The ethical way to swim with whale sharks in the Philippines…Whale sharks are one of the most incredible animals on this planet. Getting close to one of these amazing creatures is a once in a lifetime experience. Being dwarfed in the presence of a creature so large is astounding.
The ethical way to swim with whale sharks in the Philippines can be done with a bit of determination. Seeing these gentle giants were on my bucket list for a long time. I first saw whale sharks while backpacking in Mozambique. Timon, however, had never seen a whale shark and was excited about getting a chance to see one in the Philippines. We, of course, had seen all these amazing shots on Instagram. People swimming inches away from these magical beasts. Drone shots from above with 7 whale sharks circling a tiny fishing boat. It seriously had us wanderlusting hard.
Why You Shouldn’t Swim with Whale Sharks in Oslob
There are many options around the world to see whale sharks: Mozambique, Mexico, Maldives, Australia, and the Philippines. When visiting the Philippines many tourists flock to the town of Oslob in Cebu. The local fishermen found out about 10 years ago that by feeding the whale sharks they could move them so they do not interfere with their fishing.
Tourists got wind that whale sharks were easy to spot in this particular town. After a few years of word of mouth and pictures disseminating on the internet, hundreds flock daily to Oslob for a near guaranteed chance to see a close-up encounter with a whale shark. Every day the local boatmen feed the whale sharks so they come up to the surface while tourists swim next to them. Dozens of people surround one whale shark to get that perfect selfie. The entire idea of this makes me uneasy.
What it is Really Like in Oslob
The area where the interaction occurs is about the size of a soccer field. There are hundreds of tourists being ushered back and forth to swim with the whale sharks each day. There are usually anywhere from 3-8 whale sharks and dozens of people in this small area at any given time. With that many people, it’s hard to keep track of what’s going on. Although touching them is forbidden, with so many tourists and such little space there is bound to have some impact. Just take a look at all the photos on social media and you’ll see people touching their skin and fins.
How Does Feeding Affect Whale Sharks
It is unclear how feeding them will affect them in the long run; but so far, they have noticed changes in their migratory patterns. Although this may not seem like a huge issue there is so much that is unknown about whale sharks. This could potentially be detrimental to their survival.
In addition, the whale sharks are more willing to come closer to boats which have caused them injuries. There is still a market for whale shark meat and fins and because they see boats as a food source they are more likely to get poached.
Also, they are being fed only one type of food and are not getting a variety of nutrition their body needs. Because of their long lifespan, it is unclear how feeding them will affect the species and the sustainability of this practice. They are currently listed as an endangered species by the IUCN. So why risk endangering them any further?
Is it Worth the Photo?
Although I understand wanting to get a good photo; the practice of feeding these enormous creatures is not responsible tourism and it is not a sustainable practice. I feel like we are more concerned with our social media platforms then the ethical treatment of animals.
You, of course, are free to do what you want. You can ride elephants, go to unethical “sanctuaries”, pet drugged-up tigers, and take selfies with whale sharks in Oslob. But as a tourist, where you spend your money affects generations to come.
Should You Go to Oslob to Swim with Whale Sharks?
Am I saying for everyone to stop going to Oslob? No, that would be detrimental to the people and economy of Oslob. However, there needs to be more education of ethical practices for swimming with whale sharks and a solution needs to be in place to make this a more sustainable and eco-friendly tourism attraction.
Some ways Oslob could change to make swimming with whale sharks more eco-friendly is by slowing stopping the feeding of the sharks. There needs to be a cap on the number of people that can visit the site daily and the regulations need to be strictly enforced. I also think there should be a higher price tag to swim with the sharks, thereby the people of Oslob wouldn’t lose too much revenue. I’m no expert but I do feel like these changes can help Oslob become a more sustainable tourist site.
There are ethical ways to see these magnificent animals while supporting whale shark ecotourism in the Philippines. For more information check out this National Geographic Article.
