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. 


  1. Welcome back to blogging!
    Wow! What an experience! I would love to try that someday. Thanks for all the tips. I would visit this post again should we decide to visit that part of Cebu. :)

    1. Hello Beth,

      Thanks so much for stopping by, and for your "welcome back"! I hope all is well with you, and I am checking out your blog "Pixels For Four", which is great! Glad you liked the tips. It was a really nice experience that I would highly recommend if you ever get to that area of Cebu. Later I will post about the really nice waterfalls that just a few minutes north of the whale watching tours at Oslob -- Tumalog Falls. Take care!

  2. Welcome back Buzz ! Missed your posts and your straightforward writing. I too have not been blogging for months now and I hope I could be consistent this year. Those shots of yours were great! Thanks for writing a post about these awesome whale sharks and sharing your tips as well. I hope I will be able to conquer my fear of water very soon because until now I do not know how to swim and I am not getting any younger.

    1. Hello Sarah; what a pleasant surprise! Thanks for stopping by. It's great to see you here, and I have missed your wonderful blog and writing as well. I promise I'll stop by very soon, as it will be great to see what you've been up to, although I realize you've said that you haven't blogged in some months. Don't feel bad -- family comes first. I hope you and yours are all doing well.

      I am glad you enjoyed the post, and the credit for the shots goes to my wife, who if I recall correctly took all or almost all of these. I think it is very possible that you can overcome your fear of the water. The life vest/floatation device might help you a lot and make you feel much more comfortable being around the water, and eventually in the water, and you could go out on a day when the winds and waves are very calm and feel more at ease. There's so much beauty to see on or under the water. Take care, and I will stop by your blog soon.

  3. Love to do this when I get back to Cebu soon. Cant wait. And yes, Welcome back into blogging! I'm trying to resurrect my blog and trying to rename it. Hopefully you can stop by.

    1. Kumusta Donah! Great to hear from you again, another pleasant surprise. Thanks for your welcome back! You and your husband will love this whale shark experience, and it is an easy trip from Cebu City as long as you leave the city early in the morning. I'll post on Tumalog Falls, which is really close by, in the near future. Every time we go back, the new developments in Cebu are pretty astonishing to me; the SM Seaside City is already in progress. Looking forward to your revamped and renamed blog -- I will definitely stop by in the very near future. Take care!

  4. I'm so excited! I don't know if Summit Circle Hotel is near to the tourist spots but I want to try snorkeling with the Whale Sharks.

    1. Hi Sandy,

      Thanks for commenting. I think the Summit Circle Hotel would be about 3 hours away; you should try Oslob!

  5. Surreal experience, right? Had fun reading. Sharing mine here, too:

    1. Hi Sheena,

      Thanks for stopping by. Unfortunately I can't get the link to your blog to work... maybe you can post again.

  6. Hi Buzz, my first time here to read your blog! This place is amazing and you have a gorgeous daughter! If you don't mind, can I know what is the model of camera that you used under water? It's the same camera you used for the entire trip? I wish you all the best!

    1. Hi Nathelie,

      Thank you for stopping by to read my blog, and thanks also for your kind compliment about our daughter! I will have to ask my wife the model of the camera that she used underwater to take these pictures -- I will get back to you and let you know. Yes, this is also the same camera that she used for the entire trip. Wishing you all the best too; I will stop by your blog sometime in the future.

  7. hello! May I know where you left your personal belongings while doing the whaleshark experience? Thank you! Great post very helpful! <3

    1. Hi Kristel,

      Thank you for stopping by my blog and your kind comments! That's a great question... since we had a fairly large group, we hired a driver in Cebu City to take us there in a large van, and he watched over our stuff (in the locked van) while we were gone. The small beach-area parking lot at the whale watching tours place was an area that seemed to be quite secure - a number of nearby small restaurants and souvenir shops, so if anyone wanted to break into a car to steal something, he or she would be noticed by a lot of people, but yet it was not crowded with people at all. It was adjacent to a nice little beach resort, so the parking situation was good. I think that if you drove there and locked anything of value in the trunk of your car, it would most likely be fine. If you used motorcycle or pedicab or public transportation to get there, you could probably secure your important stuff in a waterproof container on an around-the-neck lanyard or just use a good ziplock bag.

      I aim to come check out your blog(s) soon. Take care!

  8. Awww I wanna try that too! I went to Bicol in hopes of swimming with the whale sharks but the weather was so bad. Maybe next time I'll go to Oslob instead. Great post by the way!

    1. Hi Pinay Ramblings,

      Great to see you here, thanks for commenting and your kind compliment about the post! I hope to come visit your blog again soon! I hope that next time you go to swim with whale sharks you will have good weather. Hope you'll also go to Oslob in the near future. I would like to go to Bicol sometime and do the same. Take care and best regards.

  9. Hi I'm Anne of Tan-awan Oslob Cebu....I wanna offer my boat after whale watching here in tan-awan, the anadale boat rental services is a pioneering boat rental services in town will serve for your side trip to sumilon island, panglao island, siquijor and apo island.....aside from that we also have our own food house the anadale food corner serving you a delicious filipino foods.

    for inquiries just text or call at 0932-737-5972 (Anne)



    1. Hi Anne,

      Thanks for commenting. I can't remember the name of the restaurant we ate at near the boat departure ramp, but it may have been yours.

  10. Hey there! I found your article a really interesting read and i'm glad you mentioned the rules and regulations. The protection of these magical animals really must be the priority of this tourist project. I'm not against the activity, but i definitely think that the regulations need to be tightened to ensure the longevity of the whale sharks. I've written something that might clash a little with what you think, but i'd be interested in your opinion :)


I'd love to hear your comments!



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