Early morning on my fourth day, I took a bus from my resort to Baranggay Tan-awan (TAN-AH-ONE) in Oslob. Sorry, no biking for me this morning! I left the Brompton back in the resort for the next four hours.
EDIT: If you want to bring a bike or ride to Oslob, don’t worry, you can. Mind you, the pass from Boljoon is hilly on a cliffside and has lots of sharp curbs on a two lane road that you share with buses. Be sure you’re a confident cyclist if you do plan to ride down to Oslob. I think all the whale shark watching outfits will have a place for you to store your bike. I didn’t know this though, that’s why I left mine behind.
The name Tan-awan is appropriate — tan-awan means “view” or “to look” in the local dialect — for the next activity on my list which was WHALE SHARK WATCHING! Whale sharks or tuki in Cebuano (butanding in Filipino), are a humongous species of filter feeder fish. I’ve seen whale sharks before and trust me, they can be as big as buses underwater! Imagine a dinosaur of a fish with its mouth open heading for you in the ocean — aaaaurgh!
Oslob’s growing whale shark tourism industry has been a source of controversy because the local fishermen have begun to handfeed the whale sharks so that they don’t eat the tiny shrimp that they leave behind as bait for fish. It calls for a different experience because tourists don’t have to chase the whale sharks around. In fact, these giant fish follow the fishermen’s canoe round and round while the fishermen feed them the tiny shrimp. Tourism here is relatively new, and is quite orderly given the remote village life. Hopefully they continue to maintain the good practices in the area and do not affect the ecosystem.
If you want to read more about Oslob and whale sharks, check out this extremely detailed article from SharkSaver’s Shawn Heinrich. It presents a conservationists point of view on all aspects of whale shark tourism in this area. Or you can watch his seriously awesome film, Befriending Giants here.
I didn’t know any particular resort or dive outfit to go to so I asked the bus conductor to drop me off at anywhere with a whale shark sign. That wasn’t a worry though, as all the outfits are right next to the road. Once I got off the bus, I saw many whale shark watching tours. I crossed the street to the first one, which was Aaron’s Beach Resort.
A resort guide/fisherman approached me and I told him I wanted to go see the whale sharks (giddiness and excited laughter ensues!). The resort has a separate viewing fee from the local government — you pay for the boat (?) as well as shower usage. For Aaron’s Resort, it was a measly 50 pesos (that’s just S$1.4!). I put all my stuff in a waterproof bag, and hopped on a canoe to the debriefing site. So get this, for 50 pesos, I effectively got a boat, FOR MYSELF! Isn’t that great? I don’t know how other outfit tours charge but I had the best bang for my buck for sure.
Before riding out to sea, a local government official informed us about the rules for whale shark viewing:
- Don’t touch the whale shark.
- Don’t jump from the boat. — Enter the water slowly.
- Flash photography isn’t allowed. — Cameras with no flash are permitted.
- Don’t touch or hack the coral.
- Don’t take anything out of the sea.
- Don’t throw any trash in the water.
- Avoid using sunblock or any other chemical based products before getting in the water.
- Keep a 5 meter distance from the whale shark.
- Lifevests are mandatory while you’re in the boat.
- A guide is mandatory as well.
Oh, and motorized boats aren’t allowed but then that’s out of my hands.
After the briefing, I went to pay the viewing fees. There’s an option to just view whale sharks from the canoe which costs 300 pesos (S$9) or snorkel with them for 500 pesos (S$15!!!). Snorkel equipment is part of the cost, and for either choice, you get a life vest as well. Obviously, I chose to snorkel with them.
The guide/fisherman then paddled us out to the rest of the boats. It was the day after a public holiday, as well as weekday, so there were fewer tourists than usual.
The view site wasn’t very far away from shore. Once we caught up with the other boats, one of the guides (I had two), tied our canoe with the rest of the other canoes, effectively bundling us together so we wouldn’t float away.
The viewing operates in a unique way: A single fisherman, with shrimp food, hand feeds a whale shark a little bit at a time, all the while moving his canoe round the tied up tourist boats.
The water was pretty shallow and crystal clear. I think it might have been only around 10-15 feet deep. The water was littered with a bean-looking type of seaweed that when present is said to be a sure sign of jellyfish as well. Sure enough, when I looked, tiny jellyfish the size of a fingernail, were present in the water. DAMN! How disappointing! I happen to hate jellyfish! I decided then that I would remain on the boat instead of getting in the water.
That plan changed the minute I spotted my first whale shark. I saw it swimming by, following the fisherman’s canoe, it’s mouth open and vacuuming huge amounts of water to suck the tiny shrimp in.
That was that. I shrugged off the life vest, put on the snorkel gear, and jumped into the water. Who cares about jellyfish?! I needed to take awesome photos!
That day there were 4 whale sharks in the area, each one being led around on an invisible leash by a fisherman. In fact, they would stand vertically in the water while waiting for food, much like dogs that beg. Isn’t that cute?
Other fish follow the whale shark, hoping to steal little bits of tiny shrimp left behind. They all move alongside the canoe like a posse.
The whale sharks in Oslob are not as big as the ones in other areas of the Philippines. These are juveniles. From the rear, they look more like stereotypical sharks (you know, the ones ala-Jaws).
My guides decided to move our boat to another group, one with a bigger shark. When I got back on the boat, I was talking excitedly about the photos I took and how hard it was to swim faster underwater. One of the guides then offered to lend me flippers. YES!
The new fishermen in the group we moved to was a bit naughty. I was the only person in the water at that time and he purposely kept moving the boat (and the whale shark) to where I was. To stop that, I held on the the boat, always keeping a distance away from the whale shark. Sorry, 5-meters-away-from-the-whale-sharks rule.
Hello giant fishy. I see you. Can you see me?
The whale shark was playful (I really should stop anthropomorphizing these fish). If the fisherman didn’t continuously feed him, he would nudge the boat.
At one point, I wanted to recreate a photo that I saw in the news — the one where the shot was taken under the canoe/whale shark. Good thing I had the flippers. I wouldn’t have been able to do this otherwise.
See? They’re being hand fed. Also, this is my favorite photo of the whale sharks.
After more than an hour in the water, I decided to end the tour. I was on a high, but exhausted after chasing the whale sharks. The guides paddled our boat back to shore.
By the way, this area is great for divers too! Nearby Sumilon Island has a great reef teeming with marine life. It would be awesome to go see the whale sharks in the morning, then continue a dive elsewhere.
And that was the end of my whale shark encounter. I walked back out onto the road and waited for a bus heading to Alcoy.
If you want to go to Oslob from Cebu City, just take a bus from the Cebu City South Bus Terminal (it’s on Google Maps!) going to either Bato/Oslob or Lilo-an/Santander. Tell the conductor you want to be dropped off at Tan-awan, Oslob for the whale sharks. They will know this. The fare for an aircon bus from Ceres Liner from the city is 155 pesos (S$5). Non-aircon buses are cheaper. Travel time takes 3-4 hours.