If you’ve ever wanted to swim with whale sharks but weren’t sure if it’s an eco-friendly idea or not, then this article is for you.

When I heard about the opportunity to swim with whale sharks in Oslob, Philippines, I decided to do a little digging online to see if it really was such a good idea to be cavorting with the largest fish (the “whale” in its name is purely due to its gargantuan size) in the world. I couldn’t find much information, but the article at the top of a Google search on the subject was one titled “5 Reasons Not to Swim with Whale Sharks in Oslob“, which pointed to the environmental impact swimming with the sharks has. So far, so concerning.

The article outlined how the current Oslob whale shark tourism adversely affects the animals’ migration, nutrition, and overall health. Published on a dive site blog, the article also encouraged people not to swim with whale sharks because they can just as easily be observed scuba diving, which does not involve baiting the whale sharks with krill.

Okay, I was convinced–I definitely was not going to swim with whale sharks! Environmentally un-friendly, bad for the sharks, and a lose-lose situation for all.

But wait a minute! Is all this true? And what if we could improve or eliminate those problems? Then might it be okay to swim with whale sharks?


I decided to talk with people who had been to Oslob and had swum with the prodigious butanding, as they are known in the local lingo. These people’s attitudes and experiences were quite different from the decidedly condescending tone of the aforementioned article. “The whole process is pretty tightly controlled,” said Sue Woods, co-author of “Cruising the Philippines” who has swam with the behemoths in Oslob twice and encouraged me to go. “There’s also a mandatory 15-minute presentation telling you how to behave around the sharks before you leave shore.” Other people I talked to said it was one of the best things they’d ever done and that they now respected the creatures even more. It all sounded quite impressive.

I mulled it over for some time before finally deciding that I should not impugn the practice based on reading just one article. After all, we all tend to be a bit too credulous when we hear about claims on the internet. Besides, during my research I’d also found out that whale sharks contribute to ecotourism in Thailand, South Africa, Maldives and Seychelles as well.

I realized that I had to experience the whale sharks—sitting through the instructional presentation and actually taking part in one of the tours—to decide for myself. And hopefully, by writing about my experience, I could encourage a more edifying discussion of the issues as well as inform people about what to expect should they decide to do it themselves.

▼ Whale shark size compared to man.

Whaleshark_scaleWikipedia (Matt Martynluk)

I’ll enumerate the concerns regarding the impact on the docile sharks, but first let’s look at a little background of these “data deficient” giants of the marine kingdom that we know very little about.

The whale sharks have been a protected species in the Philippines since 1998. Before that it was slaughtered for food, oil and other uses. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the whale shark as a “vulnerable” species and domestically they are protected by FAO 193 that prohibits the killing and the selling of whale sharks, RA 8550/Philippine Fishery Code of 1998 Sec. 11 and 97 Protection and Prohibition banning the catching (or collection) of rare, threatened and endangered species, and the RA 9147/Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act.

The iconic fish is even featured on the Philippine 100-peso bill (about US$3), although this is a recent introduction due in part to the burgeoning whale shark eco-tourism industry.


Getting to Oslob

Oslob is in the southern part of the Philippine island of Cebu. To get there, you embark from the Cebu City South Terminal on an air-conditioned bus for the four-hour ride to Oslob. Cebu is a big, dirty city begging for a paint job but the scenery soon changes to tropical rolling hills, palm trees and baby goats braying alongside the road. By the time you get to Oslob, you’ll feel relaxed by the abundant greenery and somnolent pace of life.

Cebu island is one of the many islands in the Philippines renowned for scuba diving. Dive resorts and hotels are sprinkled along the sandy Oslob coast. The pristine waters are due in great part to not just the diversity of sea life and the fact that much of it is marine protected area, but also because the coasts have been spared industrialization. While the Philippines as a country may be behind the developed world in aspects such as garbage disposal and waste management, they should be commended for not having polluted their waters through unbridled development and industrialization and for protecting their marine life.

900px-Philippines_location_map_(square).svgWikipedia (Hellerick, modified RocketNews24)

Oslob, a municipality of around 30,000 people, is an idyllic part of the world where children play in the fields rather than inside and adults interact with each other without the aid of smartphones. It’s the natural life people in our own countries used to live not so long ago. While one of the charms of visiting such places is the nostalgic, pure way of life, the poverty in Oslob is also glaring. There’s a good reason people aren’t bent over looking at smartphones all day–they can’t afford to buy them.

