Swimming with Whale Sharks in the Philippines
Swimming with Whale Sharks in the Philippines.
Oslob, Cebu, Philippines.
14 July 2017.
I was up at 05:00 on a terrible sleep… But it was worth it…
…the wee hours of the morning would be spent swimming with whale sharks in the Philippines!
Markus and I met with three other foreigners in Sharky’s Hostel and we were guided down to the water where we were given a briefing in a room with about 60 other people.
The briefing was nothing about the whale sharks. It was just a list of rules for swimming with whale sharks in the Philippines:
– No touching the whale sharks
– No flash photography
– No splashing
– No wearing of sunscreen.
The girl talking through a microphone said that anyone wearing sunscreen should shower it off because the chemicals in it get into the water and that is bad for the whale sharks. Of course there were people wearing sunscreen, but of course I did not see anyone having a quick rinse off before going to meet the whale sharks. Humans are horrible and selfish. (I guess in essence, I was selfish myself for even going to swim with them. More on that later…)
Whale sharks are massive. The largest one confirmed was clocked in at 12.65 m (41.5’) in length and weighed 21.5 t (47,000 lb).
We were guided into the first wooden boat with about 10 other future whale shark swimmers. It was about 06:00 by the time we left the shore. The water below us was unbelievably clear as a Filipino man rowed us approximately 100 meters from the shore. Four or five other boats with locals on them were already there, throwing krill into the water. Krill are a crustacean species related to shrimp.
Immediately I saw a whale shark swim below our boat…the world’s largest living nonmammalian (fun word!) vertebrate. Then the gentle-giant whale shark was poking his head up, hoovering the krill floating on the surface. I read earlier whale sharks then filter out the water so that only the krill remains.
The man rowing the boat said to Markus and I sitting in the front, “Go.” I asked, “Go?” He said, “Yes, go.” I had on my snorkel and mask so I just jumped out of the boat and into the water. I did not really think about it as I knew I was going to do it anyhow. So, I just did it… I was the very first person into the water this morning for the whale shark diving.
I can now tell you that the moment after you hit the water to go swimming with a whale shark becomes pretty frightening. All of a sudden you realize that you have just jumped into the ocean and you are next to the largest fish in the world. Even if you have read about it and even if you have been told that they are harmless, suddenly you are sharing a space with a seriously massive fish…and if you think that will not freak you out, believe me, it will…
I was in the water.
He was in the water. Right there…
There I was and there he was.
*(You get used to it after a while, but at first…freaking whoa!…)
I know that I immediately flailed to get away from the whale shark I was only four or five meters from. I was scrambling to try and grab some more distance from the whale shark moment I landed in the water. There was another whale shark not far away from the one I was right next to. By this point everyone from our boat was also in the water. Other boats would arrive and there would be about twenty people around each whale-shark, taking photos with underwater cameras and Go-Pros.
The whale sharks were pretty indifferent to us. They just wanted the easy food.
‘Whatever, there are some weird humans everywhere. This krill totally kicks ass. Nom nom nom.’
Apparently, the whale sharks that come in to this shore in Oslob at the bottom of Cebu come in all of the time. If you are swimming with whale sharks in the Philippines and everywhere else in the world, you are swimming with males.
The females are much more elusive.
The whale sharks that come in to the shore in Oslob every morning are the same ones that always come in. They are essentially welfare whale sharks, here for the free handouts rather than hunting.
‘Yes, humans are annoying and they make the water filthy, but just showing up every morning and not having to hunt for this krill is great! Nom nom nom.’
As I was taking in the views and getting kicked by other swimmers crowding around, I tried to move to another area. As I did a whale shark came up behind me and bumped into my hand I was trying to swim. Markus saw it happen and later told me that I actually hit the giant whale shark right in the eye. Humans are awful and I am one of them… Markus said that it affected the whale shark in some way as he made a quick movement in response.
I just remember the contact scaring the absolute heck out of me, and how the skin of the shark was very rough.
In my mind I would have been expecting soft and smooth, but it was more like swiping your hand along a rough piece of lumber.
(I would later read that the skin of a whale shark can be up to 10 cm/3.9” thick!)
The experience of swimming with whale sharks in the Philippines was pretty interesting, and there were at least six whale sharks around the boats, eating the krill. People were everywhere.
I was impressed to see that everyone behaved…even the Chinese!
I was sure there were going to be people hanging onto their dorsal fins and people trying to touch them, but that was not the case. Markus even got told by one of the guides to move back a little when a fish got too close to him.
I was amazed with everyone behaving responsibly.
And I felt terrible about my accidental contact.
We were given 30 minutes with the whale sharks and then we had to get back in our boats and return to shore. All the while the area on the shower was filling up with people coming to do the same thing as us. They would be getting directly into our boat that would be going back out…
…and there were a LOT of people.
The feeding of the whale sharks takes place from 06:00 until 11:30. It is hard to know how to feel about it all. It was an interesting experience, but it also made me one of the horrible humans who are paying money here in Oslob to disturb nature and the natural cycles of these beautiful massive fish.
There are hundreds of people to go swimming with the whale sharks in the Philippines every day, so it really begs the question of where the $20 everyone spends on the experience is being distributed.
Thousands of dollars are coming through every single day. There is no cost other than the start-up of the building, the snorkels, some wooden boats, the salary of the rowers, and the krill they feed. So, where exactly are those thousands of dollars going?*… Hmmmm…