• Incredible Traveler

Snorkeling with Whale Sharks in Oslob, Philippines

Updated: Jan 15


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South of Cebu is a small municipality and remote town village called Tan-Awan in Oslob, where you have the great and unique opportunity to swim with whale sharks. Tan-Awan is located about 6 miles from the town in Oslob. Snorkeling with whale sharks has become undoubtedly one of the most popular and awesome attractions in Cebu. Surrounded by 21 barangays or villages, Oslob historically was a fishing village, and at the time a ghost town that was not pertinent to the world. That all changed though when the town spread to the media which put Oslob into the public spotlight.


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On 02 Feb 2019, my fiancé and I actively pursued this exciting endeavor of swimming with the whale sharks. We had originally booked a hotel in the city of Oslob through booking.com. When we arrived into Bato-Oslob by bus from the South Terminal in Cebu City, we found a cordial Filipino man on a tricycle. After my fiancé spoke to him in Tagalog, the man became our tour guide for the duration of our stay in Oslob. In fact, he showed us the entire area of Oslob! It was amazing! We located the hotel I had booked. However, as a result of the place being in a decrepit area away from the ocean, we decided to look for another accommodation. In fact, our tour guide helpfully found us an accommodation about 30 minutes from the Whale Watching area. The place called Heartstones lodge was only 1250 pesos or $23.99 per night, and it was located right on the beach. It was a great deal.








The following morning, we awoke from our slumber at 0500 a.m. When the clock struck 0600 a.m., our tour guide arrived at our lodge to pick us up. At the time I could not understand the reason why we had to wake up at the crack of dawn. After all, the trip took only 30 minutes. Nevertheless, the drive to the whale watching area was very adventurous as I videoed almost the entire time. When we arrived at the Whale watching area, we noticed a big difference in the atmosphere.

We have just arrived in Oslob!

The place, which is located in Tan-awan, Oslob, Cebu, Philippines, was flooded with an influx of tourists who had travelled all over the world including– Britain, South Korea, China, Germany, Indonesia, India, etc. When we found the ticket booth, we patiently waited in the long line until we were finally able to purchase a ticket.

It is only 0700 a.m., and there is already a long line.

Prices

A foreigner can scuba dive for 1500 pesos or $28.62, snorkel for 1000 pesos or $19.08, or watch the whale shark for $9.54. Additionally, a local can scuba dive for 600 pesos or $11.45, snorkel for 500 pesos or $9.54, or watch for 300 pesos or $5.72.

After receiving our ticket, we listened to a short 5 minute brief that spelled out rules concerning behavior and safety. Basically, we were not permitted to touch the sharks and we were to be at least 4 meters away from the whale shark. Additionally, any sunscreen that had already been applied to our bodies had to be removed prior to entering into the water. Otherwise, there would be a fine.

Guidelines for Interacting with Whale Sharks

First, there is no feeding whale sharks while in a tourist boat. Second, there is to be no greater than 6 tourists per whale shark. Third, whale sharks are not to be touched, for they can swim away or react violently. Fourth, flash photography is prohibited since whale sharks are highly sensitive to light. Fifth, a minimum of 4 meters or 13 feet must be maintained when swimming with the whale shark. Finally, no trash is to be thrown into the water.

This is where the orientation took place.

Subsequently, we headed to a restaurant (next to the booth) on the ocean side and we ordered breakfast at Mother Teresa Restaurant. While waiting for our breakfast to be served, we took pictures of an iconic “I love Whale Watching” sign. The sign was next to the restaurant and the whale watching area.


We love this sign!


While eating a delicious filipino breakfast, we listened intently as numbers were being called out. Our number was 127.

Bangus (milkfish), rice, and egg

Spanish bread

Eggs, rice, and longanisa (Spanish sausage)

We heard the number 80 being called out. While finishing breakfast, we heard 105. We paid the bill and immediately proceeded to the locker room to change. The time had finally come for me to swim with the world’s largest sea creature. We were required to store all of our belongings at the front desk where they were retained until after we finished the whale shark watching. You are not allowed to bring any of your DSLR cameras, only underwater cameras like go pros. This is understandable though considering the non-motorized banka (outrigger canoe bamboo paddle boats) are fairly small and you may encounter a lot of waves while making your way to the whale shark watching area. The last thing you want to do is lose a $1,000 camera on your vacation.

It was amazing that it was only 0700 a.m. and the place was flooded with lots of people. This large crowd made it clear to me how popular this place has been advertised.

Beautiful view at 0700 a.m.

We are about ready to snorkel with the whale sharks!

