For years I’ve had an item on my bucket list: to swim with giants. Whale sharks. The largest living fish in the sea. Docile enough to swim with in safety yet gigantic enough to make you feel your true place in the animal kingdom.
As I finished up my trip in Southeast Asia trip, by passing through the Philippines, I started researching these creatures a bi tmore, to understand them and understand how best to meet them where they live. Unfortunately, the first and most striking thing I learned is that they’re endangered, threatened by poaching,overfishing, and the side effects of commercial fishing operations. In 2016, there were just about 7,100 whale sharks left in the sea. Their numbers continue to decline.
This is a sad plight for an animal so grand that many would fly halfway around the world to be in its presence.
In light of the whale shark’s precarious situation,many bloggers and travelers have chosen to boycott a tourism destination in the Philippines popular for nearly guaranteeing the experience of swimming with whale sharks. Oslob. The fear driving this boycott is due to a localpractice of “luring” in whale sharks for tourists to swim with. The worry is that this act may do more harm than good to the whale shark population…but nothing is ever that black andwhite.
I argue the opposite. With a little research, about the history of whale sharks in Oslob and the path that the fishermen turned eco-guides are on, the tourism operation at Oslob appears to be more a beacon of hope for the whale shark population than arisk. Additionally, the Oslob community’s model, using eco-tourism and benevolent relationships with its environment to support sustainable economic development and marine conservation, is a resourceful plan with clearly good intentions. The rest of us just need to have a little patience while the Cebuanos create something to envy.
- The Situation of Whale Sharks: Threatened species with dwindling numbers – and tourist target. What’s the right thing to do?
- Why You Shouldn’t go to Oslob…or so they say
- Why should go: Exposure to the gentle giants can inspire and fund conservation efforts and drive economic development
- My Verdict
Why You Shouldn’t go swim with whale Sharks in Oslob…or so they say…
Google “Whale Sharks Oslob” and you’re likely to finda slew of scribblings by travel bloggers proclaiming why they did not go to Cebu to swim with whale sharks, and logic for why (which is exactly why I’mwriting this). Read on through these posts and the reasons you’ll find are regarding the community of Oslob’s approach to facilitating what it calls “interactions” between whale sharks and tourists. The process commonly goes as follows…
At first light, local tour guides in canoes paddle out alone into the ocean toward a pod of whale sharks, usually around 25, with theaim of luring in 2 to 5 of the sharks using handfuls of the local shrimp. Once the guides have the attention of aselect couple of whale sharks, they paddle back toward a floating ring floatingin the water, about 50 meters across and marked by buoys, where snorkeling touristsawait inside. As the man in the canoe paddles into and through the ring the whale shark follows and the awaiting snorkelers observe and swim along with the whale shark, keeping their distance to avoid touching.
The complaint by most bloggers and the World WildlifeFoundation (WWF) is that feeding these gigantic fishes alters their habits – making them reliant on humans and the location of Oslob for food, changing how and where they spend their time possibly affecting migration habits, and altering where the conditioned whale sharks expect to find food.
Let’s dig a little deeper…
Possible Risk #1: AlteredMigration Patterns
One of the potential negative points mentionedinvolves migration and breeding.
Whale sharks are nomadic by nature, following currentsand food sources, and known to migrate over 1,000 miles in as little as a few months. The question WWF poses, and many travelers and travel bloggers worry about is, if the whale sharks become accustomed to this food source tossed from canoes in Oslob’s waters, will they alter theirmigration habits? If their migrationhabits are altered, will breeding ad feeding habits be affected in a way thatnegatively affects the environment and the whale shark population?
Though this is a speculation, by the World Wildlife Foundation and bloggers, no evidence has been found that concretely supports this, but it is a valid and responsible concern to address before dismissing.
Possible Risk #2: Whale Sharks in Oslob Getting too familiar with people
Additionally, will too much close and comfortable interaction with human beings, swimming too closely and snapping selfies, makethe whale sharks so comfortable with humans and boats that they seek out humansand boats to their detriment? Will the comfort with humans and boats lead to swimming into propellers or, worse, swimming into the hands of poachers?
With the whale shark population dwindling to the pointthat IUCN has placed it on the endangered species list, these are absolutely valid concerns and possibilities that should be researched further if the Cebu whale shark tourism industry is to continue…but…
I argue, and pose the question, that if the net benefit of whale shark based tourism in Oslob, to the whale sharks and theCebuano locals, is sufficient, shouldn’t we have patience before judging too critically? Shouldn’t we allow the Oslob locals time to develop their eco-tourism industry toward a truly sustainable and responsible model?
