Monday, February 6, 2012

Whale Shark Watching in Oslob

This weekend, Oliver and I went off to Oslob Cebu, to see Whale Sharks - gentle marine giants called  tuki by the locals of Cebu, and  more popularly known as butanding elsewhere.  Leaving Narra behind was not difficult. She's seen the movie Finding Nemo countless times, so she has an idea about what diving is, what whales and sharks are, and why swimming in the open sea is not suitable for small children. I also told her that as a good ate, she should keep her baby brother company. Before our trip, I did a lot of sleuthing online and made my daughter a part of the process. We watched videos on Youtube, and looked at online photos of the butanding. I also showed her where Cebu is on the map. I pointed out the tiny island of Sumilon, at the southern tip of Cebu.  We were staying at Sumilon Bluewater Resort which is right across the stretch of water where a group of butandings or tuki come to feed. We arrived on Friday, spent the day relaxing in Sumilon, then we slept early so we can catch an early boat to Oslob's Tan-awan beach at dawn. We chartered a ferry ride at 5 am on Saturday morning. It was still very dark when we left Sumilon's dock. 

Oliver and I waiting to board the 5 am ferry from Sumilon to Tan-awan.

When we arrived at the briefing center in Tan-awan, there was already a long line at the registration desk. We had to queue for a number, then pay the 300 peso fee. Our guide told us 180 pesos goes to the boatmen and 120 pesos is shared by the municipal government and the barangay.  As expected, the Saturday crowd was quite large.  We were there before 6 am, and yet, our group got numbers 41-44. We would have to wait a while for our turn to see the tuki. Most of the paddle boats taken out to sea accommodate 2 passengers, though others can take in slightly bigger groups. When whales are sighted, boats are sent out to meet them, carrying passengers according to the number sequence obtained during registration. Each boat can stay out in the water for 30 minutes, after which they return back to shore to take another batch of viewers. 

6 am. Queueing up to register and pay for our ticket.

There's a briefing on proper behavior when viewing the whale sharks. Only the designated fishermen are allowed to feed them. They cannot be touched. Flash photography is not allowed. Sunblock shouldn't be used as chemicals may harm the fish. The briefing was delivered in both English and Cebuano, as many of the tourists are from Cebu and elsewhere in the Visayas.

The briefing session before heading to the beach. Below: a diagram of
the whale shark code of conduct from Australia.

After registration, we had a lot of time to kill as we waited for spotters to give the much awaited signal that the tuki have arrived. I was chatting with a few spotters, and they were telling me that the whale sharks always come. There's hardly a day when they don't. But after hours of waiting, I had a feeling today would be the exception to the rule.  

Boatmen waiting on the shore, ready to take tourists out to sea.

By 9 am, the spotters were getting antsy too. Eyes were trained on the boatmen out in the sea.  By 10 am, the mood on the beach was somber. The vibe of excited anticipation had given way to graceful acceptance.  One could sniff out the scent of resignation.  The whale sharks did not come. We had to come back again the next day to give it another try. We went back to the resort disappointed. But we couldn't sulk in paradise for too long. Even without the whale sharks, Sumilon island was breathtakingly beautiful. But I was still determined to try to see the butanding. I wanted to be able to tell my daughter her mama swam with whale sharks!

Whale shark spotters waiting for a signal from other spotters out in the sea,

The next day, I received an early call from my sister.  She happened to be in Cebu the same weekend to take her office mates to Oslob as part of their team building.  Her group left Cebu city at 3 am, for the 3 hour ride to Oslob. They were there by 6 am. There was a huge crowd and a long line...and...there was a sighting!!! One whale already showed up for breakfast.  Our group of 4, Oliver and myself, and our 2 travel companions decided to try a different route. We hired a diving boat from the resorts resident dive shop. We were accompanied by Dive Masters Juni and Ran. Diving boats are not allowed too near the butanding so we would be taken as close as permissible, then fin our way to the feeding area where the paddle boats and the rest of the viewers are. Our boat was tethered to a buoy, then we wore our fins and donned our masks and snorkels, and off we went. 

On our dive boat as we headed to the whales.

