Swimming With Whale Sharks in Oslob, Cebu

They are beautiful. Impressive. Gentle but powerful. We had an absolutely wonderful experience this morning in Oslob, Cebu. I am not that fond of swimming in the deep ocean. Having watched the movie “Jaws” at least a dozen times on the big screen in my pre-teens, I can hear that classic “OMG, the shark is coming soon” musical score that the movie used so successfully. So even if the rational mind explained that whale sharks don’t eat humans, the sheer size of them ignited the irrational part of the brain. The Teen had been down to Donsol on a class trip several years ago, without parents, and she had seen the sharks then, but in murky, somewhat difficult conditions. She was impressed, but somehow didn’t get us so excited that we jumped on the next plane to Albay. But when we heard that there were whalesharks in Oslob, some 120+ kilometers south of Cebu city, we decided to check them out… We are extremely ecstatic that we did.

We left our hotel in Cebu at 4:12am. Driving on nearly deserted roads, we made our way swiftly to Oslob, arriving there just 2 hours and 15 minutes later. Most folks had warned us of a three hour drive (which it can be, or longer, if there is traffic or you go during the day time), so we were pleasantly surprised to get there just 15 minutes or so after locals were ready to take tours out to see the whales. We stopped at the first of three official sites to board regulated bancas and we were thrilled once more to find out we were amongst the first in line. They pointed to two bancas out on the water and said the sharks had just shown up — you could barely make out the shapes when they broke water, a bit of a loch-nessy feel to the set-up, if you ask me. Their presence is by no means guaranteed, but they have been returning to this particular spot less than 100 meters from shore for most of the last 6 months or so. Word has spread like wildfire and on a busy Saturday, some 1,000+ people line up for a viewing period from 6am to 1pm, and waiting time can be close to two hours, but this morning (a Thursday) we simply paid our fees, took a 5 minute seminar on proper shark viewing etiquette, rented some required life vests, and returned to our take off point.

Despite the clear skies, the waters were a bit rough, so we were thrilled when our guides said we had one of the bigger bancas, for 5 people. Hello!?, this was the banca… :) Paddled (no engines allowed)by two local fishermen/guides, we made our way out to the spot in just 5 minutes or so.

Within seconds, this was our first glimpse of the butanding, here a medium sized one at say 5-6 meters, just breaking the surface and looking pretty ominous to the uninformed. If I were on a little raft at open sea and this passed a few meters away, I would have been seriously freaked out. But here’s some trivia from Mrs. MM in case you do find yourself bobbing up and down on open seas… if the tail has a vertical fin, it’s a fish/shark. But if the tail fin is horizontal, then it’s a whale/mammal. Whale sharks are a misnomer, as they are not whales really, they are sharks, albeit the non-frightening kind. :)

Local fishermen apparently helped several foreign divers who wanted to film the butandings and they thought to try and lure them with uyap or krill, and it worked, and since then, they have been “feeding” the whale sharks who drop by often for their free food. It is not without controversy, as some are screaming that this is messing with the natural habits of the gentle giants. On the one hand, I can see the strict naturalists/conservationists point of view. On the other hand, I like the fact that locals are now friends and not foe to the beasts, and they are getting an income from the tourism aspect of the situation. It seems much better regulated now, and the jury is out on the long term effects on the whales.

Here, a snapshot of the krill, on the ice box in this banca that has guys in green t-shirts, that feed the whales and paddle about and between bancas with tourists. There are those who say the feeding will destroy natural migration habits, but quick googles show opposing views on how far these whales actually do migrate. Also, I have fed fish in El Nido, Amanpulo, Cebu and Bohol, and no one seems up in arms with that, perhaps because the fish don’t “migrate”? And what about folks who put out bird feeders on their lawns with birdseed from the local hardware, is that wrong too? I haven’t picked a side, I just want you to know that there is some controversy involved. We recognized that, but still wanted to see the whale sharks, so we did…

As soon as several sharks had passed by our tiny banca, all apprehension disappeared, and I donned my prescription face mask and quietly slipped into the water. For nearly blind folks like me that can’t wear contacts, a pair of pricey prescription googles or snorkeling mask is a luxury, but TOTALLY WORTH IT if only to experience a morning like this one 3-4 times during the life of the mask…

The ill-fitting life vests were more bothersome than anything else, but we kept them on as “required” and just in case, as the currents were quite strong in that area. After I saw several whale sharks pass close by, and exclaimed with glee, Mrs. MM joined me in the water and we stayed close to our outriggers so as not to break the suggested perimeter or recommended distance from the sharks, some 5 meters or so if possible. The waters, were nearly CRYSTAL CLEAR, and it was just amazing to watch these creatures in close proximity. AMAZING.