▼ The big bus dropped us off at one of the many dive resorts in Oslob.


From the dive resort, we were transported to the location of the whale shark activities. It’s worth noting that here they do not advertise “swimming with whale sharks” but rather “whale (shark) watching.”

IMG_2341 (1)

At the whale shark center, before registering and paying 1,100 pesos (US$23) we were told to not wear sunscreen (and to wash it off if already applied) as the sharks are sensitive to these chemicals.


Introductory Talk

There were two sign boards that briefly explained different aspects of the sharks, their feeding and breeding habits.


During the talk, we were warned not to use flash photography, not to touch the whale sharks, not to feed them or throw trash into the water, and to stay four meters away from the sharks at all times. Failure to follow the rules included punitive measures, including a fine of up to US$2,500 or up to six months’ imprisonment for touching one of the mammoths.

On to the feeding grounds

Life jackets and snorkeling equipment were then distributed and we piled into man-powered bangka boats that held four to six people each.

▼ Bangka are wooden outrigger boats.


Once at the feeding ground, just off shore, the boats floated in a line next to a border rope that kept them all together. We had just 30 minutes to watch the sharks so were in the water immediately while the guides waited in the boats.

▼Snorkelers in the water.



And as soon as we were submerged, I saw an enormous mouth more than half my size headed straight towards me!


But luckily, these guys are less interested in human sashimi and prefer plankton and krill, which are small enough for them to filter through their mouths. The sharks skim along the surface of the water taking in plankton and small fish. This also makes them vulnerable to oil spills and other man-made detritus that floats around in the sea. The sharks went about their voracious feeding impervious to the excited paparazzi tourists on the sidelines.

▼ Swallowing krill


After the jumbo fish has ram-fed his mouth with as much food as possible, he expels the excess water out through his gills and swallows the rest.

▼ Gills


One reason whale shark watching in Oslob is controversial is because they lure the sharks to the feeding grounds (and tourists) with krill. This artificial feeding affects their migration patterns as the animals have decided that free feedings are a pretty good gig and some are even over-staying their normal stopover time in Oslob while en route to more fertile feeding grounds such as the western coast of Australia. This may adversely affect their diet and health.


According the Shark Research Institute, a study revealed that whale sharks spend up to seven-and-a-half hours per day eating and that a juvenile whale shark (six meters long or 19.7 feet) eats 21 kilograms (46 pounds) of plankton per day. That’s one corpulent appetite for a young whale shark! So you can imagine how much a larger shark–some are said to measure up to 18 meters (59 feet) long–would eat!

And we’re only talking one shark, so while there may be a dozen or so sharks being fed snacks in the mornings at Oslob (feeding ends by early morning), even those sharks still have to find their own lunch and dinner.

▼By tossing the krill up and down this rope line, the sharks swim back and forth right past the snorkelers.


The good news is that we can control the eating habits of sharks by having a whale shark watching season and enforcing it. The sharks come because they receive food, so it goes to say that they will not hang out very long if their food supply is cut short or cut off completely.



Cebu Island is just one of the parts of the Philippines the whale sharks pass through during their migrations. They also pass through Donsol (Luzon), and Leyte where I hear they don’t feed the sharks at all. I spoke with some Americans who experienced whale shark watching in Leyte who told me that, because they don’t feed the sharks, there is no guarantee you’ll see them, so this couple only saw the sharks on their third trip. But they were still thrilled to spot them. This seems fair to me and may be a good compromise rather than baiting them with krill.

▼ Whale sharks cross oceans in their migrations and gather in areas of high food density.


Touching the sharks

I didn’t see anyone touch the sharks during my swim, but I did have a juvenile shark touch me with his soft rubbery tail as I was scrambling frantically to get out of his way. Another person in my group later told me the same thing happened to him—it seemed impossible to stay four meters away from the titanic fish because the employees feeding the sharks were throwing the krill very close to the swimmers. Having the feeding boats further away could have easily prevented this.

The guides serve as sentinels and make sure the tourists don’t swim too far away from the boat and interfere with the activity of the whale sharks, but if the shark is coming towards you, there is little you can do.

▼ Our guide used his whistle to get our attention once when we drifted too far away.


