The boatman asked, “Can you swim good?”
“Yes, I’m a good swimmer.”
“Okay, then you can take off your life jacket and jump in.”
“Now? Right here!?”
“Yes, go in the water.”
And without much more hesitation, we both dove from the tiny boat and into the ocean off the coast of Oslob, Philippines. The anticipation had been mounting and the time had finally come. I was so excited to see these gentle giants that I dove right in the water with my flip-flops still on!
After getting them back in the boat and clearing my mask, I looked below. There they were! It was not one, but two, whale sharks! This was only the beginning of what turned out to be an incredible experience.
The Search to Swim with Whale Sharks in the Philippines
It is the largest fish in the world. And the Philippines are becoming known for their whale sharks. It is one of the few places in the world in which you can be nearly guaranteed to see these mystical goliaths. The Philippines is so proud of its association with the whale sharks, you can find it predominantly displayed on the back of its 100-peso bill.
Having been traveling around the world for a few years, we had been searching for whale sharks throughout our entire journey and we failed. In Mexico and Belize, the timing wasn’t right. In Thailand and Malaysia, where occasional whale shark sitings are known to occur, we did not have luck on our sides. But in the Philippines, we hoped to change that.
Swimming with Whale Sharks: Donsol vs Oslob
We researched extensively to find exactly where in the Philippines you can find these mythical creatures. Most guidebooks seemed to point towards the small fishing town of Donsol in Southern Luzon. But further research showed that such encounters are virtually non-existent during June to October. Yet even during the supposed peak months, we came across disappointing accounts of swimming with whale sharks in Donsol. Being July, there was little hope for us to encounter whale sharks in Donsol.
That’s when we learned about Oslob, located on the island of Cebu, in which you are nearly guaranteed to see whale sharks. Shortly after landing in the Philippines, we made a beeline for this tiny village. Locals there told us that whale sharks have been swimming in these waters for ages, but only as recent as the past few years have entrepreneurial fisherman begun taking tourists to encounter these massive wonders.
Swimming with whale sharks in Oslob is no secret though. With social media now showing off amazing pictures and videos of the experience, word has spread quickly and there have even been reports of “crowds” in the water during the whale shark encounter. So our day to visit these majestic giant aquatic species started very early in the morning, as we wanted to have a peaceful encounter, swimming with the whale sharks of Oslob.
The Encounter: Swimming with Whale Sharks in Oslob Philippines
We arrived at the Whale Shark Watching Center in Oslob shortly after sunrise, before having breakfast or even our morning cup of coffee. A few earlier tourists were already setting out on the first couple of boats.
We sat through a brief orientation in which we were given firm instructions to keep 4 meters away from the whale sharks and to never touch them. Sunscreen is also banned from these waters, so showers are provided to rinse off if you’d already applied lotion. But we’d learned that in advance, so we were ready to get on with this awesome experience!
A small boat slowly paddled us out. It was just the two of us, providing a more intimate experience than we had even imagined. It was a short paddle from shore, perhaps just a few minutes.
The short distance we had covered was why we were slightly surprised when it was finally time to jump in the water and begin our swim with the whale sharks. But we wouldn’t hesitate any longer. After 19 months of travel, we’d finally had our chance to tick this once-in-a-lifetime experience off our list. So, overly excited, we dove right on in, flip-flops in all!
It was only a matter of seconds for the enormous whale sharks to come into view. I was so thrilled that I almost couldn’t decide which to swim over to. I felt like a confused dog having to choose between his favorite toy or a delicious treat. Both good options, but I just picked one and swam as quickly as I could in its direction. I couldn’t believe how close we could view the whale sharks that we seemingly stumbled right on to. We were able to swim right up to the world’s largest shark to have an up-close and personal look.
It was absolutely magnificent. Incredible.
Approaching the whale shark, you feel dwarfed. It was absolutely enormous and seemed nearly the size of a bus. Yet despite its size and the fact that these creatures are classified as “sharks,” there was never any sense of fear. It was pure awe and amazement.
These gentle giants are merely filter feeders that suck in plankton and krill from the waters. You could easily watch this in action, as they opened their massive mouths to take in the tiny pieces of feed, floating around near the top of the ocean.
After about 5 minutes or so of this cozy encounter, we explored around the area a bit more to see what else we could find. Sure enough, there were even more. We’re not sure exactly how many whale sharks we saw in total due to the possibility of double-counting the same sharks, but we estimate that we spotted at least a half dozen whale sharks in total!