Converse briefly with a guide or tour agent in Oslob and you’ll recognize respect for the whale shark beyond being a tourist attraction. As I showed up to research firsthand, that’s what struck me, and that’s what made me ask a few more questions before judging the fishing village harshly…
Why I did choose to swim with whalesharks in Oslob
Herein lie the reasons why I did choose to go swim with whale sharks in Oslob. Though their operation is not perfect, the Oslob fishing community historically has an interesting and awe inspiring relationship with the whale shark.
At present they’re using the related tourism tosustainably build their community. The funds raised from facilitating the “interactions” between tourists and whale shark off the coast of the tiny town has directly been used to develop their community, socially and economically, and establish programs for preserving marine ecosystems and wildlife.
What many travel bloggers don’t recognize is that the tourism is actually rooted in fostering a caring, benevolent, and protective relationship between fishermen and whale sharks just as the Oslob fishermen have for decades. The elements people criticize the operation come about simply because Oslob didn’t start with infinite resources for their tourist industry or the institutional on marine tourism that many areas started with. They started from scratch, but they started with respect for the whale shark…which is very different from how whale shark tourism started out in other popular places.
If you research the commonly suggested alternatives to Oslob, such as the fishing village of Donsol, believed to be superior alternatives because of more eco friendly tourism practices, you’ll find most originally came from a much darker place. Donsol may be a current poster child for eco-tourism but the village’s relationship with the whale shark wasn’t always so eco-friendly and Oslob’s starting point was miles ahead
…but we’ll get to more on these issues later…
A deeper look at what’s threatening the whale shark – and why Oslob may be theanswer
In order to decide whether or not taking a tour in Oslob is acceptable, it makes sense to see if what’s happening in Oslob is the major threat.
As of 2016 there were approximately 7,100 whale sharksin the ocean, and that number is continually decreasing due to commercialfishing operations – whether legal or illegal. Whale sharks commonly get caught in the nets of large commercial fisheries in addition to colliding with boats and propellers while following their food sources, that commercial fishing boats pursue as well.
Beyond the nets of commercial fisheries, in certainparts of the world, whale shark meat and fins are a coveted delicacy – and this also threatens the whale shark’s numbers. A report stated that a single factory in southeastern China cut up roughly 600 whale sharks in a single year, which would have an extremely significant impact on a population just over 10 times that size.
Despite importation of whale shark meat being banned in many places throughout the west, and even in the Philippines, fishing and importation of whale sharks is still legal in places like Indonesia, Malaysia, China, and Oman.
Meaning…the major threat to whale sharks as a speciesisn’t snorkelers and handfuls of shrimp that might alter the migration patternsof a few sharks.
The major threat to whale sharks is the consumption of fish to a degree requiring large commercial fishing operations to meet demand despite the environmental risks and repercussions.
The major threat to whale sharks is the desire for whale shark meat.
The major threat to whale sharks are actually human consumption and human behavior.
So, solving the major threats to whale sharks would require changing human consumption – encouraging people to eat sustainably caught fish vice fish caught in nets that trap whale sharks and dolphins as well and encouraging people to not eat whale shark meat.
But, how do you change human behavior?
You change human behavior through education, and through exposure.
We’ve already stated that whale shark is a coveted dish in China, one of the places where whale shark fishing and importation is still legal. Coincidentally, most of the tourists that arrived on the day of my swim were from…you guessed it…China.
An opportunity to educate thousands on issues that matter
Oslob has an interesting mix of elements: a guaranteed interaction with one of natures most impressive beasts in the wild, a captive audience of thousands interested in the sea, and a cadre of marine biologistsclearly dedicated to protecting marine ecosystems. One of Oslob’s biggest faults is that all three of these are underused when, they’re the exact resources needed to affect positive change.
The entire “interaction” of swimming with whale sharksin Oslob is monitored by marine biologists – which happen to be experts in both whale sharks, and the systemic issues threatening their survival. Before the whale shark experience, all participants are briefed on proper interaction with the whale sharks by these marine biologists, including keeping a minimum distance of 5 meters, avoiding touching, and removal of sunblocks, sunscreens, and any chemicals before entering the water. After this brief, most participants sit around for hours waiting anxiously and excitedly, and herein lies an opportunity.