Another fear of feeding sharks from the boats is that they will associate all boats with food.  Approaching shark-hunting boats or boats with propellers, for example, is dangerous to the whale sharks.

I understand that the leviathans do approach boats (whether they associate boats with food or not). My experience as a sailor is that any kind of boat is cause for curiosity among marine life. It is not unusual to be cutting quietly through open waters under full sail and to be visited by pods of dolphins or groups of whales. Many sailors feel that the danger of hitting whales and other large marine life has increased since whales and other species are no longer hunted and the seas are becoming more populated. Nonetheless, one of the joys of sailing is to experience marine creatures in their natural environments.



Although whale sharks travel all around the world they are nonetheless clandestine animals which we know little about. No one knows, for example, what exactly their breeding habits are and we estimate they might live for around 70 years. Recent findings show that only in the past decade or so have we understood the eating habits of these gigantic sharks.

▼ Each whale shark has a unique pattern. Researchers use these patterns to identify individuals.


But there are organizations studying them. One of them is LAMAVE (Large Marine Vertebrates Project Philippines) who has a base in Oslob.

▼ A sign is posted for those who wish to help researchers.


Having the option to help with the research is pretty cool. And if you discover that you really loved your whale shark watching experience, you might want to consider volunteering for this organization.

Pros of Whale Shark Watching

Now that we’ve talked about the cons of whale shark watching, let’s look at what possible good that might come out of this experience for the sharks as well as the people.

While I’ve read that the chance to observe these immense fish is causing a tourist boom, in Oslob it is still a fledgling trade. They need to train their guides better and they need to enforce the rules when they’re broken. When I asked our guide how many people worked with the whale sharks here, he told us that over 200 local residents are employed to run the operation. The entire process entails non-motorized, handmade wooden boats rowed by local people who take tourists out who then quietly sink below the surface of the water to watch the portly beasts swim by. Even children can see the whale sharks in Oslob.

I’ve heard foreigners in Japan complain that many Japanese kids have never seen a real farm animal. It’s true, most Japanese children don’t see animals until they land on their dinner plate. Even in western countries kids can go to petting zoos, where they can touch and interact with cows, goats and chickens. Making that physical connection is extremely important, not for the animals but for the kids. By physically connecting, they learn compassion and respect for the animals which they will hopefully carry into adulthood.

Male_whale_shark_at_Georgia_AquariumWikipedia (Zac Wolf)

But marine life is difficult to observe and develop compassion for mainly because we cannot see what is below the surface. This has resulted in the utter destruction of fish stocks, reefs and a plethora of marine species.

Aquariums attempt to bring this experience to people. Whale sharks can be observed in aquariums in Japan, the US and China. But imagine the stress caused to these animals just by transporting them around the world. Consider the cost. Once at the aquarium, the sharks are in captivity for the rest of their lives swimming around in a pool the size of a rain drop compared to the open sea. Needless to say, migration and breeding are not even options. So maybe, just maybe, it’s better to encourage people to observe these animals in their own natural environments.

Okinawa_AquariumWikimedia (Jordy Meow)

In Oslob the whale sharks are in their natural environments and can leave if they please. There are no barriers, no construction of aquariums, no water transported, no electricity used, no resources wasted. No motorboat has even polluted the waters. Their carbon footprint is very small.

While I agree that it must be even more fascinating to witness these colossal creatures in the wild by scuba diving, diving is a niche sport that is expensive, very technical and excludes children. Snorkeling is far more accessible for anyone with an interest in marine life, including domestic Filipino tourists who frequent Oslob to observe their countries’ protected species. Increasing awareness of whale sharks through human interaction with them may have more impact on their survival than insisting that people ignore them, thus allowing them to remain indifferent to the issues.

And just as important, the local population that used to hunt and kill the sharks is not only learning to value them, but has a vested interest in protecting them now. They have created something they can make a living from and be proud of. No, it’s not perfect yet, they still have a long way to go, but they will get there if we allow them the chance to grow their understanding of whale sharks, tourism and the limits of both. And hopefully, they’ll even be able to purchase smartphones some day.

Recommending that people don’t go whale shark watching may not help the sharks either. Informing people, discussing the issues with them, and enlisting their help will. After all, think of how much you’ve just learned about whale sharks from one person who did go?

Top image: Wikipedia (Zac Wolf, modified by Stefan)
All photos copyright Amy Chavez/RocketNews24 unless otherwise noted.