Thinking the sharks would keep their distance from the banca, we were proven dead WRONG. :) This is a photo of one whaleshark that siddled right up to our banca, and in this photo above, I think just managed to catch one eye of the shark in the frame. The shark was an inch below the surface of the water, say a foot or two away from my hands. You are not supposed to touch them… The last time I was anywhere near this close to a large shark was in 1976 or so when my brother-in-law took us out on a deep sea fishing trip (on a relatively large modern fishing boat) off of Montauk, New York and a humongous mako or great white shark came right up to our boat while we were chumming (throwing out fish guts and parts into the sea water to attract marlin, swordfish, etc.) for large gamefish…

Here, another photo of the whale shark pushing right up to another banca, one with the guys feeding the sharks. There is a video link at the bottom of this post, you must click on it if this topic fascinates you…

Here a photo of the shark with mouth agape, near the surface of the ocean… to eat, it filters thousands of gallons of sea water through its system to extract plankton and krill. Even knowing that they don’t go for human sushi, it’s still a bit intimidating to have one on your tail with mouth open wide…

…we saw perhaps 3-4 whale sharks this morning, all of them swimming around us for the entire 30 minutes allotted to our trip. The fee was PHP300 per person + PHP20 if you want to get in the water + PHP30 for a lifevest, and that covers the banca and guides. The bangkeros get PHP180 of that fee, a portion goes to the barangay and a portion to the municipality. I was impressed that it was quite orderly, if a bit of a rigamarole to pay all fees, sit through the seminar, and walk back to one of three departure points…

I don’t have an underwater camera or a waterproof casing for my cameras, so I have no snapshots underwater. However, please go to this link for amazing videos of the butandings in Oslob. The third video by Atmosphere Resorts near Dumaguete is amazing, but can take some time to download. I hear Atmosphere Resorts is very nice, btw, in case you would rather fly to Dumaguete and head to Oslob from there, rather than from Cebu City.

Here, a photo of one of the guides/feeder bancas with a whale shark behind it. Note how near the shore is in the background. All in all, a wonderful experience, and I hope to return in a few weeks with more folks from the office and their families if the whale sharks are still there… Hmmm, maybe I will fly into Dumaguete, catch the Malatapay market on a Wednesday, then head to Oslob, catch the Mantalongon Dalaguete market on a Thursday morning… then head back to Cebu City. :)


48 Responses

  1. Hi mm! we are plannning to go this weekend in Oslob and see these wonderful beast. How much did you pay total for this trip? Thanks!

  2. Thank you for the great pix and the absolutely riveting videos. Took my mind away (for a moment) from the roasting lamb in the pit.

  3. Hahaha. I should have known better than to put out a lamb teaser only to post about spectacular whale sharks instead. I promise the lamb post by Friday sometime. Promise. :) Such demanding readers this blog has as regulars, I tell you… hahaha.

  4. Yazi,we were in that area last Sunday but not for the beaches or the Butandings. We did a cultural tour of South Cebu viewing the old churches and Spanish watchtowers along the way.We rented a Toyota Innova(driver and gas included) for 12 hours literally tracing the coast line of South Cebu from Carcar to Santander back to Carcar via Sambuan.We paid P6000 for the long road trip.

  5. Hi MM, There was a feature about this area/artificial feeding. The underwater photographer was amazed that the sharks would feed off the hands of the fishermen and had no fear of humans. The article suggested that a less disturbing way of looking at the artificial feeding was: 1) they were feeding on their natural food–krill; and 2) fishermen would normally catch krill during krill season. The sharks would therefore be eating “naturally” and in the normal times.