This valuable time, with up to 7,000 participants a day in a position to absorb knowledge about the ocean would be the perfect timeto educate this group of interested participants on the causes behind the whaleshark’s “endangered” status. Overfishing perhaps? Poaching of the whale shark perhaps? Perhaps plastic in the oceanhas affected numbers and migration patterns? This would also be a perfect time to reinforce why we maintain distance and avoid touching whale sharks – to avoid giving the whale shark infections,and to avoid the whale shark getting used to humans and swimming up to poachers/fishing boats/propellers down the road (or down the stream).
When else will marine biologists ever have a “captiveaudience” of thousands that are eagerly waiting to interact with the ocean andits creatures? When else will a scientist have the opportunity to educate members of a population on how societal norms and behaviors threaten the existence of the very animal they traveled thousands of miles to see? In this excited state, how difficult would it be to plant the seed of a new idea for how our small changes can make big impacts in the whale shark’s survival and health of the oceans? How difficult would it be to encourage these tourists to go back home, share selfies on social media, and simultaneously share this idea of how societal norms are threatening this creature?
Many times, scientists have mounds of information that isn’t easily given but would alleviate so many problems. This is one of those times.
In the future, I do hope the Oslob marine biologists push to have a question and answer period, give lectures (short and interesting of course) about whale sharks, or play informative videos at least.
One more reason I have faith in Oslob’s eco-tourism model. The ingredients are here to solve the very problem that many travelers think Oslob might be contributing to.
Looking Back at History: How Oslob embraced whale sharks while others hunted them
If you go back and Google “swimming with whale sharksin Oslob”, within the tirades berating Oslob you will find the fishing village of Donsol in Luzon, further north in the Philippines, touted as a more preferable alternative whose whale shark tourism model is currently much more sustainable ecologically than Oslob. Admittedly, it is…currently. That wasn’t always the case.
How whale shark tourism is done in Donsol now…and what it used to be
On whale shark trips in Donsol, small boats with a few passengers cruise the open ocean with a spotter looking out for dark spots inthe water. When a potential whale sharkis spotted, participants are taken ahead of the fish to jump out into the pathof the whale shark, a little up current, so the snorkelers naturally drift pastthe shark as it swims by. The participants then crawl back on board and the process is repeated as many timesas possible during the day. During the entire adventure, a marine biologist accompanies the participants, explainingthe nuances of the ecosystem, the whale shark, the threats the population is currently facing, and everything in between. This is the optimal tourism model when it comes to whale sharks -observing them in their current habitat with no interaction other than observation and briefly sharing space. Rewind back 20 years and things weren’t as pretty in Donsol.
When Donsol was an active and impoverished village with fishing as its main source of income, whale sharks were hunted heavily. The sharks were fished so heavily near Donsol that the government declared the area surrounding Donsol a safe haven for whale sharks after international pressure, hoping the whale shark’s numbers would recover. The unemployed fishermen that were well experienced in spotting whale sharks were forced to repurpose their skillsets…and so they did, spotting whale sharks for tourism experiences. The result was a more benevolent relationship between whale sharks and Donsol developing economically far past what it had ever been as a fishing village.
What is the moral with Donsol? Even the greats had to start somewhere, but Oslob started from a much better place than Donsol…
How Swimming with Whale Sharks in Oslob Started: A Desire to Care for the Whale Sharks
Donsol and Oslob were both fishing villages before their whale shark tourism days, but the commonality stops there. Whereas Donsol hunted the whale sharks,Oslob’s fishermen protected them. That is where the practice of luring the whale sharks, and the Oslob fishermen’s expertise in interacting with them, comes from.
The Oslob fishermen commonly fished for a local type of shrimp called “Uyab” among other things. Unfortunately, this shrimp is also part of the whale sharks diet, so the fishermen and the whale sharks frequently and inconveniently occupied the samespaces searching for food. This usually led to whale sharks getting caught in Oslob fishermen’s nets while they were being laid or while the sharks were trying to steal a snack.
Somewhere in the frustration of fanning off the large sharks like pups begging for dinner, the fishermen realized they could lure thehungry sharks away with a decoy canoe and handfuls of shrimp. This left the other fishermen free to use their nets without having to share their catch and the whale shark guided away safely. Therein was born the art of “luring whale sharks” that continues today – to keep their sea puppies from getting hurt in fishermen’s nets.
