Whale Sharks in Oslob Cebu: Swimming with the Gentle Giants

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Whale sharks in Oslob have become a popular tourist attraction for years.

Photo by Olga Ga on Unsplash

If you plan on traveling to the Philippines, definitely consider seeing the whale sharks in Oslob. 

There are only a handful of locations around the world where you can come up close and personal with these beautiful creatures, so it’s no surprise that the Philippines is one of the world’s most popular diving destinations.  

In fact, there are several hotspots for whale shark watching in the country; one of which is located in Oslob Cebu. 

Cebu whale shark season starts from November until June, with peak months going from February to April. In Oslob, around 10 whale sharks can be seen swimming a few meters away from the shoreline. 

In 2012, the local government approved the feeding of whale sharks in the fishing village of Tan-awan, where they are lured to the surface for visitors to see. 

What started off as merely a local attraction later evolved into a rapidly growing industry. Oslob is now the largest non-captive whale shark tourism spot worldwide, according to the Large Marine Vertebrates Research Institute Philippines, also known as LAMAVE (2020). 

Because of how popular whale sharks (locally called butanding) in Oslob are, the town garners around 2,000 tourists a day, according to an article from Sunstar Philippines (Sunnexdesk 2020). 

In 2023, Oslob gained a tourism revenue of Php35.3 million, a huge increase from Php3.4 million back in 2021 (Librea et al, 2023.).

The southern Cebu town is definitely a must-visit spot in Cebu, especially if you’re looking forward to witnessing these magnificent sea creatures up close. 

That being said, whale sharks have become a symbol synonymous with the island. 

WHAT IS SO SPECIAL ABOUT WHALE SHARKS 

These gentle giants are known to be the biggest fish in the world.

Whale sharks (scientific name: Rhincodon typus) are considered the biggest fish in the world, measuring up to 20 meters in length (Collatos et al., 2022) and weighing up to 20,000 pounds. 

A study regarding the biology and ecology of whale sharks describes them as having broad, flattened heads and very large, nearly terminal mouths (Colman 1997). They also have white underbellies and distinct white spots on their backs.mattis, pulvinar dapibus leo.

There are several theories as to why butandings have these visual features, one of which is so that they can protect themselves from predators and for communication among similar species. 

Despite their size, whale sharks are still susceptible to predation. Younger ones even get attacked by other kinds of sharks. The blue and gray coloration helps them blend in with the water, making them more difficult to find.

On the other hand, these features are believed to be useful for whale sharks to recognize each other. This helps them determine gender, especially when they are looking to mate. 

They are considered “the ocean’s friendly giant” due to their peaceful, friendly nature. They don’t object or feel threatened when divers interact with them underwater. 

You won’t have to dive deep to see them, as they are filter feeders that tend to swim up close to the surface to eat plankton.  

Swimming around them is relatively safe, making it a popular ecotourism activity, especially in tropical countries where they are most abundant.

In the Philippines, there are two notable locations for whale shark watching, namely Donsol in Sorsogon and the aforementioned Oslob in southern Cebu. 

Donsol is considered the whale shark capital of the world because of its high number of butandings. According to an article from the World Wide Fund (2005), around 30 whale sharks a day could be seen on boat trips in 2004. 

Seeing whale sharks in Donsol is similar to witnessing animals in their natural habitat. They move freely around the water feeding on plankton.  

Oslob, on the other hand, is comparable to a petting zoo. As early as dawn, fishermen go to sea to feed the sharks, luring them closer to the surface.  

Guests can either swim close to them with snorkeling or diving gear or just watch them from the safety of the boat. 

While this may be a fun activity, there are several concerns about the butanding operations in Oslob. Many wildlife-concerned tourists have refused to go because of the potentially harmful effects the activity has on the creatures. 

ISSUES CONCERNING WHALE SHARKS IN OSLOB

Whale shark watching in Oslob has had its fair share of controversies.

Intentionally feeding whale sharks can lead to a dependence on bait. Unfortunately, krill lacks a lot of nutrients needed for a natural diet, so eating too much can lead to malnutrition.  

Additionally, enticing whale sharks to come to the surface every day hinders their migration patterns, lessening the chances of mating, and thus, reproduction. 

This has even made whale sharks associate boats with people who have food, wherein they swim up to the surface even if they aren’t being fed. 

Several whale sharks in Oslob have been injured after being in contact with boats, particularly motorized ones. 

To preserve the safety of these animals, as well as the divers, the government has implemented strict guidelines regarding whale shark watching activities. 

Divers are not allowed to pet or touch the whale sharks, as doing so can damage the protective layer that protects them from bacteria.

Additionally, while they may not bite, a butanding’s tail can cause major damage, so it’s best to keep a safe distance away from them. 

Whale sharks are also naturally mobile, so they need to move freely and naturally. Divers are not allowed to swim in front of the sharks to let them move at their own pace.  

Photographers are also not allowed to use flash photography underwater, as this can stress out the whale sharks. 

Finally, the tour should be done through paddle boats rather than motorized bangkas to prevent injuring the sharks. 

Whale shark watching in Oslob has received compliments and criticism. The town does indeed let you see the world’s biggest fish species up close, albeit in a controversial and potentially dangerous manner.

Regardless, this activity plays a significant role not only because it offers a unique experience, but also because it sheds light on how ecotourism affects biodiversity. 

Discussions about operations will continue unless important changes are made. 

It’s understandable if you refuse to join any tours or activities that involve the whale sharks in Oslob because of the major concerns, but it continues to be an adventurous pursuit among divers and tourists alike. 

What do you think? Is going on whale shark watching tours in Oslob worth a try?

REFERENCES:

  1. “Oslob Whale Shark Research & Conservation Project.” Large Marine Vertebrates Research Institute Philippines.
    https://www.lamave.org/our-programs/whale-sharks

Sunnexdesk. 2020. “Oslob whale shark watching resumes, limits no. of tourists.” SunStar Philippines. 
https://www.sunstar.com.ph/cebu/local-news/oslob-whale-shark-watching-resumes-limits-no-of-tourists

Librea, J.M., Lim, C.A., & Veloso, A.N. 2023. “Oslob rakes in P230 million on return of whale watching, jump in national revenue share.” SunStar Philippines.
https://www.sunstar.com.ph/cebu/local-news/oslob-rakes-in-p230-million-on-return-of-whale-watching-jump-in-national-revenue-share

Collatos, C.M., Gomez, C.G. & Guzman, H.M. 2022. “Movement, Behavior, and Habitat Use of Whale Sharks (Rhincodon typus) in the Tropical Eastern Pacific Ocean.” frontiers.
https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fmars.2022.793248/full

Colman, Jeremy. 1997. “A review of the biology and ecology of the whale shark.” Researchgate.
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/229772097_A_review_of_the_biology_and_ecology_of_the_whale_shark

  1. “Philippine coastal community cited as best place to observe whale sharks.” World Wide Fund for Nature.
    https://wwf.panda.org/es/?17833/Philippine-coastal-community-cited-as-best-place-to-observe-whale-sharks
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