South of Cebu City in the Philippines is Oslob. A tiny village by the sea, famous for giving tourists a virtually guaranteed sighting of whale sharks. Here you can snorkel, swim and dive with the largest sharks in the ocean. Before you scream out 'hell no,' these sharks eat only microscopic plankton and have no teeth. They gulp large mouthfuls of sea water, sifting out the plankton through their gills.
They are slow swimming, gentle giants and if you happen to catch a glimpse of a whale shark head on, they have a perpetual smile.
You can swim, snorkel or dive with whale sharks in the Philippines.
There are other parts of the world like Ningaloo reef in Western Australia which is also famous for whale sharks but they pass by seasonally (timed with the coral spawning) and it's a much more expensive experience compared to the Philippines.
How can the Philippines guarantee whale shark sightings? Easy, they feed them. The whale sharks stick around because every morning the local fishermen drop handfuls of plankton into the water right in front of each shark.
Sure there are environmental ethics concerning this action, with many claiming it's not a natural encounter for tourists and is changing the whale sharks behaviour as some juveniles have stopped migrating.
Hop in a small wooden boat to go swimming with the whale sharks of Oslob.
However the fishermen argue by keeping the whale sharks local, they can guarantee their safety from illegal fishing vessels who catch anything in their nets. Thus ensuring the local whale shark population in the Philippines has a chance to grow.
Having recently watched a National Geographic documentary where a juvenile whale shark was hanging from a hook by an illegal fishing boat, it's easy to understand the ideals of the Oslob locals who feel they are doing their bit to protect and conserve whale sharks.
Whatever side you lean towards, there's no arguing the boom to the local economy, as hundreds of locals are employed to ferry the hoards of tourists out to sea each morning to share a close encounter with these majestic ocean giants.
If you want to get in the water with them, Be prepared for an early start with boats leaving between 8am - 12noon. The earlier you get out, the clearer the visibility.
Swimming with the whale sharks in Oslob is a well-executed machine and you can expect to be paraded with military precision. First, you sit through a short presentation about whale sharks including do's and don'ts when in the water (no sunscreen and don't touch them). Next up you have to sign in so they have a register of every visitor. Pay your fee based on boat viewing only, snorkelling (Approx AUD30) or diving (Approx AUD100).
You'll then be directed to shower, gear up (they provide snorkelling gear but it's always nicer to have your own) and climb into your boat. You only have to travel about 200 metres out before seeing your first whale shark and no, they won't allow you to swim it as the sea is quite choppy.
Once they stop the boat, your guide will direct you to hop in the water. You only have 30 minutes out there so there's little time for faffing about. I was in the water at about 10am and the visibility was quite poor but there's no mistaking the giant spotted whale sharks, cruising like a giant tadpole through the water.
There were six whale sharks within 20 metres of my group and then a massive (at least 15 meters long) whale shark glided directly below. It took at least 30 seconds for it to pass by completely.
It's easy and cheap to get up close with the whale sharks of Oslob.
Most people held onto the boat which is recommended as they have a wooden counter weight, designed to stabilise it and it's easy to hit your head on this when floating around (as I did).
The guide will take photos for you and the locals seemed to spend more time with their backs to the whale sharks than actually looking at them, trying to get the perfect selfie. Thirty minutes is sufficient to see plenty of whale sharks and take decent photos however, you can choose to go again for the ultimate experience, you just have to go through the presentation process again.
There is a souvenir store selling all sorts of whale shark paraphernalia including key rings, magnets and hats. The t-shirts are two sizes smaller than standard sizing.
Whilst it may not be a wild encounter, the whale sharks get a small feed and are protected, the locals all have decent jobs and tourists get to see these amazing gentle sharks in their natural habitat rather than a cramped fish bowl aquarium.
Anyone who swims with whale sharks will vouch for their gentle nature and will no doubt strongly push for their protection, however their encounter occurs.
How to get there & where to stay.
Cebu Pacific, Philippine Airlines and Qantas all have direct flights from Sydney to Manila (main gateway in the Philippines) with ongoing connections to Cebu. Air Asia has flights via Kualur Lumpur to Cebu.
It's pretty cheap to fly to the Philippines with Cebu Pacific who regularly offer deals for under $500 return. Qantas currently has a special for $630 return (regular price $730 is still reasonable) from Sydney to Manila including meals and luggage.
There is little reason to stay in Cebu apart from it being a more manageable version of Manila. It does, however, have some beautiful churches, historical buildings and a stunningly modern shopping centre, which has a beautiful garden patio and lots of outdoor restaurants.
There are multiple buses daily from the Cebu South bus station. I caught a taxi from my hotel in Cebu to the bus station and there was a bus ready to leave for Oslob. You buy a ticket on the bus which was PHP9 (about AUD 25c) and the trip takes about four hours depending on traffic.
The bus will drop you on the main road in Oslob so make sure your guesthouse knows when you are arriving so they can meet the bus.
There's plenty of guesthouses in Oslob, however, it's another 15 minutes to the beach where the whale sharks are. Most guesthouses can arrange transport, otherwise there is plenty of guys with motorcycles willing to take you for a small fee.
The whale shark encounter in Cebu is a cheap way to tick off a bucket list item. I'm glad I did it and am considering going back to do it again.