fish in the oceans all around the globe. They can be up to 13 meters long and they natural habitat are all tropical, warm-temperate seas around the globe. So basically, its a giants species of sharks.
However, different to other sharks and similar to many species of whales, they don’t have any teeth. Their diet is composed by small shrimps, krill and other tiny shellfishes floating around in the waters of tropical seas, which they eat by sucking the sea water through their huge mouth opening and filtering all nutrients out of it in the rear part – like many different kinds of whales do.
Whale sharks can be spottet around the bays of different places around the Philippines, the most famous among them Donsol on Bicol island, while their appearance is normally seasonal. In Oslob, they have been first attracted into the bay by a fisherman starting to feed them shrimps. He continued doing it for a while and the sharks we coming regularly. Then other fishermen realized, that one could make an excellent tourist business out of it, so more fishermen started feeding and more sharks started coming. Nowadays, around 15 young creatures appear around the boats of the fishermen throwing food into the water every day between 6am and noon – at only around ten meters from the shore.
During this same time slot, other boats offer to take you out there on about 45 minutes trips for a closer encounter with the sharks. You may chose among staying outside of the water and just watching them from the boat (500 pesos pp), snorkeling with around the place the sharks are alimented (1000 pesos pp) or diving (1500 pesos pp). As the water is quite transparent and the sharks come close to the surface to catch the food, it is possible to see them pretty well from the outside – so that the trip already pays off even though one doesn’t have the courage to jump into the water.
Crazy as we were about snorkeling since our experience on Apo Island, we all decided to do the swimming and looking back on it we can confirm: the experience is not the same at all. Seing those giant creatures – the one we had around us were about 3-6 meters long – slowly gliding through the sea, surrounded by thousands of smaller colorful fish, was just magical! The sharks look beautiful underwater, majestic when they pass by just some meters beside you and impressive when hanging nearly upright just under the sea surface to catch the food.
Yes, they are huge! and suddenly you feel very small and vulnerable floating in the water right beside them, even though they don’t seem neither agressive nor scary and move around very carefully. One is supposed to maintain at least 4 meters distance from their fins, as otherwise they may accidentally hurt you. Keeping the distance is however hardly possible, as sometimes the sharks swim right towards you, mistaking you for the fishermen or catching some food floating right next to you.
Having a giant open, water sucking shark mouth coming towards you and another one approaching you from behind definitely gives you more than one adrenalin rush. I was afraid as hell and jumped back into the boat several times, while Javier didn’t mind several sharks being around him at all.
Nevertheless, it was an awesome, unforgettable experience for all of us, something we would definitely do again and so overwhelming that we needed several hours to realize what we’d just experienced.
An experience we can only recommend, even though – but this is somthing we only learned some days later – for ecological reasons it we would rather prefer doing it elsewhere, as a young Filipino we met in Banaue told us the artifical alimentation of the whale sharks in Oslob was affecting their natural migration behaviour. Due to the regural feeing, the young sharks were already starting to stay in Oslob throughout the year, instead of seasonally moving on to other bays, eventually affecting their health and mating behaviour – all for tourism’s sake.
Upset of having been contributed to such a harmful business, for the next time we would prefer and recommend looking for one of the place the whale sharks gather naturally – of course, according to the season.