I was honestly terrified: of the current, the waves, the distance, the number of boats, the many snorkelers swimming around me, with fins flipping on my face...and the divers below...and most of all, the whale sharks!!!!!!  They were swimming around and around... and so close.  Thank heavens I had 2 dive masters helping me. At one point, they had to literally pull me around and tilt my head in the right direction because the whale shark was right next to me, I just didn't see it as I was facing the wrong way.  I stayed as still as possible, worrying that I might hit the gentle giant with my fins if I moved a muscle. It was awesome to see it pass by, from mouth to tail. And I just watched. Which is what I came all the way here to do. To simply watch. To marvel at this graceful animal that is so agile in the water. To remember how small I am. 

Small paddle boats circling two whale sharks. We had to swim in that
direction as our dive boat is not allowed to come near the whales.

There were 2 whale sharks interacting with the crowd that Sunday morning. They were a playful pair. My sister reported seeing gentler and calmer whales two weekends ago when she first went to Oslob. They fed quietly and peacefully, and didn't move around too much. These two, in contrast, were very malikot. They swam about, turned around, and kept moving. Several times I found myself on the path of an oncoming whale shark, as though the shark I was tailing decided to do a U-turn and meet me face to face. What luck! I often thought to myself.  It was so thrilling and terrifying at the same time. One girl ended up "riding" the whale shark because it went directly beneath her. It wasn't her fault really, but the crowd admonished her for it, shouting "Bawal yan" (that's not allowed), "Hwag hawakan" (don't touch), "sakyan daw ba!?" (should you have ridden it?).  While I felt sorry for the embarrassed bikini-clad lass who was unable to get out of the way fast enough, I was happy to see a great sense of collective vigilance.  The boatmen, dive masters, and tourists alike genuinely embraced the rules and generally followed them. There's room for more rules in Oslob. I am sure that given more research, training and education, the major stakeholders (human and non-human) can benefit from sound practices of sustainable eco-tourism.

With Sumilon's dive master Ron who helped me navigate my way through
the chaos of waves, paddles, fins,  outriggers, and whales.
The swim back to our boat was quite taxing. I was already tired, and I found the current rather strong. I had my eyes trained on the dive masters in front of me, but after a while, they seemed to be getting farther and I was beginning to panic. That's when Oliver showed up beside me. He'd been finning behind me the whole time, and he knows me well enough to know when I am tired and in need of support - and that's the way he's been, be it with snorkeling, or with life in general. Seeing him beside me gave me the reassurance I needed to keep soldiering on. This takes me back to 2004, when Oliver and I had just started dating, and he accompanied me on my first dive. Back then I was just reeling in amazement at how beautiful this country is under water. I've always loved this country aboveground, but that's just half of the story. The other half of this country, the submarine half, is just so rich and bountiful, I scoff at being called Third World.  This weekend reminded me of how lucky we are to be home in the Philippines, and to raise our children here.  I can't wait until our children are old enough to take along with us on trips like these.

Ironically, the "no-show" on Saturday made my whale shark experience more meaningful. I know how privileged we were to encounter them at all. These creatures are not in captivity. They are not beholden to anyone. They may come and go as they please. After checking out from the resort, we were ferried one last time from Sumilon island to Oslob.  We took the 12 noon ferry.  The boatmen told us that at that very moment there were 5 whales feeding in Tan-awan beach. What luck for today's tourists.

Wooohoooo! Only in the Philippines!...ok,ok,  I know there are whale sharks elsewhere in the world, but I have a gut feeling whale watching is MORE FUN IN THE PHILIPPINES! 


  1. That sounds like Oliver, always the sweeper making sure everyone's ok. Sounds like a wonderful experience and seems like they are handling it better than Donsol. Is diving allowed?

    1. I am not sure if they're handling it better than Donsol - I haven't been to Donsol - although travel companions who've been to Donsol say that they are far less organized in Oslob. Diving is allowed, and diving boats can park at a distance and swimmers can fin their way to the feeding site where there are paddle boats. It was a circus (a fun one) - tourists on boats, tourists jumping off boats, snorkelers, divers, and the local boatmen and dive masters all shouting instructions on where to look: "ayun, ayun, nandun!" they'll shout. Parang "agawan buko" - everyone converges where the whale appears. And yes, Oliver is ever the reassuring sweeper.