I am in love with the Philippines; it could possibly be the most underrated country in South East Asia. (A big claim in a part of the world known for the cheap insanity of its nightlife, low cost of living, incredible natural wonder, and friendly people.) Still, the Philippines stands out. A unique mess of thousands of island paradises, exploding with culture, gorgeous landscapes, and all functioning inside a semi-lawless chaos. It’s somewhere you need to experience to fully appreciate. As with most of South East Asia, the Philippines is not without its problems. Though some make international headlines, perhaps a lesser known issue is animal tourism. Often sustained by naive tourists, most practices are at best exploitative, and at worst, downright torture. I’m really not one of those PETA types. I’m not a vegetarian; I’m not subscribed to any animal welfare institutions; I don’t even like cats, but once you are aware of the issues, it’s hard to turn a blind eye. A worrying amount of animal tourism on the surface appears harmless, but in reality, can be extremely cruel. It only takes a quick google search to find out that riding elephants causes deep physical and psychological trauma. Exotic animals offered for photos have often had their teeth or claws removed and are sedated to keep them passive. While, Thailand’s infamous tiger temple is perhaps the manifestation of evil itself. In the south of Cebu Island, Philippines, tourists can swim with whale sharks all year round. The town of Oslob is now world famous, hosting hundreds, even thousands of tourists every day. From sunrise to sunset the bay is a clutter of tiny bamboo boats, leaked petrol, fisherman, divers, and over-enthusiastic swimmers trying to get their hands on the world’s biggest fish.
Oslob can promise whale sharks because the sharks are fed to guarantee they stick around. However, keeping this promise severely impacts the health and survival of the very animals the local community depend on. Tour operators import plankton and krill that are not found in the fish’s natural diet, food which has been shown to be deficient in a number of nutrients needed for their survival. Feeding also disrupts natural migration, artificially keeping the sharks in Oslob far beyond the natural plankton and krill season, possibly effecting breeding and the local ecosystem. At the same time, these practices condition whale sharks to associate humans with food, a potential death sentence on other legs of their migration.
In addition to the dangers of feeding, the rules of interaction are not followed or even enforced. Tourists constantly touch and hang onto the whale sharks as they try to reach the feed from the boats. Boats routinely run into or over the animals causing serious injuries as these gentle giants innocently swim towards any vessel in the hopes of food.
The wonder of seeing these gentle giants of the ocean is significantly diminished in the context of a frenzied tourist soup, containing injured whale sharks, crammed boats, and greedy tour operators. As in the majority of animal tourism cases, it’s a simple equation of poor struggling communities and naive tourists that leads to exploitation. Almost no one wants to contribute to the mistreatment of animals, it’s just a matter of education for tourists and alternative means of income for locals. So what’s the solution?
I’ve been obsessed with whale sharks since I learned how to dive. Swimming with them in the wild has been on the top of my bucket list. These enormous creatures grow to over 12 metres (40ft) long and spend their time lazily following the populations of plankton and shrimp that spawn throughout the world’s great oceans. They are an embodiment of freedom, gracefully, carelessly and literally going with the flow. When I heard about the exploitative practices of Oslob, I was disappointed; after all, I still want to see the sharks. I felt the knowledge that whale sharks would be injured, malnourished, and their survival possibly impacted might taint the experience in Oslob.
The small fishing village of Donsol lies in the Bicol region, about an hour’s drive from Legazpi Airport, which is a further forty minutes via frequent flights from the island of Cebu. I had heard that the village fisherman who once hunted the sharks were now committed to their protection and feeding them was strictly forbidden. I needed to find out if Donsol was where I could ethically find my wild whale shark.
The first day I opted to go on a whale shark interaction. Regulation limits the number of boats each day to six with a maximum of six passengers each. Every boat relies on spotters, in place of feeders, searching for the large dark shadows of the shark. As a result, sightings, though extremely common, are not guaranteed.
I was nervously optimistic after hearing there had been three sightings the day before. However, after almost three hours of searching I was understandably losing that optimism. Seconds before the final spark of hope was about to be extinguished, I felt the jolt of the engine. The captain reset our course, heading toward the commotion in the distance. We frantically kitted up and waited patiently, excruciatingly patiently, on the side of the boat.
Just as we reached the other boats, there was silence and the captain turned to us and simply said “it dived”. Disheartened was an understatement; we had missed it by minutes.
It was only the beginning of the whale shark season which stretches from November to June; maybe I’d made a mistake coming in early January. Nonetheless, I still hadn’t been diving. If I could choose a perfect time to see the sharks, during a dive would be it. Though, I thought it the less likely option.
Three hours into the following day and one dive down we were headed for a dive site named the Manta bowl. I must have been half asleep when the boat came to a halt. The crew started screaming “whale shark!”, running up and down both sides of the boat. An enormous creature had breached the surface in front of us. The boat turned to parallel the animal as we immediately tried to gear up as fast as we could.
We all jumped in and descended into the ocean, impatiently going through all our safety checks, as the shark disappeared into the dark blue.
As we tried to orient ourselves a huge dark shadow came over our group. I looked up to see a second monstrous whale shark peacefully glide over top of us.
I screamed into my regulator like a small child and scrambled to take photos, while hopelessly trying to keep up with it. I swear you could feel the powerful ripples of its tail effortlessly swimming through the water.
I didn’t know it was possible to feel so excited, so accomplished, just from swimming with a fish. But, this was something I had worked toward and was determined to do right. The agony of missing out the day before, the uncertainty over my time in Donsol, and the thrill of encountering a whale shark in the ideal situation, overwhelmed me with emotion. Sounds cliché when you say it out loud, but it really was humbling.
Donsol doesn’t offer a guarantee of whale sharks and there is a season to be weary of, with February and March being peak season. What it does offer is one of the most incredible experiences you can have with a truly wild and free animal. For the time-poor traveling in the Philippines, maybe it’s not worth the risk of not seeing one. Though even without whale sharks the Bicol region is stunningly beautiful.
If you can’t make it to Donsol this time around, try not to settle for Oslob. It may require a little more patience and luck, but, Donsol provides your best chance of seeing wild whale sharks, arguably in the world. Not only that, your contribution to the community helps create the template for a sustainable and ethical relationship between the whale sharks, local communities, and tourists. Efforts that will ensure the well being, safety, and survival of all parties involved.
How you travel, what you do, and where you spend your money is always your decision, but at least now you won’t be so naive when you make it to the Philippines.