Keep in mind that at any point, the poor Oslob fishermen could have easily killed the whale sharks as an easy meal and increased their earnings for the day while eliminating their problem for thenext day. At the time, a fisherman in Oslob made roughly $1.50 USD a day. A single whale shark’s meat can sell for $10,000 USD. One whale shark killed could be 18 years worth of salary in a single catch, that was already tangled in their net. Despite the need and the opportunity, theOslob fishermen continued to respect the whale shark…as they do today by incorporating the same practice of luring with shrimp and the standing rule to keep distance from the shark while respecting its space and right to swim off.
What’s the point? Oslob hasn’t created the perfect eco-tourism model yet, but they’ve started from an extremely caring place and accomplished much in a short period. How much potential do you think roots like this hold for the future?
The Overlooked Benefit: Economic Development of Oslob and investment in marine conservation
The shift from fishing village to eco-tourism hub is single handedly revitalizing Oslob, providing the funds to develop infrastructure, fund education, create social welfare programs, and invest inconservation of the local marine ecosystem.
According to reports, 60% of the profits from thewhale shark tourism go to the local fishermen (that once made $1.50 per day), 10% goes to the local government, and 30% goes to local sea wardens that protect the Cebu waters against poaching and overfishing to support the growing marine conservation efforts.
The influx of cash has allowed a once impoverished city to develop autonomously, driven by the actions of locals. Achieving this without international aid or external guidance is impressive.
If the locals of Oslob have managed to harness a common practice (luring away whale sharks) to produce positive and necessary benefits for themselves and their community, isn’t that a positive? If they’re managing to do this while progressively working to protect whale sharks and their waters, isn’t patience and trust that they will continue to improve in order? That was why I was willing to support them by visiting Oslob.
The World Wildlife Foundation stated their opinion on the matter of whale shark tourism in Oslob as follows:
“While feedingwhale sharks remains a major issue, it cannot be denied that Oslob has become an example of community-developed tourism which has greatly benefited a local community. The decision to stop the potentially-detrimental feeding of thewhale sharks lies in the hands of the locals. In any case, WWF stands ready todive in and help steer Oslob’s whale shark program onto the path of sustainability.”
Two More Reasons Oslob is Good: It’s a cheap, highly efficient operation that makes whale shark interactions (and marine ecosystem education) attainable for nearly everyone in large groups
1,150 Filipino Pesos. $23 USD. $10 USD for a-local. That’s how much it costs to swimwith a whale shark in Oslob. Considering the gravity of the interaction, swimming in the ocean next to a 40 foot fish, that is insanely cheap.
What’s more impressive is the number of people that the teams funnel through at this rate. During the highest seasons, the host teams can funnel through 7,000 people in a single day, loading boats for interactions of 30 minutes at a time. Though it sounds Iike organized chaos (and somewhat is), the boat crews do an impressive job of calling out snorkelers not following the rules or getting too close to the sharks. Marine biologists constantly monitor for deliberate rule breakers and their underwater cameras record video to handlearguments about violations quickly.
One more plus of Oslob is how they offer theexperience to such a large number of people at an affordable price. Compared to the operation in Donsol whichcosts $70-$150, the experience in Oslob is affordable for a local or a family of Chinese tourists, or a young backpacker that can go on and spread the newly learned ideas later. Donsol is sustainable and low impact, but Oslob is remarkably efficient and allows, many more people (with less powerful currencies) to learn from the experience ofswimming with whale sharks.
A reality to consider: The locals aren’t giving up this gem, support and guidance would breed more benefit than distant criticism
Oslob is a small village far removed from the metropolises and havens of commerce, Cebu City and Manila. For years, the only wealth came from the unreliable catches of fishermen, wherein some days their families didn’t eat because the luck of the ocean wasn’t with them. To think the locals of Oslob are going to happily give up a viable source of income, that isn’t directly hurting the whale shark population, is ignorant at best. This is also a slightly high minded perspective coming from outsiders who have a solid opportunity to critique the situation, and then go home and find a decent living after traveling abroad for a few months while they benefited from the relatively low cost of living in the Philippines (I include myself in thisjudgment).
A much more reasonable perspective is that, with more support to scientific research the marine biologists have an opportunity to teach and do what they do best- research and spread knowledge. Having 7,000 very interested individuals engaged is an opportunity to share crucial information about the whale shark, it’s plights, and the threats that people pose to it, and can mitigate by spreading the right word.
