Sunday, January 25, 2015

Swimming with the whale sharks at Oslob, Cebu Island, Philippines

It's been a very, very long time since I've put up a post on my blog - over a year and a half, now.  Family, work, and life in general keep all of us busy, and it becomes easy to lose any vestige of discipline in trying to keep a semi-regular blog.  But I hope to be able to gradually get back into the swing of things again, and ultimately to regain some of the old blogging friends who I am sure have moved on to reading more regularly updated blogs, as well as to post some content of interest to newcomers to my blog.  

This last December (2014), we took a trip to the Philippines to visit family and celebrate the 50th wedding anniversary of my parents-in-law.   One of the trips we made during our visit to the Philippines (to do some fun touristy stuff) was to leave Cebu City with a group of family and friends and drive southwestward down the eastern coast of Cebu Island to watch and swim with the whale sharks, gentle giants of the deep that are a spectacular sight to behold. The local name for them is 'butanding'.  Our destination was Oslob, on the eastern side of the southernmost tip of Cebu Island, and the barangay (village) where the whale watching tours were located is called Tan-awan. You can't miss the whale watching tour signs there right on the main road; they are very obvious. 

Whale sharks are a slow-moving filter-feeding shark (with a mouth like baleen whales) and the largest known species of fish in existence.  They are, however, not whales, which are mammals.  The largest confirmed one known was about 41 feet (12.5 meters) long and weighed about 47,000 pounds.  They have a mouth that can be up to about 5 feet (1.5 m) wide, containing 300-350 rows of tiny tech and 10 filter pads that it they use to filter feed.  Their dark grey, almost black skin (with a lighter colored belly) is marked with pale whitish-yellow spots and stripes, which are unique to each individual. 

"Whale sharks in Oslob" sign near whale-watching tour area

The companies who run the whale shark tours hire some of Oslob's fishermen to feed the whale sharks every day by dumping "chum" buckets of krill from outrigger canoe bangka boats (these are hand-paddled and not boats with an engine and propeller).  This has sparked some controversy regarding whether or not this is in the best interests of the whale sharks and their health, but on the flip side of things, it seems that they are generally well-protected and there are rules and policies in place to protect both the whale sharks and visitors by prohibiting touching the whale sharks or swimming too close to them, prohibiting wearing sunblock lotion near them (this is toxic to them), etc.   I think that in some ways we have to see the whole "big picture", too -- public awareness is being raised about these whale sharks by allowing for these closely monitored encounters, and in fact more money is being funneled to protect and humanely study these creatures per the sign in the photo above.  

If your point of origin for the trip to Oslob is Cebu City (the largest city in the region), it is advisable to leave very early in the morning   (around 5:00 AM, or 5:30 AM at the very latest) so that you can arrive at Oslob at a good time for the arrival of the whale sharks, who come in regularly in the mid-morning  (around 8:30-9:00 AM), as they are being fed at that time.  It's more or less a 3 or 3 and a half hour trip, but during the days close to Christmas, traffic in Cebu City in particular is crazy (but not in the wee hours of the morning).  The tour is also best done on a weekday as opposed to a weekend, so you don't have to compete with as many tourists. 

After arriving at their ticket counter (I think the tickets were something like P 500 per person) and reading various educational/advisory signs about the rules for the sharks' and visitors' safety, they will lend you snorkeling  goggles, snorkel, and life jacket  (at no extra cost).

Rules and safety briefing, whale shark watching tour, Oslob, Cebu
We got our gear and are heading to the whale shark watching boats

You'll then load up in an outrigger canoe bangka boat to take the short  trip to just perhaps a few hundred meters off the beach.  There, you will already be able to see the whale sharks being fed, and swim among them, and you are given 30 minutes' time to be out there with the whale sharks.