The encounters just kept on getting better and better, coming into close proximity of whale sharks of all different sizes, but mostly of the gigantic variety. We found most of the whale sharks near the surface, but it was almost more special when one was spotted gliding around the depths below us.
Yet it was near the surface where you could have a closer encounter with the whale sharks. You couldn’t help feel a slight connection to these magnificent creatures when gazing into their tiny little eyes. It almost made me feel like a kid again as it became difficult to resist the urge to get closer and reach out for a pet. But we knew better, not to do so.
The whale sharks move through the water relatively slowly. Yet they seem to turn often, essentially gliding through the ocean sideways. There were definitely some moments, where you’d glance off in another direction or lift your head above the water to take a breath, only to look back and notice that you’re right next to the whale shark!
Sometimes it even got a little tricky to maneuver, trying to be mindful of the 4-meter perimeter you should heed around them. We constantly found ourselves dodging the whale sharks. And when you continue to find yourself trying to get out of their way, that’s when you realize you’re having a most successful encounter!
The whale sharks really seemed to not pay much attention to us humans that were growing in numbers in the water, as the morning moved forward. More tourists began taking the plunge in but it never seemed to get too crowded. It’s a large ocean, so if one area seemed to get inundated we’d swim away and sure enough, there would be another whale shark nearby to gawk at for a while. I don’t think there were ever more than about 50 people in the water at a time. Those people did tend to cluster together too, which made them easier to avoid.
We could have swum around endlessly with these stunning behemoths of the sea all morning long. We were hesitant to get out of the water when our boatsman motioned to us that our time was up. The thirty minutes in the sea with these magnificent animals seemed to fly by. As we showered and dried off back on land, we seriously contemplated going out for a second snorkel. We didn’t want this magical experience to end.
But we continued on as planned with our driver, who then took us on a short detour to Tumalog Falls, on the way back to our hotel.
Reflecting back on our day, we came to the realization that it was only 7:30 am and we had experienced this all of this action before we even had our morning cup of coffee. Only in the Philippines!
Ethical Concerns and Our Opinion
So why do the sharks come to Oslob year round?
Locals say that the whale sharks have been in Oslob as long as they can remember. But the fact remains that the boatmen were sprinkling the water with bits of krill to attract the whale sharks to the surface. This has raised some ethical concerns considering this is an unnatural disruption to the whale shark’s typical feeding behavior.
Locals told us that whale sharks would come here to Oslob anyways and that the small amount of krill they sprinkle into the water simply attracts them to the surface for easier viewing. However, we seemed to witness the whale sharks being fed much more than just bringing them to the surface. And if it’s true that the whale sharks would come here anyways, then why feed them at all? We’d actually prefer not seeing them at the surface and would rather swim with them in a more natural setting.
A director of research for the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta has been particularly critical of these whale shark tours in Oslob, Philippines, citing the downsides involved when animals become dependent on people for food.
It’s a good point. Yet while feeding wild whale sharks is probably not the most appropriate practice, I do firmly believe it is much more ethical to swim with these unnaturally fed animals in the wild than it is to swim with whale sharks held in captivity. Swimming with whale sharks in a caged environment in Atlanta is an experience that the researcher’s employer offers for $250 at the Georgia Aquarium’s Ocean Voyager exhibit built by The Home Depot. So it seems a little hypocritical to be okay with that, but not be okay with swimming with whale sharks in the wild in Oslob.
But that’s just our two-cents and we are certainly not marine life experts. When we embarked on this swimming with whale shark tour, we didn’t know the whale sharks were being liberally fed. It did upset us to discover this and we wish it wasn’t practiced.
So we now want you to know that the whale sharks are being fed krill so that you can make your own ethical decision on whether to pursue the activity or not. If you’re considering taking the plunge in Oslob, you’ll need to decide about these concerns for yourself.
For us, it was reassuring to see how much the whale shark tour operation stressed not touching the animals and even checked people for sunscreen on their skins before getting onto the little boats. There are also researchers out in the water monitoring tourists’ interactions with the whale sharks and imposing strict fines, even jail time, to those who are seen purposely touching or coming too close to the whale sharks.
So there are indeed some good protections and environmental practices in place here at Oslob Whale Shark Watching Center. The krill feeding is the biggest concern.
It was also nice to see a small tourism industry beginning to develop around this otherwise sleepy village along the southeast coast of Cebu, Philippines.
