Islands and Beaches

Swimming Free: The Whale Sharks of Oslob

Cebu

Tara Abrina
Tara Abrina | Feb 28, 2014

The guidelines at the briefing area in Oslob, Cebu were simple: wear your life jacket on the boat, you have 30 minutes of interaction, don't swim without the life jacket if you can't, no sunblock, no flash photography, no touching the animal, and if they touch you, just calmly swim away.

The caveat by my environmentalist friends was simple too: it may get as depressing as a zoo.

Oslob

Photo by Oka Espenilla

It was January, and I was shivering by the briefing area. I was shivering as I pulled on my rash guard, wore my monofin and plopped into the water. I was shivering in the water.

But the visibility was good enough, and I quickly became aware of the rather venomous sea snake on the half-grassy, half-sandy bottom, and of the sparse schools of basslets and cardinal fish. I test my fin and feel the cold escape me.

There were only about 8 boats that Monday morning after the Sinulog Festival, and only 3 of us tourists knew how to swim to the bottom. So I took a drop, the sand being a mere 15 feet from the surface, and I laid down on the grass, allowing the silence of the sea to swallow me (the boatmen use oars to avoid harming the whale sharks).

I was weightless. The sand was warm. The sun was blinding, as it should be. Then it was not.

Oslob

Photo by Oka Espenilla

The feeding boat passed overhead, its pet whale shark in tow. By the size of the fish I took it to be a juvenile, or a severely stunted adult. Swimming under it, I saw its massive body, however small for its species: the slits for its gills and its tail that was as tall as I was, the small dark spots on its white underbelly, the round white spots on its dark shark skin, the ridges, the dorsal fin and the left eye -- the ever forward, focused, hungry eye.

It is an eye that sees food, the little shrimp meals from the mama boat, and nothing else. So when I felt a shape emerge from my right side -- its pectoral (side) fin! -- I knew it hadn't seen me, so I jerked my body upward to avoid it BY A HAIR. It was a slow and graceful movement, yet menacing nevertheless.

A few nights later while I was back in Manila, my freediving instructor posts a photo of himself and a whale shark that passed in front of his shop in Panglao, Bohol. It was three times the size of my little friend, migratory and rarely seen (you can't guarantee a sighting at any given time).

Oslob

Photo by Oka Espenilla

But more importantly, it was horizontal -- swimming with its mouth open to take in the plankton it needs for a well-balanced diet -- and not vertical nor inclined like the ones in Oslob. My heart sinks as my instructor updates me with the story of yet another whale shark reportedly crashing into a boat. "It associates them to food," he says.

But maybe that's just the way it is, that we aren't responsible for what we don't see. Maybe we just don't have the right -- the tourism does help the residents of the local barangay after all. But if you see the sharks like I do, and swim as freely as they should, then you'd know how hard it is to do nothing.

You really should see them for yourself.

***

Brgy. Tan-awan, Oslob, Cebu

To get there: pay Php 150-155 for a 2-3 hour bus ride from the South Bus Terminal near Elizabeth Mall in Cebu City. Head to the briefing area to get well-acquainted with the guidelines. Pay Php 300 per head just to watch, Php 500 per head to swim with the sharks, and Php 1000 per head for foreigners. They close at around noon.

To learn more about the status of the whale sharks in the Oslob area, follow the Large Marine Vertebrates Project Philippines or LAMAVE here.

VIEW: Make Oslob your jump-off point to explore the province with the Choose Philippines Cebu Map:

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