Swimming with the gentle giants

It’s been almost a week since I arrived in Cebu City, Philippines for a holiday and this is my first blog entry.  So much for wanting to write about this trip in real time.

There’s just plenty of things to digest and adjust to that I have no energy to write.  But today I’m forcing myself to blog despite having a major headache from the heat and having only three hours of sleep last night.  The reason for the lack of sleep and this need to write is one and the same:  swimming with the whale sharks.

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Yes, the whale sharks, the gentle giants of the sea!  I’ve finally come face to face with them in this town called Oslob in the south of Cebu province and man, the experience is mind-blowing.

Quick facts about swimming with the whale sharks in Oslob as told to me by the people assisting us:

  • These giants have been coming back every morning in Oslob, particularly in a place called Tam-awan, for over two years now.
  • The fishermen in the area have been feeding them their favorite food – krill.
  • All the activities like the feeding,  people swimming with them, are strictly monitored by a bunch of marine biologists.  They are the Big Brothers in the area with their cameras and whatnot.
  • Everyone is forbidden to touch the whale sharks.  A fine of Php 2,500 (about €50) or an imprisonment up to 6 months is  waiting for the rule breakers.

Getting there

Our first thought was to rent a car and drive from Cebu City to Oslob and back.  But the traffic in this city or the entire province is a nightmare,  and to be out there driving is either suicide or pure madness.

Option number two is to hire a van with a driver. I called several companies but the quotations they gave me were always overpriced.

So we ended up with the third option which is also the most practical albeit a little bit inconvenient – taking the bus.  For about Php150 it will take you one way to Oslob.  Just head down to Cebu South Bus Terminal and catch the next Ceres bus leaving.  (Tip: Catch a 4am bus so you will be in Oslob around 7am.  There will be a lot of whale-watchers later, not to mention that the tropical heat can be blistering.)

Photos

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December 20, 2013, 7am.  On our way to ride the boat. We were briefed on the rules before we could join the other boats, just about 100 meters from the shore, to see or swim with the whale sharks.  I was with my husband, my sister, and my brother-in-law.

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I have to say we were pretty impressed with how systematic and organized everything was. I wasn’t sure about the whole thing, about how we are interfering with these giants’ natural behavior and even invading their environment.  I’m still not sure if what we are doing is right but at least I’ve seen how they are unharmed and how everyone, even the whale sharks, are doing their best to co-exist in peace.

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Husband dearest ready to cross off something from his bucket list.  Yes, bring your snorkel.  If you don’t have one, just borrow from your guides.  It’s included in your fee.

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Wear flipflops.  The beach is rocky and some rocks are really sharp.

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First sight.  Someone wants to say hello and welcome us!  This one is still pretty much a baby, but it’s already huge.  The feeling of seeing it up close for the  first time?  Priceless.

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Husband and brother-in-law clowning around underwater. Notice how close the whale shark is.  They tend to swim close to you like they want to play. And they swim really gently, like they know they can hurt you with one wrong swish of their tail.

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And now it’s our turn to have fun.  Look at how the big fish seemed to have copied our actions.  There were more than 10 of varying sizes circling around us.  I’m not sure how big was the biggest because the whole experience was pretty overwhelming and calculating their sizes was the last thing on my mind.  But one of our guides said the fully grown ones ranging from 13 meters up  would usually come for a visit around summer (March-May).

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The photo that says it all.  I just got in the water when one of the juvenile whale sharks came and gently nudged me on my back.  The excitement and the fear of having them so close is all written on that soundless scream.  I’ll treasure this photo forever. 😀

Fees

For the four of us, we paid a total of Php 2,900 (roughly €52).  The rates for Filipino citizens are different compared to foreigners.  For the European husband we were charged Php 1,100, and Php 600 for Filipino nationals.  The fee covers everything except for an underwater camera rental which is for Php 550 including a cd with the photos taken.  You are allowed to swim with the whale sharks for half an hour only, but every minute is totally worth it.

Postscript

When you come to see the whale sharks in Oslob, I suggest you don’t just stay in the boat to watch.  Get in the water and snorkel.  It’s an amazing experience seeing them followed by a lot of fish.  You’ll also see some scuba divers, which I believe some of them are the marine biologists stationed to protect the whale sharks from prying hands.  It’s one of the most wonderful things I’ve ever experienced in my life.  I wonder what else I can do in the remaining four weeks of this holiday to top that.

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