One of the most unique experiences to add to your bucket list is swimming with whale sharks in the Philippines. The vast majority of tourists do so in a place called Oslob, a small coastal town on the big island of Cebu in the central Philippines.
Swimming with the Whale Sharks in the Philippines
I’ve swum with the whale sharks there a couple of times now, and while it’s incredible to see those majestic creatures up close and personal and the subsequent photos are jaw-dropping, I’m having some serious questions about how ecologically responsible the operation is.
First off – getting there. To be accurate, the whale shark production is in Satinder right next to Oslob, on the southern tip of the island of Cebu. Many tourists confuse the city of Cebu with the rest of the island and think that attractions like Molboal Beach, Kawasan Falls, and the whale shark swimming are close to the city. They aren’t, as it could easily take 4-6 hours to reach Oslob by bus from Cebu City when you factor in the thick traffic and nauseating stop-and-go on the single-lane island road.
So another option for visiting the whale sharks is to fly into the green, quiet, and charming town of Dumaguete on the neighboring big island of Negros, which you can reach by plane from Cebu City or Manila. From Dumaguete, grab a trike or bus to the port in the adjacent town of Sumilon, and a ferry will take you right across in 20-40 minutes (depending on if you take the slow boat or preferable small, local boat.)
There really isn’t much else to Oslob or Satinder other than the whale shark watching, but you still might want to stay overnight there and then be in the first wave of tourists to swim with the sharks at 6 am. Trying to beat the crowd as much as possible is key because it’s definitely a tourist trap at this point.
You’ll pay for the trip at one simple “resort” and put your things in a locker. You can also rent a mask and fins there and even rent a GoPro to use for only about $10. You then walk down the road to the launching site, where a guide will walk you through the safe and responsible practices for swimming with the whale sharks. The problem is that this briefing is only about 2 minutes long, and most of the foreign tourists usually speak limited English or just aren’t paying attention. They then usher you to the beach where you’re given a life vest and assigned to a small boat, which your sea guide rows only about 500 feet out into the ocean.
It looks like there are about 25 boats in the water at any given time, and guides row up and down the line dropping food in the water for the whale sharks, which flock to the site daily since they know they’ll be fed.
Everyone jumps in the water, where they can swim around at will to observe the passing whale sharks, hold onto the boat’s bamboo outrigger poles, or keep the life jacket on and just float.
You get really close to the whale sharks, even if you stay still, as they sometimes swim right up on you. The guides will whistle and yell to try and keep the tourists from straying too far, but it’s pretty chaotic in the water, with tourists crammed in and kicking each other as they swim and even occasionally bumping into the whale sharks!
Thankfully, they are very gentle, slow-moving creatures, but I really question how responsible this is for the whale sharks. When I first visited this site in Oslob a year ago, there were about 50% fewer tourists than I saw in the water when I went a few days ago. They do a good job of preaching about safe practices for the whale sharks and say that marine biology rangers are there to monitor the site, but I have my doubts, as it’s obviously a huge money-grab.
I won’t tell you what to do, but I will recommend doing some research and making up your own mind if swimming with the whale sharks is ethically and environmentally responsible. But it will be a fantastic experience despite the crowds and chaos, and with the right GoPro photographer, you’ll get some great photos. I advise you to work in teams to try and capture the best shots of each other, and also don’t bother with photos – just shoot continuous video and then take a few of screenshots of your favorite scenes.
You probably also want to save this trip for a sunny day so the water is calm and visibility is highest.
Good lucky, have fun, and remember that it’s all about celebrating the beauty and majesty of the whale sharks – not just our tourist bucket lists.