    Nonetheless his pictures were awesome: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/earthpicturegalleries/9002157/Whale-sharks-feeding-from-the-hands-of-fishermen-in-the-Philippines.html

  6. Aside from the lamb, I’ll be looking forward to your posts on your future trip that you’ve stated at the end: ” Hmmm, maybe I will fly into Dumaguete, catch the Malatapay market on a Wednesday, then head to Oslob, catch the Mantalongon Dalaguete market on a Thursday morning… then head back to Cebu City. :)”…I believe you won’t missed posting your findings at those markets.

  7. Sorry for not being able to hold my silence about the lamb. Actually I was impressed by the effort put by the various parties concerned into keeping this astonishing resource sustainable and an on-going attraction as opposed to say, what happened to the whales that strayed too close in your post about “Sanga?.”

    We have to admit that as a people, we do not hold the best record in resource management as witness the destruction of our rainforest (to earn foreign exchange) and the sacrifice of our littoral mangrove swamps for immediate and petty short-term goals. It‘s truly heartwarming that the way we view our surroundings seems to have finally changed for the better.

  8. Stunning photos and scenery, plus the place seems not too highly commercialized at this point. I hope they keep it that way..:-)

    On another note, am also looking forward to your update on the lamb roast like Footloose.

  9. Oh I can’t wait to see these guys. I’m leading a group of underwater photographers from Canada, US and Norway to see the Oslob sharks. We’ll be in Moalboal to dive with the big bait ball there and have 2 or more sessions scheduled with the sharks. MM, you’ve just racheted up my “Are we there yet” anxiety to near cardiac arrest levels! =)

    We saw the Butandings in Southern Leyte in 2010 but were not allowed to use Scuba, whereas so far, they do allow that in Oslob.

    For those who want a krill’s eye view of a whale shark… https://www.stewartsy.com/whaleshark.jpg


  10. Stewart, I hope you and your group make it to the Dumaguete area… I hear the diving off of there is spectacular… at Apo reef is it? or thereabouts…

  11. What an amazing experience! I’ll definitely add this to my list of to-do’s. :)

    On a completely unrelated note, I’m excited about your lamb post! Will be refreshing this site every hour, by the hour. ;)

  12. @Stewart, Scuba diving should NOT be allowed whilst interacting with the whale sharks because this can be harmful to them. Also flash photography should not be used.

  13. uhmmmm, i think i’d rather watch from the boat and hope they come near enough for a very close encounter. i can’t swim and i’m imagining … never mind! i’m thankful for your photos and your stories. living vicariously re this experience … thanks, MM!

  14. Hi MM and everyone in the MarketManila community. I believe the Oslob whaleshark interaction tourism is not pro-environment or pro-whaleshark for that matter. Feeding whalesharks disrupts their natural behavior and could actually render them more dependent on humans for food. Some say that the whalesharks in Oslob no longer leave the area because they always find food there, unlike the whalesharks of Donsol who are in the area for a certain period in a year then migrate to another part of the world in search of food. As such, feeding whalesharks has implications to the ocean’s ecosystem. For more about this topic, please read: https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/123937/stop-feeding-whale-sharks-in-oslob-%E2%80%93-expert.

    In that case, it is better to support the Donsol whaleshark interaction tourism rather than the one in Oslob as being a tourist in Oslob is a way of supporting an anti-environment / anti-whaleshark practice.

    Just my 2 cents. Sana hindi ako ma-fishpan :D.