Finally, our number was called. We happily donned on our life jackets and waited for our boat to land so we could board. The time was 8:30 a.m. When the clock struck 09:00 a.m., there was an announcement on the intercom that the tickets were sold out for the day. This selling out explained the reason why we had to wake up early for this attraction. About 15 minutes later, we found ourselves tackling such an exciting attraction- swimming with whale sharks. I had always desired to swim with a whale shark. This opportunity came to me quicker than I had realized. As people were being assisted into a banka, I grabbed my go pro and followed behind them. I boarded the boat and begin to record the entire area. The sun was just setting therefore allowing for such a beautiful photo. As the captain of the boat paddled out about 100 yards out into the ocean, we caught sight of a large whale shark, which amazed everyone in the boat.

We are excited about our whale shark watching journey!

We spotted a whale shark while inside the banka.

Next to the shark was a man in another banka feeding a whale shark by tossing krill (small hipon or shrimp) into the ocean. The captain of our boat pulled up close to a boundary line and said, “Okay. Get down.” We knew it was time to face the world’s largest sea creature. As I was I donning my mask and my fins, I noticed that 90 percent of men, women, and children in our banka were fearful of the shark and decided to stay in the boat. Having no fear of the whale shark, I slipped into the water.

Approaching me was a bemouth of a whale shark, with its 4 to 5 foot colossal mouth opening and closing constantly. Having encountered many sharks over the years while snorkeling in the ocean, I practiced what I had taught myself. Whenever you encounter a shark, you do not make any sudden movement and do not panic. That is exactly what I did when I zeroed in on the whale shark. I just stood pleasantly motionless, speechless, and in awe as I videoed this spectacular creature. I was in the water for about 30 minutes constantly recording this majestic creature. While observing this fish gracefully swimming towards me, as its tail gently maneuvered through the water, it dawned on me why people call the whale shark the “gentle giant.” The docile whale shark was not intimidating nor threatening at all. It was just curious. The whale shark would gently and stealthily swim away for about 2 minutes and then return back to my area. Each time I caught sight of this beautiful creature, I was just startled by its sheer size, which is comparable to a bus. Even though the whale shark is large in size, the agility of this creature was amazing. The entire experience was very breathtaking.

This is a massive fish!!




Many people have asked me the question: Don’t whale sharks attack since they are sharks? The short answer is that they do not have same reputation as other sharks. Though they eat fish and shrimp, they eat mostly plankton. Thus, they are not be feared. Whenever people hear the word “shark” on the end of “whale shark,” they automatically think the largest sea creature is vicious and can overpower any creature in the ocean. Certainly, there is a predator versus prey food chain evidence in the ocean, but the whale shark does not have the reputation of attacking humans and large fish. Understanding what a whale shark is will help reduce the anxiety that people have towards whale sharks. That brings us to the next question: What is a whale shark?

The whale shark is unlike other sharks. It is locally known as the “Butanding.” Weighing an astounding 20-60 tons, and measuring between 18 to 45 feet in length, the whale shark is regarded as the largest fish in the entire world. The mouth of a whale shark measures between 4 to 5 feet in length. The size of a whale shark which has already been noted is comparable to a bus. This great size may cause people to have trepidation towards them. However, unlike regular sharks, they do not have large teeth used to crush prey. Having over 3000 small teeth though, the whale shark uses its mouth to suck in zooplankton (microscopic animal and plants), shrimp, and small fish. In other words, the whale shark acts as a vacuum and its teeth just holds the prey in its mouth. Additionally, whale sharks can be identified by their white and grey dotted spots on their bodies. Scientists utilize the unique patterns on a whale shark to easily identify individual whale sharks.

Many have asked the question: What drew the whale sharks to this particular area in Oslob? The answer is hipon or shrimp. Schools of shrimp became the source of food for the whale shark. When the whale sharks discovered the great amount of food in the area, they invited other whale sharks until eventually the area was populated with whale sharks. Today, there are about 50 whale sharks in the area because of the abundance of food at the whale shark area. In fact, every morning, Filipinos will launch their banka and feed the whale sharks with lots of shrimps from 07:00 a.m., to 10:00 a.m. Around 10:00, the feeding will stop and the whale sharks will leave the area. The feeding of the whale sharks commenced in September 2011 and by 2013, tourism had increased significantly. When I arrived at the whale watching area, I espied nets in the distance. That was a sign that the whale sharks were netted and could not leave the area. However, after gathering more information, I discovered the nets were installed in the area as a boundary line where boats are not allowed to pass. After all, the water depth at the boundary line was between 50-60 feet. I swam halfway down to the bottom and was struck by the beauty of the ocean floor. The clear turquoise waters will quickly place you in a state of awe especially when you are not only surrounded by beautiful tropical fish but also the world’s largest sea creature.