So although there is most certainly some large room for improvement and the practice of feeding the whale sharks does seem a little, well, fishy (pardon the pun); we’d like to give the operation the benefit of a doubt and hope they could make a few adjustments in the future. It would be fantastic for them to transform the experience to be more natural, relying less on feeding the whale sharks and perhaps also imposing caps on tourist numbers.
Until then, swimming with the whale sharks in Oslob still remains an absolutely incredible experience. We can only hope that feeding them isn’t causing massive damage to the fragile marine eco-system and the operation reconsiders their feeding practice.
If You Go to Swim with Whale Sharks in Oslob
There are many tour companies that offer trips to swim with the whale sharks in Oslob from locations in and around Cebu including from Cebu City, Bohol, Dumaguete, Moalboal and other nearby tourist locations. These whale shark tours can make transportation to-and-from Oslob a breeze. You’ll pay a bit more than going to Oslob on your own. It can definitely be worth the convenience for travelers who are short on time or not accustomed to public transport in the Philippines.
Check out the current whale shark tours from Cebu City you can book here online through Viator.com.
If you’re short on time and want ease of travel, such a tour may be the way to go. But we’d otherwise recommend arriving to Oslob the night before and rising early to go see the whale sharks first thing in the morning.
How to Get To Oslob Whale Sharks
Cebu City is the closest major airport to Oslob. You can easily travel from Cebu City to Oslob by public bus.
Cebu City to Oslob by Bus
Catch a taxi to Cebu’s South Terminal, where Ceres buses leave very regularly for the approximately 4-hour bus ride from Cebu City to Oslob. The cost of the bus from Cebu City to Oslob was 150 pesos.
Both air conditioned and non-aircon buses ply this route. You may want to wait for an aircon bus as they’re much more comfy and the cost of the air-conditioned bus from Cebu City to Oslob is only 5 pesos more.
Dumaguete to Oslob by Trike + Ferry + Bus
While most people will come to Oslob from Cebu City, it is also easily possible to get to Oslob from Dumaguete. To get from Dumaguete to Oslob, first, take a trike to Sibulan Port. From Sibulan Port you can catch a regular ferry to Liloan Port which brings you onto the island of Cebu. Finally, transfer to a short bus ride the remainder of the way to Oslob.
Where to Stay in Oslob
The Whale Shark Watching Center is actually located about 10 kilometers South of Oslob in the little enclave known as Tan-awan. There are a few small guesthouses and hotels you can stay at that are within walking distances of the Whale Shark Watching Center. But from our research, most accommodation in the direct vicinity of the Oslob Whale Shark Watching Center seemed to be overpriced and has underwhelming reviews.
Instead of staying there, we recommend looking in the town Oslob proper. Here you’ll find a much better assortment, prices, and quality of accommodation. There are also more places to eat.
We would particularly recommend the most pleasant Oslob Malonzo Pension House, where we stayed, for their most gracious hospitality, clean & comfortable rooms, and low prices. Tourism is relatively new to Oslob, but the Oslob Malonzo place really gets it and the hosts here couldn’t be more accommodating.
What’s most convenient is that they’ll easily arrange a hassle-free early morning transfer to the Oslob Whale Shark Watching for 140 pesos per person, round-trip. A few pesos more will get you a side trip to Tumalog Falls on the way back to the hotel where you can have breakfast in the courtyard (additional 100 pesos). Both the waterfall visit and the breakfast come highly recommended by us and we give the Malonzo Pension House a great review.
When to Go Swim with The Whale Sharks in Oslob
Go as early as possible. Aim to be there by 6:00 am for your best chances of whale shark sightings and possibly less tourists. We’re told that the whale sharks are here year round, so no need to plan on dates according to seasons.
Prices to Snorkel with Whale Sharks in Oslob
International tourists are charged a flat fee of 1,000 pesos (~$20 USD) to swim with the whale sharks for 30 minutes that is inclusive of the boat ride and snorkeling gear rental. We found this to be an incredible value, particularly considering other places around the world charge several hundreds of dollars and include lengthy boat rides for the mere chance of rendezvousing with whale sharks. It’s quite the deal for such an awesome experience!
What to Pack for Swimming with Whale Sharks in Oslob
Just wear a bathing suit and bring a towel to dry off after the experience. Bring some pesos too, of course, to pay for it. Be sure to leave the sunscreen at your hotel, as it is prohibited to wear it in the water with the whale sharks.