  15. sally, I recognize that point of view, and it may very well be totally valid, but there are other points as well. From the little I have read, there are no concrete scientific studies of the impact of feeding YET–there are expert opinions, but no hard scientific data. There is so little known about whale sharks, that I have to think there is still room for a lot of discussion. As readers have pointed out, a lot of “wild” animals are fed by humans… but we don’t hear a sudden and sharp uproar about those practices. This isn’t a donsol vs. oslob issue, it’s bigger than that. No expert can categorically state that swimming NEAR a whale shark doesn’t alter its behavior or upset it or change it in some possible way. Nor the impact of divers and bubbles, loud noises, sun tan lotion, splashing, swimming, etc. I suppose the “experts” can be relied upon for reasonably good advice… but I haven’t had a personal discussion with a whale shark expert yet. I am merely cautioning public opinion on one side of the issue and another UNTIL there is sufficient scientific data presented. I just find it odd that people get so certain and bothered about these highly publicized kind of isolated situations, but don’t get in an equivalent and proportionate uproar over more dramatic, all-encompassing, macro issues that have greater impact on the environment over all –such as rampant population growth, damage to forests, mangroves, reefs, etc. Personally, my wife and I have added one person to the planet, have planted thousands of trees, fed tens of thousands of malnourished kids, provided books and library materials for public use, make sure all our staff at home and at work are provided all legal benefits and higher than mandated salaries, provide decent employment for over 100+ people that feed perhaps as many as 400-500 people in their families, etc. If all citizens of the Philippines did this, trust me, (no expert at all) the issue of feeding a dozen butandings would seem far less relevant. Not irrelevant, but far LESS relevant. I am happy these discussions are occurring, and hope more intelligent and reliable scientific data becomes available soon so we can be guided intelligently and factually… In fact, if citizens got nearly as hot and bothered about public officials who lie, steal and cheat — and get rid of them, we would all be better off. :)

  16. its nice and so very beutiful and I’ m so very scared becuase of big shark
    but still beutiful.

  17. Beautiful pictures and beautiful creature. Wow this is such a hot topic. I see the merits of both. On one hand there is the fear that these whale sharks might start associating humans with easy food (eating the krill from humans NOT eat the humans) and they might start approaching every boat that they see and the next boat might not have the same good intentions for them. :( But on the other hand, aside from the obvious economic benefit for these communities, they would also start taking care of their environment to continue their new livelihood of tourism which hopefully eliminates destructive forms of fishing (cyanide, dynamite, etc). It’s tough to make a call.

  18. yes! come to dumaguete city Mr.MM… and to MAlatapay, too! (Baka pwedeng magpa-picture and magpa-autograph?) ^-^

  19. I think that one should support BOTH Donsol and Oslob as places of ecotourism and make it sustainable. Perhaps the folks of Oslob require more awareness about the whale sharks, their habits and environs. It would be best if the fisherfolk would be trained and educated by the local government or authority as to how to properly treat and take care of this amazing creature and how to handle the impact and the manage the changes that they will bring to their lives and to the town. They can also enquire how the Donsol folk were able to organise themselves and translate it to their own operating context. If the Oslob folks properly take care of the butanding (whale sharks), the butandings will eventually take care of them by bringing them more livelihood.

  20. I believe the townsfolk of Oslob are doing their best in such a short time period, a few of the dive shops in the vicinity are also helping out. The health and welfare of the animal comes before anything else. Do remember that Oslob is not unique in terms of having habituated wild animals. Stingrays in Stingray City in the Caymans, Great Whites in the Sea of Cortez, Tiger Sharks in the Bahamas are only a few places where wild animals are fed by humans in the name of promoting eco-tourism. In ALL instances, the animals are free to come and go as they please. The animals are not penned in or herded in any way. Believe me, as a diver in the water, there is little you can do if any of these animals find you annoying and decide to leave. Donsol is different in that the sharks already migrate there for the nutrient rich waters (and thus the murky visibility encountered by many), in Oslob, the sharks are after shrimp and I doubt that the piddly amounts given to them by the fishermen would be enough to fill them up, they still need to search for food elsewhere, however, they still return. These are intelligent animals and realize that they are safe in the bay and enjoy the interaction.

    In many marine reserves around the world, it’s well documented that the fish stay in the confines of the reserve (as MM earlier mentioned, Apo Island has a reserve, and there is a marked difference in the quantity of fish vs out of the reserve).

    Before we get on our soapbox and proclaim to be protectors of animal rights, maybe we should also let the animals speak for themselves by their actions. What would you rather happen…these sharks being cared for and fed by these townsfolk or being left to drown as their fins are lopped off and served in a restaurant somewhere in Manila or elsewhere?

    I have seen the devastation of what poor fishing practices have done to our reefs, but I’ve also seen how the reefs in certain areas have recovered when due care is exercised. I hope these juvenile sharks are able to grow to maturity, reproduce and help repopulate the species.