Having been to the Philippines about 4 times, I have handled all kinds of pesos bills. One day while I was looking at my peso bills that I had retained for souvenirs, I was struck to find a whale shark on the back of a 100 peso bill. That shows how popular whale sharks are in the Philippines.

Apparently, whale sharks are commonly found all over the world. Many divers have seen whale sharks in Thailand, Australia, Mexico, and other countries. On the other hand, it seems that Oslob is by far the best place to observe whale sharks for two reasons. First, the whale sharks move at a fairly slow pace at the whale watching area thereby giving people like me opportunities to snap great photos and videos of these marvelous creatures. Second, since the sharks are fed on a daily basis, your chances of witnessing 4-5 whale sharks in the same area is huge. Basically, you are not guaranteed to see whale sharks in the wild anywhere in the world. However, there is a definite guarantee you will be able to observe a whale shark as long as the tourism in Oslob continues. Once the whale sharks are unable to find food in the area, they will eventually move to another place and people will not have the great opportunity to view the whale sharks. Not only can you swim with whale sharks in Oslob, but in Donsol in Sorsogon as well. It seems to be the case though that at the latter place, the whale sharks swim very fast and it is difficult for the diver or snorkeler to keep up with them. In Oslob, however, the sharks move at a slow speed. Snorkeling with the whale shark is a bucket list I could finally check off.

Tips to Snorkeling with Whale Sharks

First, learn some Tagalog before you go. I have taught myself Tagalog for several years. Learning Tagalog is very helpful and it will eventually pay off. When you come to the Philippines you fit in especially when you start speaking Tagalog. Many times while vacationing in the Philippines, I have observed Filipinos and Filipinas speak to me in English and then all of a sudden their jaws would drop when I started speaking Tagalog. Luckily, my fiancé is Filipina and we had no issue getting discounts in the Philippines. We were able to get a package deal for as less as 833 pesos each. That was a total of 2500 pesos or $47.98 for three persons. Essentially, I was able to obtain my ticket for the price of a local. Some travel agencies charge 2500 pesos for one person. It is important to understand these travel agencies make a living booking travels. Travel agencies are great into talking people into accepting this “remarkable package,” when in reality the cost may be exorbitant.

Second, accept the culture shock in Oslob and in the Philippines in general. You are going to a third world country. It is certainly true the Philippines is a fantastic place to vacation. However, keep in mind the restrooms and the cities are very unsanitary.

Third, drink bottled water. This applies anywhere in the Philippines. The water is very unclean in the Philippines and the last thing you want to consume is a bad bacteria and then find yourself sick for days in a foreign country. That is a very unpleasant experience.

Fourth, wake up early. The whale watching center closes at around 10:00. At least that is the true the day that we went to the whale watching area. As I mentioned earlier in my article, the tickets sold out at 0900 a.m. Thus, I would recommend waking up between 0400 a.m. to 0500 a.m. Some of the people at the whale watching center were turned away because they had arrived late. Imagine traveling 6 hours from Cebu City, arrive at the whale watching center the same day and find out the tickets are sold out. That would be very disappointing.

Fifth, book a place that is close to the whale watching center. Below you can find a list of resorts I would recommend.

What to bring?

First, you can bring your swimsuit. I brought my dive suit instead. You never know the temperature of the water until you jump in. I wanted to keep warm and enjoy the activity at the same time. Of course, there are pros and cons to wearing a dive suit. The advantages are you can keep warm and you can prevent from experiencing sunburn. The disadvantage though is that it may be difficult to plummet to the bottom. If you do not own a dive suit, buy a rashguard. This should protect you from the heat rays although there is no guarantee you can avoid sun burn in the Philippines. One day while vacationing in the Philippines, I wore a rash guard that had 50 SPF protection on the shirt. Needless to say the sun rays penetrated through the shirt and I ended up with a bad sun burn that day.

Second, bring your mask and diving fins. Though masks are included in the whale watching package, I would prefer to bring my own because it fits my comfortability. As for diving fins, they are not provided while whale watching. The advantage with the fins is you can plummet towards the bottom allowing you to capture the whale shark better.

