Watching a bunch of Shark Week episodes this week motivated me to share photos from my swim with whale sharks earlier in 2018 at the municipality of Oslob, on the island of Cebu.
Is Swimming With Whale Sharks A Good Idea?
Whale sharks are a protected species in the Philippines. It is illegal to harm or harass them. Still there is controversy over the idea of having tourists merely swim with whale sharks. There is the potential for injury from interaction with people. Feeding the sharks might change migratory patterns, lead to nutrition deficiencies, or encourage sharks to approach boats rather than keep a distance.
At Oslob, the effects of interaction between whale sharks and man is being studied. The Large Marine Vertebrates Project Philippines (LAMAVE) conducts scientific research and raises environmental awareness. LAMAVE collaborates with government agencies, non-government organizations, universities and the private sector. Through its research and recommendations, LAMAVE hopes to aid in developing a sustainable and well-guided management plan for whale shark eco-tourism in the Philippines.
While there is no dispute that human interactions with sharks have the potential to be harmful, the jury is still out on the overall impact of swimming with whale sharks at Oslob. Furthermore, since LAMAVE is studying shark-human interaction there, swimming with them is, in fact, part of shark research that hopefully can maximize the benefits and minimize the harm. It is also undisputed that this tourist attraction has a positive effect on the local economy and human population.
Some favor a Pink Floyd “hey people – leave them sharks alone” approach that would bar swimming with whale sharks. That approach leads logically to barring all study of sharks because of the observer effect. The observer effect postulates that any observations or measurements of a system cannot be made without changing the system studied. If it is wrong to swim with whale sharks because it changes natural behaviors or alters traditional nutritional intake, then perhaps it is also wrong to suppress the natural behaviors of house pets.
Whale Shark Swim
Oslob is a municipality of 27 villages about a three-hour’s drive south of Cebu City where I was staying. The tour left by van at about 05:00. Tourists can also take a ferry to Oslob and book a tour there.
Breakfast was provided at a beach restaurant in Tan-Awan, the village in Oslob where tourists visit the sharks.
Prior to entering the water, all receive a multi-lingual, 20-minute briefing providing information about whale sharks and explaining in detail the rules for swimming with them. Everyone must sign a statement acknowledging the rules and waiving liability.
After getting briefed, tourists are issued face masks, snorkels and life vests. Once geared up, tourists board small outrigger canoes on the rocky beach.
Canoes with two-man crews transport tourists about 50 yards offshore where other employees are paddling along and dumping balls of sergestid shrimps into the water. Whale sharks trail these boats gobbling up the bait with their enormous mouths.
Whale sharks are the largest fish in the world. The largest have been measured at over 40 feet in length. Most sharks here are a little over 30 feet long and weigh more than 20,000 pounds. There are reports of whale sharks reaching 60 feet in length. That’s megalodon territory.
At the pre-swim briefing tourists are told to stay at least five meters from the sharks. That is impossible. Swimmers do not have flippers and even if they did they still would not have the speed to stay out of the way of the sharks.
One slow movement of the tail propels them at a rate humans cannot match. Often while watching one shark glide past and disappear another one would be silently approaching from behind.
Last year when I went cage diving with great white sharks at Shark Alley in Gaansbai, South Africa, I longed for an underwater camera. At Tan-Awan, the tour supplied underwater cameras with removable flash drives and the crew hopped in the water to photograph the swimmers and the sharks.
Getting the best views required going underwater and that meant removing the life vest.
Even with hanging onto the canoe outriggers from time to time, I was exhausted after 30 minutes in the water.
I thoroughly enjoyed the chance to share a bit of the ocean with giant whale sharks. My view is that swimming at Oslob should continue in order to provide data to develop best practices for human interactions. Any adverse consequences from these encounters may be offset by educating people and changing attitudes towards sharks in general. Changing people’s attitudes especially in Asia, should have a positive effect on the survival of all shark species world wide. What do you think?