Swimming with the Whale Sharks in Oslob is one of the most popular things to do in the Philippines. Tourists from near and far flock to this once quiet little fishing town in Cebu to get a once-in-a-lifetime experience, swimming and taking pictures with the biggest fish in the ocean. Trust me, they’re definitely a sight to see.
For those of you who don’t know a lot about Whale Sharks, they are actually the largest species of fish, and believe it or not they aren’t part of the shark family, contrary to their name. They vary in size greatly, with some growing up to 12 meters long (40 feet) and weighing as much as 20 tonnes. Regardless of their massive size, they shouldn’t scare you at all, because they are best known as the gentle underwater giants. They feed mostly on plankton and are not known to pose any kind of threat to humans. Swimming with these amazing giants was such a special experience as it was top of my bucket list for the Philippines so I was eager and excited to tick it off the list.
Multiple airlines service Cebu City including, Philippine Airlines, Cebu Pacific and Airasia along with some international airlines like Emirates. Once you’ve arrived in Cebu City make your way to the South Bus Terminal and ride a Ceres bus going to Bato via Liloan. There should be plenty of signs for Whale Shark watching/Oslob, so it should be easy to find. When paying the conductor ask to be dropped off at Tan-awan in Oslob. This small town is about 10 mins past Oslob and it’s where you’ll see the whalesharks. The bus journey takes roughly 3 hours but can vary depending on traffic, especially around Cebu City. The bus with air-con costs about 155 PhP and the ones we got mostly had tv’s on them playing movies.
An unconventional route but one that we took. We organised a boat to take us one way from Alona Beach to Oslob which cost 650 PhP per person. We booked this through Seashine Travel, but I’d imagine lots of tour operators offer this service. We were due to leave at 6am but like everything in Southeast Asia things rarely operate on time. By the time we set sail for Oslob it was 7am and around two hours later we arrived at our destination. It was an early start to the day but, considering we cut out travelling back to Tagbilaran Port, a ferry to Cebu City and a bus to Oslob it was definitely worth it.
This isn’t a route we personally took but it was one that I had looked into, so I’ve some information on it. At the Dumaguete City Public Market, look for the multi-cabs going to Sibulan Port. From there you’ll need to pay for the ferry to Liloan. At Liloan Port, jump on a Ceres bus with signs for Cebu City and like above ask the bus conductor to drop you off at Tan-awan for the Whale Sharks.
Once you arrive in Tan-awan make sure you walk back up to the briefing centre and don’t go into one of the resorts as many of the bus staff and people on the street will direct you to. These resorts will charge you extra money to store your belongings and to bring you to the briefing centre when you can just go there yourself.
The Whale Shark Briefing Centre opens from 6am till 12pm (noon), and my advice if you decide to go there, is to arrive as early as possible as by 9 o’clock the crowds get very large.
**Tip, once 12pm hits you are allowed to swim out to the area where the Whale Sharks usually are yourself and you can swim with them for free as they tend to hang around. This was a tip we only found out afterwards though.**
Once at the centre there are 4 stations you need to go to:
(1) the registration (2) the briefing area (3) payment (4) handing in your payment docket
Once this is done you will be given a number and will be called to see the Whale Sharks.
In this time you can, change into your swimwear if needs be or store your belongings in nearby lockers, which a nearby shop provides for 20 PhP.
There are a few different options when it comes to seeing the Whale Sharks and the prices are quite different depending on whether you’re a local or a foreigner, with the latter being charged more.
We were staying about 20 km from Tan-awan, where the Whale Sharks are, so we caught a local bus and arrived at the briefing centre at around 7am. To our surprise the beach was already packed with tourists and we could see about 15-20 small boats in the water with more.
After having our orientation about the rules and what not to do when swimming with the Whale Sharks; like not touching them, keeping a safe distance, not wearing creams or oils etc., we jumped in our small boat and were rowed out to the area where the Whale Sharks are. To our surprise, we only went about 20 meters away from the beach.
While on the boat, you can already see a couple of Whale Sharks swimming, while others pop up their massive heads to be fed by the fishermen. To our amazement the Whale Sharks were bigger than our boat. When we reached the other boats we jumped in and had our first close up encounter with these gentle giants.
A few minutes had passed and we braved swimming away from our boat to get a closer glimpse, but as soon as this happened a HUGE Whale Shark started swimming our way. Our initial reaction was panic and “oh my god it’s going to eat us”, to just pure awe and excitement to be in the presence of these magnificent animals as they swam so slowly and peacefully past us as if we didn’t exist.
We spent about 30 minutes in the water and swam with at least 10 or more separate Whale Sharks of all different sizes. Some of them got really close, but not intentionally. We constantly found ourselves swimming away from them to ensure we didn’t touch them by mistake. At one point however, we found ourselves trapped between two Whale Sharks, in what was such a surreal experience.
However amazing the experience was getting close to these magnificent creatures, the sheer amount of tourists and the fact that the migration pattern of these animals are disrupted because of the fishermen feeding them for tourism purposes, is quite disturbing. Although there are plenty of warnings and even mentions of fines for not following the rules, there seems to be no control or regulation over how many tourists are allowed in the water and the actions they take.
Throughout our time in the water, many other tourists swam into both us and the Whale Sharks looking for that perfect selfie. As a result, the Whale Sharks get kicked accidentally by tourists who are unaware of them being around them.
As much as I enjoyed swimming with these beautiful creatures, I still had mixed emotions after. Part of me says I shouldn’t have done it in Oslob, but at the same time, the experience was so unbelievable to get to swim with them. If you get a chance to swim with these beautiful animals in their natural environment, then 100% do. If you can, I’d advise you do whale watching in Donsol where the Whale Sharks are not fed to stay and can go on their natural life cycle.
The Whale Shark tourism in Donsol, is a more responsible practice in comparison to Oslob and a much better alternative. In fact, it’s even supported by the World Wildlife Fund. In Donsol, Whale Sharks are not fed by the locals. Whale Shark watching in Donsol is a natural seasonal activity based on the animals’ natural migration pattern. Tourists are accompanied by spotters and guides to see the Whale Sharks in the wild. The best time to go in Donsol is from February to April.