Where to Ethically Swim with Whale Sharks in the Philippines
There are two places for ethical whale sharks encounters in the Philippines. When I arrived in PH I knew I wouldn’t go to Oslob because of their unsustainable practices. But I heard of a couple of places that you could spot a whale shark ethically and responsibly: Donsol, Luzon and Sogod Bay, Southern Leyte. Because of the season and location, we decided to go to go Sogod Bay in Southern Leyte.
Sogod Bay, Southern Leyte
Although not guaranteed, the chances of seeing a whale shark in Sogod Bay is extremely promising. Due to the ethical practices by local fisherman, eco-friendly education of the tour outfitters by a local NGO Lamave, and strict sustainable regulations; whale sharks flourish here. Because it is more remote and less known there will only be around 10-15 people visiting in one day! This may not be one of the easiest places to go to. But who said it was going to be easy?
Ethical Guidelines for Whale Shark Encounters
There are very strict regulations which each business in Sogod Bay, Southern Leyte abides by. There is absolutely no scuba diving allowed with the whale sharks. No feeding is allowed what-so-ever. No touching is permitted, and with small groups, this is strictly enforced. At the first sighting, you have three hours to spend with and/or look for whale sharks. After that, the boat returns back. Even if you see one for 10 minutes then nothing for the rest of the three hours, your experience is over.
However, this is unlikely. Between the months of November and May, many adolescent whale sharks are easy to spot in the area. The juvenile males are extremely curious. On our trip, we swam with one for 45 minutes. It was incredible. He was so curious and kept looking at us and swam back and forth slowly. In our three hours, we saw 4 different whale sharks. Let me tell you seeing them swim by you is an out of this world experience.
Sogod Bay Eco-Friendly Whale Shark Interaction
From Padre Burgos, it is a long boat ride to the inlet where the whale sharks are known to hang out and eat. It takes around two hours. Once you arrive at the small inlet within Sogod Bay, the boat arranges local spotters from the nearby village. Depending on the company, they typically hire between four to eight spotters. The spotters then use very tiny wooden canoes and paddle around the bay with a mask, looking for the whale sharks. Once they spot one, they raise their paddle to tell the boat where they are.
The boat moves to where the whale shark is heading. People jump in the water with instruction from the guide and usually will jump in right as the whale shark is coming in their direction. At times, they are gracefully swimming by. Other times, they are deeper and moving very fast. If you get tired, you can hop onto the tiny canoes and the spotter can paddle closer to the front of the whale shark. Overall, we were very impressed with the interaction and how hard the spotters were working to make it an incredible experience for us.
By involving local fisherman to be spotters it helps bring in sustainable tourism. Local families benefit from the eco-friendly whale shark tours and follow local guidelines to ensure they maintain a steady business for future generations.
Information on Sogod Bay
How to Get to Eco-Tourism Sites in Sogod Bay: Most eco-tours leave from the town of Padre Burgos. To be honest, it is not the easiest to get to, but trust us, it is worth it. Getting to this tiny village will require overland transportation. If not on a very strict budget, you can hire private transport from the ferry terminal or airport. Public transport on the island will take a long time and requires several transfers.
From Manila: The closest airport is in Tacloban. From here it is a 3.5-hour overland trip to Padre Burgos. It is best to pre-arrange transport with your accommodation.
From Cebu: There are 3 or 4 ferry companies that go from Cebu City to Leyte. They will either arrive in Maasin or Hilongos. Hilongos is a two-hour transport and Maasin is thirty minutes from Padre Burgos.
From Bohol: There is a ferry from Ubay that arrives in Bato. It is one and a half hours from Bato to Padre Burgos.
Best Time to Visit Southern Leyte: The whale shark season is between November and May.
Eco-Friendly Whale Sharks Tours: There are more popping up each year, but we suggest going with Padre Burgos Castle Resort, Peter’s Dive Resort, or our choice: Sogod Bay Scuba Resort.
