The Philippines has many attractions on offer: white sandy beaches, stunning coral reefs, and the rare opportunity to swim with sharks… ok it’s whale sharks so there is no element of danger to be had, BUT it’s still a super cool experience.
As with many sea creatures the whale sharks follow a migration pattern every year and the best time to take a dip with one of theses friendly giants of the sea is from March to June. As we rocked up in the Philippines in October, you can probably understand how gutted we were that we would miss out on this awesome opportunity.
It was during a random conversation with a local about our disappointment where he was quick to advise us there was another option… however it’s one that comes with its own ethical issues! Cue dramatic music here – Ba Ba Baaaaaaaah!
Here’s the deal
In a town called Oslob on the island of Cebu, there are a bunch of locals who have been feeding wild whale sharks and in turn the whale sharks have decided that a free feed is an opportunity they don’t want to pass up on, so they hang around all year round for a free, all-you-can-eat krill smorgasbord!
Before going we read many articles and a number of guide to the Philippines advising tourists not to go as it’s not right to be “keeping” wild animals this way and that they were injured from the local’s boat propellers constantly bashing into them etc.
You can think what you want but we think there is two sides to every story and wanted to check it out for ourselves, and well, hello! we want to swim with whale sharks!
So, I would like to explain the other side of the story. Yes, on one side there are environmentalist saying it’s not right to change the habits of wild animals by feeding them for monetary benefits, but have these people thought of the side for the local people?
We spoke to quite a few expats on the subject and many had felt the same until they actually went to check it out for themselves. This might be a country of vast beauty and untouched beaches but the people here are poor! They have had decades of political corruption and mistreatment, and all in all most people are just trying to survive and put food on the table for their kids.
So, we ask, is it really so bad that the town of Oslob is promoting the all year whale shark experience, when it is this “experience” that is keeping the town and it’s people thriving?
Here’s a thought…. There’s money coming in not only from the whale shark experience but also local hostels and hotels, restaurants and street vendors, motorcycle taxis and private tour guides. All of these people and more are benefiting from the new found tourism and local expats we met have told us that Oslob has changed dramatically in the past few years, and all for the better in terms of quality of life.
Our experience was one of a sweet little town where kids play tag in the streets rather than begging for money, like in some of the big cities, the waterfront has been revamped to become a lovely park for families to spend time together, and the locals are friendly towards tourists and not in a way where they are just out for your money… they are genuinely friendly!
When we went out to swim with these wonderful creatures I was on the look out for any abuse. I did see one whale shark who was HUGE and had obviously been around for a while, you know how you can sometimes look at an animal and they look like an old man? This is what this whale shark looked like, he was an old dude who had been around for donkey’s years and there is no telling where or how he picked up his scar.
The locals who took us out on the small boats row there. No motorised boats. Before you head out, there is a safety and conservation speech where you are informed that as guests we are not to touch the whales. You are to remain 4 meters away at all times, unless they swim right passed you, then to stay out of their way as much as possible. Finally no sunscreen is to be worn as it is damaging to the whale shark’s skin.
All in all it did appear like they were making a decent effort to take care of the animals as much as possible – after all, if the sharks get badly injured then the whole operation may get closed down…
So is it unethical to pay these people to continue feeding the whale sharks all year round for the benefit of attracting tourists?
As always we say make up your own minds!!! If you don’t go there yourself you can never make your own opinions about a place, and you may miss out on an amazing experience because if it!
What are your thoughts on the subject? Leave us a comment.