Just as much as a David Attenborough narrated documentary entertains as much as it inspires, this kind of experience could help propagate the knowledge and awareness needed to preserve the whale sharks numbers, and slow the progressive damage to our oceans. Think about it: plastic, global warming, overfishing, etc., all discussed in a single, very appropriate place. This could be 30 minutes of fame in which marine biologists could share the facts they’ve worked so long to uncover, then coach participants through a healthy interaction with Marine wildlife and pathforward.
TheWay Forward: What should happen?
Now that you’d read this new perspective on swimming with whale sharks in Oslob, what should you do? What should happen?
My recommendation to travelers on swimming with whale sharks in Oslob
If you have the money and the time in your itinerary,then vote with your dollars (or Euros…or Yen…). Head to an operation that’s already sustainable and works actively with marine biologists. Putting your money in these places will encourage Oslob to continue evolving its eco-tourism practices and mimic these more optimal models and practically apply their research.
A few universally respected whale shark destinations to consider
- Donsol: November and June, peaking February to April
- Sogodd Bay, Southern Lyfe: November to may
- Honda Bay, Puerto Princess’s, Palawan: April to October
- Cancun, Mexico
If time or money won’t allow you to go elsewhere don’t feel bad. Head to Oslob and participate, but learn the rules of proper interaction and follow these tips to encourage them Oslob team to continue evolving towards an ecologically sustainable model.
- Be the nerdy one that shares your knowledge with the others in your group. Give them a nudge to follow the rules of interacting with the whale sharks
- Ask questions of your guide, about the story behind the interactions and history of the town, to encourage your guide and tourist team to share information with you and follow on groups
- While you’re standing around waiting, ask if the marine biologists can share some knowledge – encouraging them to make it more common that marine biologist uses the time to teach
- Share your observations after the fact, online, to keep the sea wardens and fishermen in Oslob accountable, highlight what was right, and call out what can be better. The Oslob model is developing, and this info made public (positively and negatively) will help.
- Make sure to share the story and the knowledge onsocial media when you get back. Share the whale shark selfie, and share that its endangered due to poaching and other causes (that you’ll learn from the biologist on hand).
- Make the point in social media that you played by the rules (“lookie no touchy”), and if anyone else goes it’d be cool ifthey do as well.
My recommendations to the tourist industry in Oslob:
- Use the surplus of Marine biologists and the downtime tourists spend waiting to educate tourists on the whale shark, the currentsituation as “threatened” and ongoing conservation efforts in Oslob. – If this happens, contact me and I’ll happily travel back to Oslob (with my own money) and write an update on the positive progress.
- Tell the story behind the city’s friendly relationship with these creatures, and current efforts as keepers and protectors
- Share how the dollars paid for the experience fund tourism infrastructure development, health initiatives, education, socialwelfare programs, and marine conservation programs
- Work to ensure that the shrimp used to lure in whale sharks is fresh, or closer to fresh than frozen, and is the same type as the food the whale shark actually eats,to avoid downstream effects
- Tag and track the whale sharks, not just to monitor migration patterns but to ensure no single shark is fed and interacted with toomany times, by marine biologists’ standards. This will ensure the free treats that come from being a tourist spectacle don’t permanently pull them from their normal routines or migrationand make them dependent on humans (or boats) for food.
- Monitor and track the whale shark population passing through the Philippines to ensure that not too many whale sharks are being exposed to humans relative to the benefit (ecological and economic) that comes from the Oslob operation.
- Contact me for a little marketing . Given the admirable steps in marine conservation Oslob is taking, I’ll happily work on the project doing marketing and PR activities for free. As long as I get to swim with the sharks again…
The Bottom Line on Whale Shark Tourism in Oslo
Personally, I think if WWF can recognize the progress Oslob is making with its whale shark tourism (even if its not perfect), thentravelers with an interest in economic progress in the developing world andconservation can support it as well. Acommunity that is doing its best to respect and coexist with nature while creating a sustainable system to pull itself out of poverty – and having a positive effect on the world while it does it – is impressive to say theleast. As such, I’m willing to have a little patience with Oslob (and even chip in a hand) while the former fishing village refines its tourism model. Perhaps, down the road, they’ll create a model that we can all copy.
Sources and Notes