Our 11 y.o. daughter getting ready to get into the whale watching boat.  Note the waves coming in.
Beautiful beach shoreline of Oslob, Cebu from the boat

Getting closer to the action - Oslob whale watching

On the way to see some whales 

Whale shark's head surfacing - you can see the blunt end of its baleen-type filtering mouth

If you zoom in on this photo you can see the top part of the whale shark's filtering mouth

Overall, we had a great time and a really awesome experience swimming with these magnificent creatures, but the amount of time you're given goes by very, very quickly if you have a larger group, and is not really sufficient.  The water was crystal clear with great visibility (even without my glasses I could see the sharks really well through the goggles) and the sharks were gorgeous and awe-inspiring. I don't know how many individuals we saw, but there were probably 3 or 4 at least.   

Whale shark tail with fish following

Me underwater (kept my shirt on to protect me from the sun's rays - no sunblock lotion allowed)

My nieces underwater with whale shark

Fish following whale shark

Beautiful whale shark - this was at least as large as our boat

Good view of the whale shark's small eyes (or left eye, rather)

Showing its gills -- beautiful spot and "bar" patterns and variations on whale shark

Whale shark's head

There was only one aspect of this tour that we regretted  --  they put all 11 people in our group on one canoe.  This is fine in terms of capacity and safety etc., but  they have a rule that there can be no more than 6 people from your boat swimming in the water with the whale sharks at any time, and the excursion only lasts for 30 minutes.  So if you have 11 people in your group and you're all on one boat,  the amount of time each person gets to spend in the water is not very long at all when you have to rotate people in and out of the water one by one, which makes it very difficult for everyone to share that precious time in the water equitably with the others in the group.  My wife and I only got to spend about 10 -12 minutes in the water.   If we had to do it all over again, we would have made sure that they did not put our entire group in one boat (unless they were to allow more than 6 of us in the water at one time), and rather split us up into 2 boats.  So this is something for you to consider when you go to visit there.  That was my only real critique, as it made the experience seem a bit rushed.  But otherwise it was absolutely an incredible experience and every bit worth it. 

Other tips:
1) Bring the least amount of personal items as you can into the bangka boats and leave anything you want to stay dry behind -- there's really just not enough room and your stuff will get wet, so forget about the cell phones, texting, wallets, purses,  handbags, snacks and all that nonsense -- you are here to see whales and swim and you only have a half hour to do so.  Sunglasses are even kind of a pain to deal with, because there is no place to secure them on the boat unless you have someone to hold them.  If you are hungry, there are little restaurants near the beach with good food and decent prices, as well as little sari-sari stores selling bottled water, beer, T-shirts, souvenirs, etc. 
2) Be very attentive to your safety and that of your kids and others while swimming.  Don't get too mesmerized by staring at the whales underwater, because there are "a lot of moving parts" up on the surface that if you are inattentive could cause someone to get hurt. If you cannot swim or are not a strong swimmer, keep the life vest on - there could be strong currents (I didn't experience any at the time) or choppy waves.  Be aware of your surroundings when swimming/diving/snorkeling near the boat, especially the bamboo outrigger floats in relation to the position of your head, and be cognizant that the boat of the fishermen feeding "chum" to the whales (and their bamboo outrigger floats) is going to be very near your boat and perhaps his bamboo floats will come close to you also.  It was a bit choppy when we were out there, and although I had my life vest off, I stayed really aware that the chum boat's bamboo outriggers were pretty near me at times. 
3) Follow the rules and use common sense around the whale sharks.  Don't touch them, because even though they don't have jaws/teeth like other sharks and are docile, gentle and slow, they can defend themselves with their massive tails if they are injured or startled. 
4) Cameras are OK if they are the waterproof/underwater variety.  Don't use flash on the whale sharks, as it can scare them and they could swat you with their tail.
5) Also, for anyone who wants to take precautions from getting sunburn or skin cancer, keep in mind that they have a rule that you cannot wear sunblock lotion if you are going to swim with the whale sharks -- chemicals in the sunblock are toxic to the whale sharks.  So bring a hat and perhaps wear long-sleeve shirt if you need it. 



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