N I G E L M A R S H P H O T O G R A P H Y
U N D E R W A T E R I M A G E S A N D A R T I C L E S
THE OSLOB WHALE SHARK EXPERIENCE
By Nigel Marsh & Helen Rose
The Philippines is known as one of the best places in the world to see whale sharks. At Donsol and Sogod Bay organised whale shark tours are available, but almost anywhere you dive in this island nation you have a chance of seeing one of these giant creatures. However, recently a new whale shark hotspot has emerged at Oslob, which is unique in the world and also quite controversial.
Oslob is located on the south east coast of Cebu, around three hours’ drive south of the capital of Cebu City. If your guide book is more than two years old it wouldn’t even mention this area, as there were no tourist attractions, until recently. Then in September 2011 word spread that whale sharks were being hand fed at this spot, and not just one or two, but dozens. The tourists quickly followed.
Whale sharks are common in this area of the Bohol Sea, and were traditionally hunted for their meat until protected in Philippine waters in 1998. The local fishermen around Oslob are very familiar with whale sharks and compete with the giant sharks for brine shrimp, which swarm in the area due to upwellings. A few years ago the fishermen started to feed the whale sharks these lure them away from their fishing grounds, and once word got out tourists quickly descended on the area and chaos ensued.
By the time of our visit in November 2013, regulations and fees had been put in place for the benefit of the whale sharks and the visiting tourists. We travelled to Oslob from Moalboal, a popular diving destination on the south west coast of Cebu, around two hours’ drive away. Most of the dive operators at Moalboal use to take divers to Oslob, but many have now stopped as they don’t agree with the feeding, worried that the sharks will associate all boats with food and either get killed or injured by propellers or fisherman. There is also anecdotal evidence that the feeding has affected their natural migration, as three or four whale sharks use to be seen off Moalboal each month, but since the feeding started they have only seen a couple.
We travelled to Oslob with Hermann Pauli from Savedra Dive Center. Hermann was one of the first to dive with the whale sharks and was instrumental in putting in place regulations to control the crowds. He hadn’t visited Oslob in over a year so was interested to see what was going on and so we could report on the situation.
Arriving at Oslob we signed up for a dive and were briefed on the regulations by our dive guide. No touching, no flash photography and keep a 4m minimum distance from the whale sharks. Our fees paid we were allowed 45 minutes with the whale sharks, snorkelers are allowed 30 minutes.
We entered the water from the shore and could see a group of feeder boats around 80m offshore. Within a minute we were swimming over a sandy bottom and looked up to see a 5m long whale shark glide by, a jaw dropping sight in only 4m of water. We followed the shark to the boats and were amazed by the sight in front of us – eight whale sharks cruising about or being fed!
Most of the sharks had their heads up and tails down, and looked like a group of piglets being suckled by the boats. Fourteen local fishermen have been appointed as feeders, throwing handfuls of shrimps to the hungry whale sharks, which are fed daily from 6am to 1pm.
With the bottom only 7m deep, some of the whale sharks stretched from the surface to the bottom, so you had to be constantly aware of their powerful tails. The sharks were forever moving around from boat to boat, depending on who had the most food, so you had to be vigilant to stay out of their way and maintaining a 4m buffer was near impossible. We quickly noticed that most of the sharks had scraps on their snouts and fins, either from contact with the bottom or boats or each other, but fortunately none bore scars from boat strikes.
We were especially curious to see how well the regulations were followed and policed, and were happy to see no one attempt to touch the sharks. The only ones that were touching the sharks were the feeders, who seem to consider them their pets; some would stroke the sharks with their feet.
It was certainly an amazing experience to see so many whale sharks in shallow, calm, clear water, and easily the best whale shark experience we have had; certainly a lot easier than jumping in the water and snorkelling after a feeding whale shark as is done at other locations. But should they be feeding the whale sharks?
According to the local government and the people of Oslob it is great, bringing in tourist dollars and the more the better. On a weekend hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of people come to see the whale sharks each day, either in the water or from a boat. We were there midweek, on an overcast day, and even then it was a bit crowded, with several dozen snorkelers and around ten scuba divers. Some of the people in the water that day were also researchers from a group called Physalus, who are not as happy about the feeding.
Physalus is a non-profit organisation and through their large marine invertebrate project are studying the whale sharks at Oslob and other locations. The day we were at Oslob they had several of their team photographing the sharks for later identification, and they inform us that 16 different whale sharks had been recorded at the feeding site that day. The group has been studying the whale sharks since March 2012 and their research includes DNA tissue sampling, laser measuring, in water study of the sharks behaviour, tourist surveys and boat monitoring from the surface. They prepared a report for the local government of Oslob in September 2012 that document their research, highlighted issues and provided recommendations to improve the situation. We are not sure if these were implemented as all attempts to contact Physalus by email failed.
Physalus research has shown that 62 sharks (July 2012) have visited the feeding area, and while most come and go, some stay around the area far too long, disrupting their naturally migration and feeding patterns. They found that 75% of the sharks are immature males less than 7m long and recorded many sharks with scars from boat strikes. The report also highlighted concerns that the regulations are not being followed, with people touching the sharks, too many people in the water at one time and the guides not controlling the tourist. The group would like to see the feeding stopped and a more natural eco-friendly whale shark interaction to take place at Oslob, like in other areas.
It will be interesting to see what happens in the next few years, as for now the whale sharks of Oslob are an experience unlike anything else on the planet!
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