Oslob Whale Sharks: Amazingly Unnatural
The whale shark watching tour in Tan-awan Bay is not an entirely new tourist attraction for the town of Oslob in Cebu, but now it has certainly become popular. Visitors used to deal directly with the fishermen to see the whale sharks, locally known as “tuki”. Now, each visitor has to register in a log book and pay PHP300, most of which probably goes to the municipal government. The tuki is not so much of a new sight for the locals but, based on the small talk I had with some of them, it seems that they don’t know much about these animals — except that they used to hate them.
I learned from a recent chat with underwater cinematographer Carina Escudero that the fishermen in Oslob actually regarded the tuki as pests; they are attracted to the bundles of uyap (sergestid shrimp) that are used as bait for fishing out in the reef. One or two fishermen used to drive away the tuki by spearing their bodies. In the late 80s, someone had the bright idea to lead the whale sharks away from the fishing grounds by bribing them with uyap. One of the fishermen, a man called Dodong, eventually developed an emotional bond with the tuki and began caring for the animals by hand-feeding and protecting them from fishermen who wanted to harm them. A Korean resort owner soon noticed this; he made a deal with Dodong to bring his friends and guests to see the whale sharks in Tan-awan Bay. This went on quietly for some time, until more fishermen later learned about the arrangement and wanted in on the action. It wasn’t only until late 2011, thanks to social media, that the whale sharks in Oslob became an international headline and the tours a municipal responsibility.
Under a small makeshift covered area near the shoreline of Tan-awan Bay, visitors are required to sit through a short briefing of the “10 commandments” of whale shark watching, which wasn’t really so much of an orientation as it is a direct reading of the printed guidelines that anyone could actually read by themselves (check it out at this link). The guy did stress that hand-feeding is not allowed and that we are not to get within 2 meters of the whale sharks for our own safety. ”They are aware of their surroundings”, he said (that’s also written in the guidelines).
As we walked along the water’s edge towards the waiting area, I looked out to the sea and was a bit shocked to see that the tuki were only about 60-70 meters from the shoreline. At one point, we saw 1 or 2 whale sharks swimming just about 30 meters from the shore. There were 8 to 10 boats on the water that day we visited, plus a larger boat from Sumilon Island Bluewater Resort. Each set of guests is allowed only 30 minutes of viewing time. Locals say there are 14 whale sharks that go to the area, but more often there would be about 8. The biggest so far is about 20 feet, really just a young teenager. Carina said that when she was there during Chinese New Year’s week, she saw an adult whale shark that was about 40 feet long or more.
We saw the dorsal fins of a couple of sharks trailing after the boats of some fishermen (“feeders”), which was both amusing and very strange at the same time. If you look closely at the fishermen’s hands, you could see uyap being dropped continuously into the water, which the whale sharks sucked into their mouths as they swam after the boats like pet dogs that are never satisfied. The tuki that got nearest our banca also approached us, evidently begging for food. Visitors aren’t allowed to feed the fish, but the guidelines didn’t say the fishermen could not. Actually, our guides offered us uyap to throw into the fish’s mouth but we said “No”. Next thing we knew, the tuki was bumping its head against our boat. If it could talk, I’m sure it wanted to tell us, “That’s your cue! Feed me!” That same whale shark soonafter returned to its “feeder”, but when the fisherman paddled away instead of dropping food into the water, the tuki followed quickly behind his banca and propelled itself against it. The banca actually moved forward by about a foot! The tuki did this once or twice more until the feeder dipped his hand into the water, which the fish probably took as a signal that food was coming. Its feeder scrambled to open a new bag of uyap and immediately tossed its contents by the handful into the whale shark’s eager mouth.
We chanced seeing a couple of other feeders having what looked like spats with their respective “pet fish”. Whenever the tuki became impatient and began bumping the side of the boats, the fishermen would push down on the animal’s nose, sometimes even using their feet, to stop the tuki from bumping their banca. No wonder all the tuki there have scratches on their mouths.
My husband jumped into the water with a snorkeling mask and just as he was getting his bearings, the same whale shark we had been observing moved near our boat. My husband actually got within 2 meters of the fish, but our tour guides made no effort to warn him about moving further away for his own safety. Carina told me that during Chinese New Year’s week, there were easily about a thousand tourists in the area. The locals were overwhelmed and could not manage the unending flood of visitors, a lot of whom had become rude and impatient. There were so many people diving and snorkeling in the water that most of them had actually gotten very close to the whale sharks. While the mass tourism — which seems to be the inevitable fate of all tourist spots being promoted in the country — is surely detrimental, its effect on the wildlife in the area is even more worrisome. Carina saw one tuki crash into a guy who was snorkeling nearby! Her many years of filming marine wildlife, including whale sharks in different parts of the Philippines, told her that the aggressive behavior of the Oslob whale sharks could be because there wasn’t enough space to maneuver around due to the crowds; certainly, the reaction was very unnatural for a whale shark.
I have to say, when I woke up at 5 A.M. on the day we went to Tan-awan Bay, I actually felt very excited about seeing whale sharks up close. But 3 hours later, what I took home was nothing like child-like wonder, but so much more like pity. I could not bring myself to truly be amazed by the almost-close encounter with what really are amazing creatures. The overall experience just felt too artificial and no different from what you might see in marine parks. Sure, these whale sharks aren’t being held in captivity, but being bribed to the point of behaving unnaturally seems to produce the same effect.
Dr. AA Yaptinchay, Director of Marine Wildlife Watch of the Phils., is concerned that many are seeing this as “educational”. How can be it educational when the animals are not behaving naturally? It gives people the wrong idea about whale sharks. Kage Gozun, one of our teammates, remarked that someone was bound to dare touch a whale shark in Donsol just because they could in Oslob. This article explains to readers how touching whale sharks is ultimately harmful for the animal.
I also agree with what Anton Diaz wrote in his blog post about the Oslob whale shark watching: “The Oslob Butandings urgently need expert help and the implementation of a Comprehensive Eco-Tourism Program. Tourist Whale Watching activities also need to be strictly controlled before the politicians (who just want to profit from it) and the volume of tourists this summer scare these majestic creatures away.”
There is a sense of balance in nature that is designed that way for a reason. Let’s make the effort to learn about it and respect it.
Also read: Donsol’s reaction to the “domestication” of whale sharks in Oslob.
UPDATE: we received news recently from a reliable source that the feeding may be stopped for good in Tan-awan Bay. This report has not yet been confirmed.
All images on this blog post are the sole property of the author.