I n the far distance came a spray of water and the faint outline of an enormous animal resembling a whale. We watched in awe as it glided gently by the bow of a small fishermen boat, following its circular motion.
There was no time to waste: we quickly hopped onto our bagka boat - mask, fins and underwater camera in hand. The animal was just about 500m away from shore, our boatman paddled hard and fast and within minutes, we were approaching the animal. As we inched closer, the gentle giant revealed itself – its mouth poking above the water surface, feeding on small shrimps like a vacuum, its tiny eyes curiously watching us as we stared in amazement.
This was a whale shark, one of the biggest yet gentlest animals in the marine world.
Getting Intimate with the Gentle Giant
“ Go, go!” Our boatman instructed. Alberto and I gently slid off the boat and into the water – there it was: all of its flat, wide head, massive grey and white dotted body, and shark-like dorsal fins. In the clear glassy water, I could see its red gills flapping, and its dorsal fin zigzagging through the water. While we were asked to stay at least 5m away from the animal, there was no control as to how close the whale shark could get to us. Gliding by us, the behemoth creature whipped its tail in a forceful motion, missing me by mere inches. My heart raced and I let out a loud gasp, almost choking as the seawater came gushing into my mouth. I went up to the water surface for some air – so did Alberto, and both of us squealed and cheered like kids, exploding with excitement.
The whale shark might be a massive animal – averaging around 9.7m in length – but it definitely fits the description of a gentle giant. As filter feeders they feed primarily on plankton (microscopic plants and animal) and they do not attack humans or other marine animals unless provoked. They are scientifically classified as sharks, but they’re far from most people’s perception of a shark. While I’ve swum with great white sharks before, this experience was starkly different: with the fear factor out of the way, it was surreal, intimate and extremely moving.
Gliding by us, the behemoth creature whipped its tail in a forceful motion, missing me by mere inches.
Sustainable Tourism and Wildlife Protection
I’d long heard about the possibility of swimming with whale sharks in the Philippines and this was one of the reasons why we were here on Cebu island. Just two weeks ago, we had chased the whale shark trail to Donsol in the Sorsogon province (thanks to the Department of Tourism Philippines), expecting to catch a good glimpse of the animal – Donsol was after all put on the map by the whale sharks that inhabit its water. After almost three hours out at sea, we finally saw the white spots of a giant whale shark flash by beneath our feet – while it was just a very quick glimpse, the thrill of seeing the elusive animal after hours of longing made the experience all the more rare and genuine.
Here in Oslob, off the southern coast of Cebu, whale sharks are a common sight as they’re regularly fed by local fishermen. Since whale shark tours started here in October 2011, it has been a controversial subject in the Philippines. I had qualms about coming here to see the whale sharks at first: is this ethical? Should we be feeding wild animals? Most of all, is this responsible tourism?
According to local friend Andrew Agunod, whale sharks here have been fed by local fishermen for decades. Andrew used to spend his summer vacations in the area as a child. He would hang out by the beach, talk to fishermen and observe them going about their business. “Besides the interesting sea creatures they have in their nets and baskets, what used to interest me were their stories about the giant tuki (whale shark in Cebuano),” Andrew shared with nostalgia.
“These giant fish, they said, always followed their boats when they went fishing. The fisherfolks used uyap (small shrimps) as bait for fishing, which the tukis love. These creatures had always been considered pests, and the fishermen even developed tactics to bring them far from their fishing ground by feeding and leading them away – and the sharks always followed. I could see that the fishermen had somehow developed a close bond with the whale sharks. Last November, I saw videos of these gentle giants becoming an attraction. It didn’t come to me as a surprise, for I knew how close a relationship they had with these fishermen.”
Astounding as it is, Andrew shares my concern on the sustainability of whale shark interactions in the area. To ensure a livelihood for the local community and the welfare of wildlife, this has to be regulated by the government to avoid abuse and negative impact to these gentle creatures. Until then, hopefully the whale sharks are in the safe hands of their friends, the local fishermen.