It’s safe to swim with whale sharks or butanding in the local dialect, but do listen to your guide for instructions because these gentle giants, despite being generally harmless, also need respect since we are, in essence, in their natural territory.
It was my second day in Bluewater Sumilon Island Resort, my home on the island located just a short boat ride around from Oslob – a small coastal town right at the southern tip of Cebu.
Our group huddled early morning feeling optimistic because the skies were clear and there were no signs that the rains and ranging winds that visited us the night before would make another surprise appearance.
It was 9:00 in the morning and the weather was cooperative as if it knew we were having a rendezvous with the world’s largest fish.
Yes, whale sharks are fish, they are not whales despite their intimidating size – they grow up to 15 meters long (think of a passenger bus for size reference) and live to over 100 years of age, reaching maturity at around 30 years. It’s generally safe to swim with them because they are placid creatures moving slowly and can neither bite nor chew, and they only feed on small shrimp, fish, and plankton by using their gill rakers as a suction filter. Thus, getting your legs or arms accidentally getting stuck in their mouth is highly unlikely, not to mention that they have no appetite for humans, too.
Upon our arrival, we were led to a pavilion for a compulsory briefing. We were oriented on what to do and not to do while swimming with these majestic creatures. Five meters is the minimum distance from the sharks if you’re wearing gears like fins, four meters is safe if you’re diving into the water without any. Touching the whales or using flash photography when taking snaps are not allowed. Tourists are not allowed to swim with the sharks while cloaked in a thick film of sun lotion. If you have already applied sunscreen on your skin, you would be asked to take a quick shower to rinse it off. The explanation given was, tourists normally leave trails of white fluid as they dive into the water, it contaminates the water and is bad for the fish.
The last instruction given to us during the briefing was to stay calm and enjoy the experience of interacting with the whales.
From the shore, I could already see the whale sharks (there were at least five juvenile whale sharks swimming in the area) and it’s pretty interesting that this sight unless it’s raining or there’s a storm, is visible in the area 365 days a year from 6:00 am until noontime. No wonder whale shark tourism is one of, if not the main key source of income to the island of Oslob.
“The water in Oslob is very clean and very salty. They like it,” the sea warden that joined us in our boat told me. “If there’s a sudden downpour, they will not show up on the surface, they can already sense the water temperature and its salinity when it rained.”
I also inquired about how the community is able to manage its waste and makes sure that it won’t reach the ocean. And I was right, I was asking the wrong person.
As we jumped into the water, sea wardens were present at all times, though it was kind of difficult to maintain the five-meter minimum distance from the sharks, it’s good to see that the people organizing it were strict and kept on reminding us of the dos and donts.
It’s true that the experience is different seeing these gentle giants up close. I felt emotional for so many reasons. Our guide asked me if I wanted to have my pictures taken underwater. And I said yes to this once-in-a-lifetime moment.
I felt a little nervous when I saw one of the five whale sharks approaching me, but I got reminded that they are gentle, and it’s true. They look majestic. It’s like seeing a harmless dinosaur gradually moving toward me with an intention to befriend his visitor.
Back to my room at Bluewater Sumilon, I contemplated whether or not swimming with the whale sharks was an incredible experience. One thing I have noticed though, the boatmen were hand-feeding the sharks giving me the impression that these creatures keep on coming back to this coastal town because they have already associated boats and tourists with food, being fed. And if that’s the case, can we still call it sustainable tourism?
I would still consider going back to Oslob to swim with the whale sharks, and probably in a manner that swimming with them seems and feels natural. No boatmen throwing food to lure them.
And for sure, I would still stay at Bluewater Sumilon Island Resort, which is built on a 24-hectare coral island. The exclusive resort has 14 spacious deluxe rooms with private veranda; 10 premier deluxe rooms; and three Villas with private dipping pools.
The resort is popular for its sandbar that changes shapes and shifts locations around the island, depending on the season. There is a natural lagoon teeming with high mangroves and an area where visitors can enjoy hours of snorkeling at a marine sanctuary, paddle boarding, kayaking, and trekking while enjoying the spectacular panoramic view of the ocean and mainland Cebu.
From the resort, going to Oslob is just a 15-minute boat ride.
Tourists can visit the resort via Dumaguete. Cebu Pacific currently flies to Dumaguete from Manila 24x weekly, and from Cebu 10x weekly. The airline continues to offer its guaranteed low fares to stimulate travel across its network while it implements a multi-layered approach to safety to encourage “everyjuan” to fly once more. Visit www.cebupacificair.com to learn more about their latest offerings, safety protocols, and travel reminders.