Scuba Diving in Padre Burgos: This is an amazing scuba diving destination. It’s not as well known as other locations in the Philippines, but it is becoming more popular each year. The reefs are in amazing condition and divers in the know say this is one of the best places in the Philippines to dive. Some of the best dive sites include Napantao and Limasawa Island (Zach’s Cove and Adrian’s Cove)
Budget Stay: Peter’s Dive Resort offers private rooms and dorm options for 400 PHP ($7.50 USD) as well as daily sustainable whale shark excursions and dive trips.
Mid-Range Stay: Padre Burgos Castle Resort offers eco-friendly tours and has nice private rooms for 3,000 PHP ($60 USD)
Cost for Swimming With Whale Sharks: It costs 3,000 PHP per person to swim with whale sharks or 3,600 PHP which also includes 1 dive. This includes all fees, guide, paying spotters, lunch, and snorkel gear. ($56 – $67 USD)
Things to Know: There are no ATMs so bring all your cash with you.
We didn’t go to Donsol for our whale shark experience, but here is some information we gathered. For more info check out this sustainable whale shark diving adventure by Jackson Groves of Journey Era.
Donsol Eco-Friendly Whale Shark Interaction
While we did not go to Donsol, we have heard from others who have been as well as our extensive research regarding their experience. Donsol originally was on par with Sogod Bay. Encounters were high and guidelines were stringent.
However, we are hearing different stories today. More often than not, people may have only one encounter during three days of searching for whale sharks. Water visibility is also not known to be as clear as Sogod Bay. In addition to all that, Donsol is more popular than Sogod Bay, which can attract up to a dozen boats searching for whale sharks.
With all that said, they still do NOT feed the whale sharks. It also is a much more affordable experience than Sogod Bay. We highly recommend Donsol over going to Oslob, which will be a more authentic and eco-friendly experience.
Information on Donsol
How to Get to Eco-Tourism Sites in Donsol: From Cebu or Manila fly to Legaspi Airport, take a public van (60-90 PHP) or private van (1750 PHP) to Donsol, about 1 hour 30-minute drive. You can take a bus from Manila to Donsol that takes 11 hours and costs 650 PHP.
Best Time to Visit Donsol: The whale shark season is between November and May.
Eco-Friendly Whale Sharks Tours: Whale Shark Interaction Center
Cost for Diving With Whale Sharks: Registration is 150 PHP per person, snorkel gear hire is 300 PHP per set. Tour packages cost 3,500 PHP for the entire boat (up to 7 people). This includes half-day boat rental, snorkel gear, spotters, guide, and a Butanding (whale shark) interaction officer.
Budget Stay: Tourist Link Homestay offers private rooms 550 PHP ($11 USD)
Mid-Range Stay: Elysia Beach Resort has nice private rooms for 3,300 PHP ($64 USD)
Sustainable & Eco-Friendly Guidelines for Swimming with Whale Sharks:
Do not block the shark’s path or restrict its movement
Do not chase the whale shark
Do not touch or ride the whale shark
Keep a responsible distance of 3 meters (9 feet) away from the tail
Do not use flash photography
Keep noise to a minimum when getting in the water
Whale Shark Facts
Whale sharks live to be around 80 years old
They are filter feeders and their diet consists mostly of plankton, krill, and fish eggs
They are migratory creatures that can weigh up to 50,000 pounds (19,000 kg)
The largest recorded whale shark was 41 feet long (12 meters), but they are commonly between 15 and 23 feet (5-8 meters) long
There is very little knowledge about their reproductive system
Whale sharks have about 3,000 tiny teeth
Whale sharks move at about 2.3 miles per hour
Adult whale sharks have no natural predators
Females are larger than male whale sharks
What to Bring on Your Eco-Friendly Whale Shark Tour
Bathing Suit: Grab a pair of these men’s RVCA highland trunks or women’s Roxy Softly Love one-piece bathing suit
Sunscreen: Earth Mama travel-size eco-friendly SPF 25 sunscreen
Sunglasses: Ray-Ban Folding Wayfarer sunglasses are our all-time favorites
Snorkel + Mask: Cressi Freediving Snorkel + Mask set
Underwater Camera: GoPro Hero 7 waterproof camera
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