    OK, I’ll sit down now. ;-)

    Maybe it’s selfish of me, but I hope they stay. =)

  21. Stewart, well said. Thanks. And please send us one spectacular underwater photo after your trip, if it’s anything like the one you sent in Vancouver, I think it will be brilliant… :)

  22. Hi MM!

    I’m glad you liked the salmon shot. If I get a good shot in Oslob, consider it done. I might be able to get it printed in Manila as I’ll be there June 17-23.


  23. Great pictures. I can just feel everyone’s enjoyment including myself. I think this is a win win situation. Tourists enjoy themselves, locals get gainful employment, and the sharks get fed. I’ve seen this happen all the time. I’ve seen guides luring anacondas with bait in the Amazo;, boto dolphins with sonar, also in the Amazon; Galapagos sealions with fis;, howler monkeys with fruit; and many more, so Pinoys aren’t the only ones. At least this is a much more noble job than the flesh industry (which in PHL, according to The Economist, employs as many people as the BPO’s) and you know the locals are the best stewards of their own local environment. BTW I was pleasantly surprised to see the thick foliage beyond the beach, and I thought Cebu is practically devoid of forest cover.

  24. Mike, I am glad you raise the issue of the flesh industry, which I absolutely agree is FAR LESS PALATABLE than the issue of feeding whales. Thousands upon thousands of tourists, both male and female head to Cebu for that reason, and all you have to do is hang out in the lobby of good hotels between 10pm and 3am to see it all at work.

    Other things that come to mind from the perspective of animal rights are:

    Weekly cockfights at thousands of locations across the country, where thousands of fighting cocks are fitted with sharp blades with the sole purpose to harm, maim or kill the opposing cock.

    or, for that matter, the prickly issue of boxing…

    Men who don gloves to beat and pummel each other to a pulp in the name of sport. We all know the high risks of brain damage for this particular activity, yet it goes on with great support whether right or wrong… And of course, our national hero of the moment is a boxer…

    So the discussion broadens… :)

    As for the foliage, yes, the trees were plentiful in this particular area, though I wish more so in other denuded parts of the island.

  25. Whale sharks are spectacular under water, if you ever get a chance to scuba dive and they are in the vicinity, it’s a sight to behold. Remember that scene in Finding Nemo where the two fish suddenly come face to gill with the whale? That was similar to the feeling I had when diving and seeing the approach of a whale shark. It was a religious moment.
    Your post brought back so many memories of diving, travelling, Dumaguete, Malapatay!!!, and I agree with Stewart Sy’s comment about Anilao vs Apo. I’m going to be wallowing in nostalgia all through the weekend.

  26. These pictures are Amazing!!! We did a swim with whale sharks last year in Cancun, Mexico. The tour was one of the highlights of our trip, and something that we definitely plan to do as a family again. It is a life changing experience to get in the open water with a creature that is as big as a van! Even my wife and kids were thrilled with the opportunity to do this, even though I was a little nervous, but I got over it quickly! The whale sharks are extremely tame creatures, and not something that should be feared at all. So for anyone who is considering doing a whale shark tour, do it!

  27. Some time during the summer we will be in Sumilon Island. I believe this is near the whale shark feeding? Maybe we will take a side trip for this :)

    If feeding the sharks actually provide them with a safe habitat in the area where they can breed and propagate, this eco tourism program may actually be beneficial :) It can happen. One good case for this has been discovered that some concrete columns of bridges that cross saltwater channels have actually become foundations for coral formations and fish have multiplied and thrived, contrary to some people saying that driving concrete columns into the sea bed will poison the nearby waters. Let me try to look for those case studies and post it here….

  28. Wow! Swimming with whale sharks has been my dream for the longest time!! I was in Dumaguete last week and it was the first time I heard about the whale shark encounter in Oslob. I’m definitely going back for that.