Third, bring an underwater camera. If you cannot afford a go pro, you can always find a cheap knock off go pro that films just as well as the go pros. Remember you are paying for brand names most of the time. Though I used my go pro while whale shark watching, in the past snorkeling experiences in other countries, I have produced some awesome videos using my knock off go pro, which records 4K video. The one I own is the AKASO EK7000 4K Wifi Sports Action Camera Ultra HD Waterproof DV Camcorder 12 MP 170 Degree Wide Angle. You can buy this on amazon for $60. If you can afford to buy a go pro, then I would recommend investing in one. The other alternative for the whale watching experience is to rent one at the place.

Fourth, bring a change of clothes and a towel. You do not want to ride back to your hotel or resort in wet clothes.

Fifth, bring extra pesos for souvenirs. There are several souvenir shops in the area. I bought a nice Oslob Whale Watching t-shirt, magnets, and some other souvenirs. I would recommend bringing between 5,000 pesos-10,000 pesos. The amount depends on factors including the number of people, the food you eat at the restaurants, and the souvenirs you purchase. You may even want to go to Tamalog Falls or Aguinid Falls as well. I will be writing a separate article on Aguinid Falls.

Lunch

After we snorkeled with the whale shark, we ate lunch at a place called “BJ’s Restaurant.”

Fresh mango shake!

Lapu Lapu (Grouper) and Mahi Mahi (snapper)

Mahi Mahi sinigang

Pork

We have ended our Whale Shark watching tour with a smile.

Now that you are excited about pursuing this unique attraction, you may ask how do I get to Oslob?

How to get to Oslob?

There are several ways you can reach Oslob. Wherever you are flying from, you want to fly to the Mac-tan-Cebu airport. If you cannot fly directly to Cebu from your country, you can fly to the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila, and then fly from there to Cebu. Once you arrive in Cebu, you will be 5 hours away from Oslob. Take a taxi to the South Bus Terminal, which is located next to Elizabeth Mall. The travel time is about an hour depending upon traffic of course. Expect to pay between 80-150 pesos or $1.54- $2.88 for the taxi ride. After arrival, I would recommend booking an air-conditioned Ceres Liner bus, which should be labeled with a neon sign in front of the bus. The cost of the bus trip is 150 pesos or $2.88. That is super cheap. Check out this link for the bus schedule. https://www.cebu.gov.ph/cebu-south-bus-terminal-bus-schedules/ If you do not know Tagalog (native language in the Philippines), don’t worry because the guards and staff speak English. Though non-air conditioned buses are cheaper, I would not recommend them because it is very mainit in the Philippines. You want your vacation to be comfortable and relaxing, not unbearable. Now you have bought your ticket, you will need to wait for the bus to arrive. While waiting, you might want to buy some snacks. While at the bus terminal, I tried Lugaw, rice porridge, for the first time in the Philippines. It is a very healthy soup, especially if you are not feeling well.

Where to stay?

I would highly recommend staying in an Airbnb place. We stayed at lodge called Heartstones Lodge. You can use my airbnb code to a get a discount. https://www.airbnb.com/c/zacke160?currency=USD. You can find an entire apartment for 4 guests, 2 bedrooms, 4 beds, and 1 bath for $74 a night. Our friend knew the owners of this place and found us a place for 3 people, 1 bath, 3 beds, for $23.03. When I read the prices on Airbnb, it reminded me that there is a lot of price gouging happening. We checked at 4 other places before we found this lodge. The great thing about the lodge was that it had a swimming pool and it was located on the beach. You cannot get any better than that. The beds were super comfortable.

Getting great discounts in the Philippines is tricky because if you do not have connections, there is a good chance most places are booked when you arrive. That was the issue we faced when we first arrived in Oslob. We took a gamble by canceling the place on booking.com and finding a better place on the beach. We were very lucky when we found Heartstones Lodge.

The second accommodation I would recommend is the “StayNSave Room w/ Double Bed no breakfast included.

This private room is about a 10 minute walk to the Whale watching center. The cost of this place for night is only $20 plus a $5 service fee. For two nights, you may spend only $45 dollars.

Other places you could stay in Oslob include the following: (1) Eden Resort, (2) Oslob Beach Resort, and (3) Gingging Hotel and Resort.

Final Thoughts

The Whale watching attraction is a huge money making business. Every year, the area receives an estimated 60,000-100,000 tourists. If 60,000 people were tourists, 1000 pesos times 60,000 people equals $1,151,400. That is a substantial amount of money made on a yearly basis. The fact is the whale watching area has not only generated a lot of traffic over the years, but it has also economically boosted the town thus creating new jobs for the locals. These people make a living fishing, and assist with the whale watching attraction by providing life jackets, feeding fish, etc. This is what people do not think about when they come to the Philippines. Their thought process is on mostly having a great vacation.



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