Underwater photography - How to capture the essence of an underwater moment
September 10, 2014
Finally a blog!
June 8, 2014
Sardines Moalboal article published in DIVE.in magazine
September 17, 2014
First hand report : The truth about the whale sharks feeding in Oslob, Cebu (Aug 2014)
August 14, 2014
(Above: Whale shark or 'butanding', the local name of the gentle giant in Tanawan Bay of Oslob, Cebu in the Philippines.)
In recent years the small fishing village of Oslob in the south of Cebu has fast become a touristy destination, all because of the presence of the whale sharks. There has been must controversy over this because of the whale shark feeding practices by the locals there to attract the whalesharks. Many environmentalists and conservation groups in the past years have advised against whaleshark feeding, saying that they create a unnatural way for the whalesharks and interfering with their migratory patterns, feeding them in shallow waters keep them in Oslob, and many have observed a more aggresive behaviour of the whalesharks because of the feeding of the 'uyap' (shrimp) by the locals.
On the other hand, the locals and municipality and government in Cebu have seen the increase in tourism. This means more jobs for the locals. Fishermen have put down their fishing nets and now are part of the local community involved in the Oslob whaleshark tourism extravaganza. In response to conservationists against the whaleshark feeding, the local municipality brought in conservation groups to advise and implement a more eco-friendly and sustainable whaleshark interaction program with the butandings, the more commonly known local name for the gentle giants.
Having known the controversy through reading many articles and watching videos of the whale sharks in Oslob, I decided I should take a look at the situation and decide for myself whether this activity should be supported or not.
Here is my first-hand report of my visit to Oslob on 13 August 2014:
I entered the whale shark feeding vicinity through Aaron's Beach Resort. The resort had many staff, all employed just to support this activity.
Fee and cost: To snorkel with the whale sharks, it was necesssary to pay a foreigner ticket fee of 1,000 pesos (double the local fee of 500 pesos) plus an entrance fee of 100 pesos. I understand from others that this fee had increased from 500 pesos before. For the 100 pesos entrance fee, you can skip this fee if you enter the briefing area directly and not through the resort. No snorkeling equipment is provided. Bring your own or rent from the diveshop. For scuba diving, the ticket fee is 1,500 pesos (excluding the dive.) It costs another 1,500 pesos for dive equipment, dive guide and the dive itself which can be arranged directly with Aaron's beach resort.
(Above: the small wooden bancas without engines, which can fit 4-5 people max, hand rowed by the locals. The whaleshark area is only about 20m from shore.)
Then we were transported in small wooden bancas, hand-rowed just meters away to the briefing area. Here you get the official '1,000 pesos entrance fee ticket' and it is mandatory to attend the briefing. There are huge sign boards with the LAMAVE endorsement showing the rules and guidelines for the whale shark interaction. (See 'LAMAVE's full research report here.) Also available were the guidelines in printed cards in other languages such as Korean and Japanese. The briefing emphasized 4 strict rules:
#1: No touching of whale sharks
#2: Keep 4m from whale sharks
#3: No applying of sunscreen. If applied to wash them away at the nearby shower
#4: No flash photography
There was lack of organisation for the briefing as tourists groups were ushered hurriedly by their guides from the bancas into the briefing area to 'get the briefing done'. Most of the tourists were from Asia when I was there, and did not respond to the staff giving the briefing in English. I handed out the translated guidelines to some of the tourists so they could understand what was going on. Also the tourists groups arrived at different times during the briefing and only obtained part of the briefing, before they were 'pulled' by their guides to quickly hop on the boat to start the whale shark tour.
Life jackets were handed out but not mandatory though, since I escaped wearing one, then we hopped back on the same banca and headed just 20m from shore to the official 'whaleshark feeding area' where rows of bancas and tourists were sitting from the boat looking at the whale sharks or snorkeling. Since it was so close to shore, I asked if it was possible for me to skip the boat ride and just swim out to see the whalesharks without paying the fee. Of course the answer was 'No.'. As we were being rowed out, I asked our boatmen how much they were being paid to do this job. He said 300pesos (less than US$7) from 6am - 12noon's work.
