When I first set foot in the island of Cebu in the Visayas Region of the Philippines, I had a dream! Swimming with the largest shark species ever was in fact one of my top priorities. I had to get close enough to a whale shark and the best and most popular destination for that was of course Oslob, a small coastal town in southeast Cebu.
Luckily, I stopped at Moalboal first and decided to linger on the beautiful beaches of the city. That’s where I met Josha who lived in the surrounding area. We talked for a while and I told her I was going to Oslob to swim with the whale sharks. She’s the one who opened my eyes on the the true face of that tourist attraction. It kept me thinking so I did some research and decided not to go to Oslob after all.
Let’s not dive into details right away; let me tell you more about whale sharks first !
Whale Shark Facts
Whale sharks are the largest known sharks, and also the most harmless. What do whale sharks eat? They feed on plankton and their tiny teeth allow them to keep the small creatures inside their mouths while they filter-feed. This shark species is found all over the Philippines and also swims in warm waters across the planet as shown in red in the following map.
Whale sharks are yet another proof that sharks are not a threat for humans, a reputation we’ve been sort of imposing on them for quite a long time now. I’d go so far as to say that no animal species on Earth is dangerous to humans given that they do not violate its territory.
Imagine that an animal steps into your room unexpectedly. You probably have two options. Either you’re physically inferior and your weakness will make you run for your life or you make him run for his, if you feel physically stronger and decide to attack him. That’s basically what happens with all wild animals on Earth. You’ll notice that I’m oversimplifying things for the sake of making them more accessible to people but if you think about it, nature tends to abide by very simple rules too. 🙂
Now that you know more about whales sharks, let’s talk about the risks they are exposed to by coming into such close and regular contact with human beings.
Swimming with Whale Sharks in Oslob
Those who organize shark divings make it clear that a certain set of rules should be respected. As a matter of fact, divers are not allowed to touch the sharks. They should keep at a 15 to 20 foot distance and refrain from touching the animal. All divers are made aware of these rules before they get to swim with the sharks.
Things are completely different when you get there however. Swimmers never refrain from touching the animals. It is partly due to the people whose business is to sell the tourist attraction and who do not set an example to follow.
They would even push the sharks towards the shore so that tourists can see them. And there’s far too many of them at each dive. They would be scrambling to see the animal and snap the perfect picture but end up unintendedly punching him most of the time.
You’d think touching a huge fish is not such a serious thing to do and you’d be wrong. Let me tell you why: our skin is home to millions of bacteria that are harmless to us but might not be so harmless for these sharks. These bacteria can be transmitted to them through frequent contact, leading to infection. Same thing goes for boat hulls that come in contact with these creatures to surround them and keep them near the shore.
Certain whale sharks develop spongy wounds around their jaws and get scars that cannot heal because they are infected with human-borne bacteria. Let me remind you that whale sharks are supposed to be protected by the wildlife Republic Act No. 9147 that makes it illegal to harm the species in any way.
Whale Shark Migration Disrupted
In the wild, whale sharks migrate over long distances, sometimes through entire oceans. They’re obviously always after plankton-rich ocean zones but in Oslob, migration is pretty much over for whale sharks who don’t need to migrate anymore because they’re being fed there.
Such an important change in the species behavior can profoundly impact its gene pool, affecting its ability and skill to migrate and find food elsewhere.
Ecological imbalance is another collateral consequence of whale shark exploitation in the areas where the species no longer lives and feeds. I’m no expert in whale shark matters but I know that an ecosystem is fragile to maintain and that removing an element from its equation can never be beneficial.
An Inadequate Diet, to Make It All Worse
Whale sharks usually feed on a large variety of plankton, that is around 12 species of these organisms that are very hard to find around Oslob. To feed the sharks, one would have to buy plankton 400 km away from Oslob and bring it back there with all the risks it would entails. And don’t get me started on carbon footprint ! It definitely doesn’t make sense.
When not enough varieties of plankton are available, whale sharks are fed a mixture of only 4 species of plankton which cannot be sufficient. Can you imagine the impact of a poor diet on the species? So much so that the sharks use up their energy by hitting the boats that feed them, asking for food.
I’ve had many discussions about whale sharks and researched the topic thoroughly and I think that Oslob is nothing but a zoo in the open air, which seems harmless as a tourist attraction but is actually detrimental to the whale shark species. It’s kind of the same old story about the elephants and tigers in Thailand.
Wild animals are meant to be in their natural habitat and it might be paradoxical but if you really like them, you probably shouldn’t be looking for them but leaving them alone, to live in the peace of their own home. Who knows? You might bump into a whale shark while diving in the Philippines ! Josha said it used to be very common back in the day but Oslob made sure to take that away.
If you’ve been following Asian Wanderlust for a while, you probably know by now that I advocate for responsible tourism that takes into consideration and respects flora and fauna as much as people’s customs and cultures. If you think this is a bit of a challenge, keep in mind that simply sharing this information can make a change around you.
I truly think that man is inherently good but is sometimes negatively influenced by society’s practices. Let’s all be active and committed citizens, and be aware of fishy practices (pun intended!) around us. It will be a huge leap towards the preservation of our beautiful planet. 🙂
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Talk to you all very soon,
PS : You can find more information about whale sharks in Oslob Cebu in this very good article.