The ongoing plight of the world’s wildlife was once more thrust in front of me the other day. As a person who has travelled significantly, is a believer in wildlife preservation, a scuba diver, and nature lover, the sights I witnessed made me realise once again that man has no respect for the world around him, and purely uses it for both his own amusement, and profit.
Unfortunately for me, I contributed to this circus out of the need to see the spectacle for myself (yes, we all have a choice, and chose to set aside my ideals on this occasion). The spectacle I am describing is the Whale Sharks in Oslob. Oslob is situated on the southern tip of the island of Cebu in The Philippines. Having lived in The Philippines for 10 years, and having recently moved to the region, one of the 1st things I heard about was the Whale Sharks, and how popular an attraction it is. I had also read some disturbing articles about the treatment of these beautiful
creatures by the locals, including pictures of some, riding on the backs of them. Even though I had been forewarned of these things, it took the visit of a friend from the UK to expose me to them. Our group decided to go to Oslob, as my friend is a video maker, has a travel blog, and thought that this would make a nice addition to said blog.
We left our place at 5.30am to catch the 6am boat, because all the information I had read, led me to believe that the earlier one arrived, the less people there would be. We arrived at the area at around 6.50am only to be confronted by hundreds, of tourists, who had probably been given the same advice as we had. The resort we were directed to, the 1st along a stretch of several, immediately told us to sign in without even telling us the cost, or what they provided. They appeared so blase about customer care and providing information due to the fact that they were guaranteed money regardless of what they provided. At this point my thoughts were leading me to realize that some of what I had read was correct.The cost was P1000 ($20) plus the cost of fins, P100 ($2), (for non-swimmers P600) which was for a 30 minute ‘interaction’ with the sharks. This by the way, is the ‘non-Filipino’ tourist price which is double the price Filipino tourists pay, (as displayed on notice boards at the payment desks). They don’t have discounts for locals (English people. I am English) in England. Everyone pays the same. So after paying, (my wife, who is Filipina did not get a discount!! don’t know why) we were told to wait until we were called. While we were waiting, upon looking out to sea I could see around 16 boats in an area less than the size of a football field, and quite close to the shore, which also surprised me. The boats were formed in a circle, which led me to believe that the Whale Sharks were penned in.
After a 30-minute wait, we were led along the road and into another resort where the entrance to the ‘circus’ was. There were literally hundreds of people of various nationalities, led predominately by Koreans and Chinese, followed by Filipinos, and others. We again were told to wait, and after 10 minutes were told to sit for a briefing. A young girl gave us a safety and regulations briefing. The briefing was very cold and gave no information about the whale sharks and their lives, habits, food, migration patterns, etc.., just ‘do not touch’ , ‘do not feed’ ‘do not use flash
photography’ and some other regulations, followed by the consequences of violations of the rules ‘ a fine of 2,500 (no mention of currency so difficult to know how much. Dollars, Pesos???), and ‘you will go to jail for 3-5 years’. Thanks for that useless information.
We had been given a number when we booked ,which was to be our boat number. We had to wait for our number to be called. Meanwhile, a constant stream of tourists were arriving, with no seating available besides the seating area for the safety briefing. On the beach, there were even more people waiting. After 1 hour, they were close to our number. It was beginning to become uncomfortable due the hot weather and having to stand. Also there is only 1 set of bathrooms to cater for such a large number of people. My wife attempted to go to the toilet twice, only to find that the constant cleaning of the toilets, slowed down the whole process. Room for improvement me thinks!!.
Finally, we (our group, along with 4 others) were told to wait by the shore for the next boat. There were several guides in the water, but ‘disorganized chaos’ was still the order of the day, ‘a la Filipino style’. No-one seemed to know what was going on. This continued for several minutes. With every boat arriving, we started to board, only to be told ‘wait sir/mam, your boat is next’ Eventually,once inside the boat we proceeded the short distance to take up our position. The boat was tethered to another, to replace a departing boat.
I can immediately see the small single bangka (local transport and fishing boat) with a man throwing food into the water. This is what keeps the Whale Sharks here, and disrupts their natural migration paths. They migrate to look for food and reproduce, but this pattern is being disrupted by a ready source of food. Immediately we can see The giant shapes in the water. They majestically raise their heads to swallow large mouthfuls of water which contains the food, and in an instant, disappear under the surface. All 3 of us ( my friend, his girlfriend, and I) are desperate to get into the water. We kit up and jump in. Surprisingly the water is murkier under the surface than expected probably due to all the bodies and boats.
I see a shark about 3-4 metres away, on the surface, but when I put my head under I cannot see its body. I swim closer then finally I can see it. Amazing! Is my 1st thought. These creatures are so large, and so graceful, they exude a feeling of relaxation. Even when they approach you and loom large, they give off a feeling of warmth and comfort. Even though you are told that they are harmless, there is still a sense of trepidation when you enter the water. There are several of them near our boat, ranging in sizes from the largest (3-4 metres), to the smallest (1-2 metres). They move constantly back and forth, following the feeding boats. The feeling of being in the water right next to these beautiful creatures is a once-in-a-lifetime feeling which needs to be experienced. You have to be careful at times to avoid them because they appear from all sides and you get disorientated at times.
After 30 minutes, which seemed to go by in an instant, we were back on our boat heading back to shore. Once out of the water and reflecting on the experience, I can say in all honesty that my feelings are mixed. The experience of seeing the Whale Sharks is amazing, something which no amount of videos or pictures can compensate for, but the environment, the spectacle out of the water, and the whole process of the event, which aptly, in my opinion, I described as a ‘circus’, left a bad taste in my mouth, knowing I had contributed to the continuation of this. There are other ways to experience Whale Sharks in a natural environment, but to do so, one needs to be a scuba diver, or a good snorkeller. The method we experienced today is the ‘quick thrill’ experience which the majority of people want. My earlier comment about man using animals for amusement and profit was shown in to the full in this attraction.
I hope to dive with Whale Sharks again one day, but in their environment, not mine. I will not be returning to see Whale sharks in this setting again. One single experience is enough.