The actual whale shark interaction experience:
We tied up to a buoy and just from the surface you could already see the whale sharks, coming right up to the boats. The whale sharks are attracted to the boats because the local guides on every banca had lots of 'uyap' or shrimp, which they tossed into the water. The whale sharks come right up to the boat with their mouths opened wide, sucking in huge amounts of water and the uyap.
(Above: The local guide with 'uyap' on the banca to feed the whale sharks.)
We were stationed boat to boat with so many tourists in the water. There were more than enough whale sharks for each boat since the whale sharks were swimming to the bancas for their share of the uyap. Indeed, you get the really up close and personal experience face to face with the whale shark, one of the most magnificant and gentle creatures of the ocean. However, this experience felt like I was visiting a zoo.
(Above: A hungry whale shark feasting right off the boat.)
I did not witness very much of the whale shark swimming, as all they did was position themselves at the side of the boat with their mouths wide open to suck in all the uyap. Occasionally some of the whale sharks were swimming and it was only in these moments, and also the moments where I swam away from the boats into the deeper area looking into the blue to find the whale sharks and swim with them, did I feel their magic and their beauty. In 2 occasions, I witnessed up close the fin of the whale shark. It was not complete. It was broken and had jagged edges. I wondered if this was due to any boat collisions though the wooden bancas were without engines.
(Above: The broken fin of the whale shark.)
Observing the rules:
So remembering the guidelines and rules, were they observed and followed? There was no one to enforce any of the rules.
#1 No touching of whale sharks: I spoke to one of the tourists from Taiwan who told me he accidentally bumped head on into the whale shark. I saw for myself as well that the whalesharks come so close to the boat, and the tourists are often just next to the boat as well, inadvertantly sometimes touching the whale shark.
#2 Keeping 4m away from the whale shark: Boats are placed neck to neck with one another and the local guides throwing heaps of uyap into the water just right next to the tourists swimming. There were a few moments as well that I had whale sharks swimming right under me, I had to take a big breath to float myself away from them to prevent touching them. Also many tourists had their cameras and were less than 4m from the whale sharks, all trying to get a pictures. In addition, bubbles streaming from the bottom from the scuba divers also trying to get the perfect shot of the whale shark and some of them staying less than 4m from the whale sharks.
One good rule was observed though, we were only permitted 30minutes interaction time with the whale shark. When that was up, the guide on the boat efficiently signaled us that it was time to get out of the water and head back.
This was not my first time swimming with whale sharks. I have swam with hundreds of whale sharks in Mexico, and also had my first glimpse of a whale shark in Donsol, Philippines. See my previous blog post about where to swim with the whale sharks. In Donsol, the whale shark activity is more eco-friendly and organised in a more structured way. It is only possible to see the whale sharks in the months between February to May as during this time, the waters get rich in plankton, and this attracts the whale sharks to this area. In comparison, the feeding of the whale sharks in Oslob is extremely unnatural. You cannot observe them in their natural habitat, as it is as though you were swimming in an aquarium. You can practically not move from the boat and view the whale sharks for the full whole 30mins since the whale sharks are there just to feast on uyap. Or if you look at it another way, that's definitely beneficial for some of the tourists who can't swim and just hang off the banca to take as many pictures of the whale sharks as possible. Enough to justify the 1,000 pesos they paid? I don't think so.
All in all, the experience swimming with the whale sharks in Oslob feels like being in a zoo. Plus the hoards of tourists with their cameras and bad swimming techniques and lack of enforcement of the rules and haphazard organisation structure makes the entire whale shark interaction experience feel like it is not eco-friendly. You get the feeling that the entire local community and government is in it for the easy money, and not because they protect or care about the whale sharks. You get hurried into buying a ticket, to enter the boat, to listen to the briefing and finally to exit the water and head home.
I would say it is definitely a once in a lifetime experience to swim with a whale shark.
Just avoid doing it in Oslob if you do not want to be disappointed and if you prefer your first encounter with the whale shark to be a magical one because they are indeed such beautiful creatures.
P.S. Will upload a video of the Oslob whale shark interaction so you get a better idea of how it is.