A decade or so ago, whale sharks gathered by the hundreds in the area around Oslob, Philippines. They fed on tiny shrimp that came to the surface and close to shore in the moonlight. Fishermen also caught these same shrimp and thus competed with the sharks for their catch. Hearing about these sharks, some fishermen from Bohol came into the area and slaughtered whale sharks by the hundreds for their meat and fins. Only in the last few years have the sharks begun to return, albeit in smaller numbers.
Eventually, the local fishermen realized they could feed the sharks the shrimp from their catch and the sharks would hang out in the area. This, in turn, brought tourists to see the sharks during feeding. And so the now well-known whale-shark encounter in Oslob began, but it’s not without controversy. Would you snorkel with the Oslob whale sharks?
A Snorkel With the Oslob Whale Sharks
Area residents have greatly benefited from the income tourists bring, and the fishermen feed the sharks something from their normal diet. But the shark feeding in Oslob has garnered a fair amount of controversy. We had read some pretty horrendous things about the practice there, so we decided to go and see for ourselves. We found that the reports we’d read were much exaggerated. In some cases, they were outright lies. Despite the fact that things aren’t as bad as has been reported, I still have mixed feelings about the activities. Read on to decide for yourself.
When we first got there I was struck by the number of rules involved, all of them useful. Before we bought our tickets, we got an orientation.
- No touching the sharks. If the shark appears to be on a collision course with you, move out of the way.
- No feeding the sharks. The fishermen will do that and they feed them small shrimp that are part of their normal diet.
- No chasing the sharks. If the shark decides to leave, then you cannot chase it down. Allow the shark to leave unhindered.
- Keep 4 meters (12 feet) between you and the shark.
- No sunscreen. The sharks filter feed and thus suck in massive quantities of water. That water shouldn’t be full of sunscreen.
- No propeller boats allowed in the area. They could damage the sharks.
After we bought our tickets, a guide paddled us out to the shark area. We were allowed to get into the water with or without fins, mask and snorkel. We had hour with the sharks, but only because we paid extra. Regular tickets only give you 30 minutes of swim time.
Although it wasn’t packed when we visited, there was a somewhat large crowd. However, I didn’t notice that so much once we were in the water with the sharks. We were free to swim wherever we wanted, provided that we obeyed the aforementioned rules. And that’s exactly what we did — swim from shark to shark, watch all that was going on, and try to get some decent pics. The sharks primarily stayed at the surface, close to the boats that were feeding them. They seemed fairly oblivious to our presence and only reacted if they were accidentally touched.
So — is the Oslob shark-feed a good thing, or a bad thing? Personally, I think it’s a mixture of both. I can see a few potential problems resulting from these sharks seeing boats and people as a source of food. While the boats operating around this activity are paddle boats only, the sharks could possibly approach propeller boats expecting to be fed by them too. This is speculation since that hasn’t happened, as yet.
On our snorkel with the Oslob whale sharks, we saw nothing like the horrors that other articles had exposed over the last couple of years. All-in-all, it was a peaceful experience that allowed a number of people the opportunity to see these gentle giants firsthand, and to gain a new respect for them. While I would prefer to see the sharks without baiting, many people don’t have the opportunity to do so, and this experience offers them an inexpensive way to see these majestic sharks up close.
And as long as the sharks are a source of income for locals, they’re worth far more alive than dead, and not seen as competition for a limited food source. I hope that a few participants come away with a new respect for protecting ocean critters, sharks in particular. As for the controversy, you must decide for yourself whether or not you’d snorkel with the Oslob whale sharks — after all, that’s why we went.