    MM, you mentioned going to Malatapay market, you may want to drop by Apo Island while you’re there. Swimming with the sea turtles was such a great experince for me, I’m sure you and Mrs. M will enjoy it. :)

  29. I’ve gone to Donsol twice. The first time was absolutely breathtaking. Afterwards, I used the exact same word Mila did to describe it: it was a religious experience. And I was only snorkeling, not diving! I’m not sure, but judging from the photos above, it seems you saw mostly juveniles? We saw both juveniles and adults, and lemme tell you — those full-grown whale sharks were humongous!!! Truly magnificent creatures. And we were thrilled because we saw 11 of them that day! We stayed out for much longer than 30 minutes, though, and the boat would move on to another area once the sharks left wherever we were. They do things differently there; since they don’t feed the sharks, the boats go to them, not the other way around. And we had to swim (some were pulled by the guides) towards them, not just remain near the boat. Yes, the water tends to be somewhat murky, because of the plankton — the very reason the whale sharks are there.

    The second time I went, it was not as much fun. There were a lot more people, more boats crowding around whenever the spotter would sight a whale shark — more chaotic, overall. Nevertheless, it was still wonderful, because one shark let us swim with it for several minutes before it dove back down. Again, since they weren’t being fed, they normally wouldn’t stay on the surface for too long.

    I’m not saying Donsol’s better than Oslob, or vice-versa; just different. I’m a little uncomfortable with the idea of luring and feeding them, but not enough to make a judgment call on it. Fish-feeding is a common activity for snorkelers and even divers. Perhaps the fact that whale sharks are migratory means that distracting them from their usual habits could adversely affect the delicate global ecosystem; then again, as Stewart Sy said, the fishermen surely don’t feed them enough to satiate them. For me, the jury is still out on this. I just hope that the animals aren’t harmed. Many people ignore the rules and touch them, or worse. Let’s hope the lure of tourist money doesn’t blind the locals to the animals’ welfare.

  30. Katrina, well said. I, too, hope for the best outcome, whatever it might determined to be… Yes, we mostly saw juveniles, but there was at least one adult that was roughly 8+ meters long, and even that was humongous to me… :)

  31. Hi there. I’ve been a follower of your blog and you sort of convinced me to go try to check out Oslob. Just some questions though.. I need some tips…
    How did you get to Oslob from the city? What did you bring for the dive?

  32. Nicky, we went by private vehicle/van. But I understand there is also a Ceres bus from Cebu that costs less than PHP200 one way… you would have to look up details however. I brought my own mask and snorkel (prescription), but you can rent there as well.

  33. I didnt have an opinion about this activity, but when I saw the pictures on Rappler where some stand on the back of the whale, pretending it’s a surfboard, and entire families surrounding a whale, I now oppose this except for purely watching it.

    Considering how poorly Filipinos implement guidelines, even if they are expertly done, I now oppose doing this activity.

    Swimming close to it and doing all those stunts will do more harm than good, I think.

  34. ariel, I completely agree the whales are there to be observed. The person who posted a picture of herself on a whale shark has since been metted the worst penalty, public humiliation and ridicule, to the point where she is embarrassed to go out in public… as usual, education is the key, and that one incident, whilst despicable, has also had a positive impact on the way people now feel the animals should be treated. Furthermore, it occured in Boljoon a nearby town to Oslob, NOT in Oslob. In the meantime, Oslob has announced a dramatic increase in fees to watch the butandings, a controversial move, but it will stem interest and reduce the number of people in the water, reducing the chances of abusing or mistreating the animals… Locals used to KILL these animals in many parts of the archipelago, at least now, the killings should go down, a positive thing as well.

  35. hi ,its funny feeling ,im from oslob,and never seen this wonderful creatures,very nice pictures,compliment!very proud ,hope to see it soon,thanks

  36. Whale shark is not a misnomer. It aptly describes what it is. The last word tells us what it really is, a shark, and the first word is like a descriptive one, whale, which means a shark that has characteristics of a whale (it is big and feeds on plankton). Consider catfish (a fish not a cat but has whiskers like a cat), lion fish, long-tailed macaque (a macaque and not just a long tail), etc.

  37. If you are stressed out, nothing compares to watching whale sharks to keep you calm. Touching them likewise gives you a feeling of excitement. So come and visit places having whale sharks.

  38. hello, is it possible to go and swim with the shark in august? rainy season …
    thank you very much

  39. Overall, our entire trip is really relaxing and astonishing. Seeing those Whale Sharks (Gentle Giants) swimming near you is a breathe-taking experience. I really love it! I would come back to Oslob every vacation



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