We hopped on a short flight from Malaysia to Cebu Island in central Philippines in pursuit of a bucket list activity for both of us – swimming with WHALE SHARKS! We had always heard about these gentle giants of the ocean but also know they can be quite elusive. Enter the little town of Oslob, Philippines. The economy of this town, like every town on the rim of Cebu Island, is based on agriculture and fishing. The fisherman here have known these whale sharks for decades, if not longer, and they have never liked them. Mainly because they scare away the fish they are trying to catch in their nets. But in 2004, a group of fisherman in this small town realized these whale sharks were a major attraction for local and foreign tourists. So, they began feeding them shrimp brine daily and more and more people began to come to visit this sleepy town to hop on an outrigger canoe and see these creatures. Now, the local hospitality and tourism market is thriving in Oslob, bringing better jobs and more income to the locals.
The experience absolutely lived up to the hype. The group of fisherman started the company that runs the sight seeing operation and 60% of the proceeds go straight back to the fisherman that paddle your canoe. We arrived at 9am and the place was buzzing already. Hundreds of tourists waited their turn to hop onto the canoes and swim with the whale sharks. The operation only goes from early morning to noon and stops when the swell is too big to safely load/unload tourists.
The good news is that the company is super sensitive to the whale sharks and try to protect them as much as possible. Every person is required to listen to a 5 minute safety presentation – no touching the sharks, no sunscreen is allowed (bad for them), and don’t look them in the eye! JK. After the safety lesson, you pay your 1,000 pesos (500 for locals) per person which is about $22 USD and they give you a number and pretty nice mask/snorkel. After waiting about one hour, we boarded the outrigger canoe and paddled out to sea about 50 meters. A line of maybe 20 canoes tie themselves together and the whale sharks are fed by chum boats that paddle back and forth in front of the swimming tourists. We hopped in the crystal clear water and before you knew it, RIGHT THERE! People pointing and shouting and screaming – our first whale shark was within 10 meters and coming directly towards us. The chum boats lead the whale sharks literally within one meter of you – we could have reached out and touched them if we wanted to, but we remembered our training like good little students. These things were like elephants of the sea – absolutely huge and graceful swimmers.
For 30 minutes, we swam close to the canoe while the three juvenile whale sharks were more or less paraded back and forth right in front of us. We dove down with them, grabbed tons of pictures, and exhausted ourselves trying to keep up with them. Once they told us to get back in the boat, we both felt completely satisfied. “That’s the best $22 we ever spent!”
The fisherman said these juvenile whale sharks are not trapped into the feeding area by nets or anything, and they stop feeding them at noon everyday, but they return every morning ready to eat and satisfy the tourists. We question whether depending on humans is really good for the whale sharks long term survival. Whatever you believe, this attraction is most definitely not going away from Oslob any time soon, given that there were around 1,000 visitors the day we were there!
It is worth noting that we stayed at Villa Modern deLuxe on airbnb. It was quite hard to find at night. However, the morning breakfast with Wilma and view of the ocean was definitely the piece de resistance! Actually in Jax’s mind, all she needed was the mangoes. Holy yum! They are the best I have ever had and that is saying something in SE Asia.
Down the crazy cliffside stairs (it’s a hike!), you could literally walk down the stairs into the ocean. Local families also came here and rented their little hippy cabanas where you could set up tents if desired (or a mattress under the stars) – just make sure you dont fall in!
We usually walked down a little ways to Seafari for the beach and drinks. And when we were feeling adventurous and it was low tide, we walked further down the coast. It is a lot like Cali in that there is cliffs and rocks versus fluffy white sand.
We also had dinner at Seafari. The food here was alright but better than most (although you do pay for it). Drinks were eh but did the job. Unfortunately though, just overall, we weren’t fans of the food in the Philippines. We are semi-health conscious and in our experience it was a lot of heavy gravy, whitest of white bread, meat and no veggies. But did I mention the MANGOES!!!! I will be dreaming about those the rest of my life.
Conclusion – We would recommend 1-3 nights in Oslob but no more. We did experience about 75% of the time having no shower water as it was dry season and they, like the rest of the world, seem to be experiencing weather extremes this year. The falls were dried out and weren’t recommended by our local host Wilma. However, we did make it over to Kawasan Falls which we recommend. (Post coming soon!)
Lesson #31: The Philippines felt a lot like the Central America of Asia. Lesson #32: We miss Cali health freaks and Whole Foods.
“Because in the end you wont remember the time you spent in an office or mowing your lawn. Climb that goddamn mountain!” – Jack Kerouac