Jessica is an expat living in South Korea, where she writes about her amazing adventures traveling with her family. Here, she shares with us her experience swimming with whale sharks, writing on the controversial topic of how tourism adversely impacts the marine environment, as well as how to engage in ecotourism.
Guest Post by Jessica from Family in Faraway Places
Is it OK to swim with the whale sharks in Oslob?
It’s not an easy question to answer. In recent years, there have been quite a few articles and advocates who have encouraged people not to visit the whale sharks in Oslob.
In order to have the whale sharks return to the area daily for visitors to swim with them, feeders give the sharks fish. As such, the whales have an unnatural amount of contact with humans. The artificial feeding behavior has taught the whales to associate people with food. They will now sometimes approach boats rather than staying away from them, which can lead to injuries. Injuries can also occur if tourists in the water accidentally kick a shark.
The sharks have less variety in their diet as they spend more time eating the fish that are given to them, rather than plankton and such. Some of the whale sharks spend up to 6 hours a day feeding in Oslob, instead of foraging naturally. In the future, this could end up causing nutritional problems.
Additionally, the migratory patterns of the sharks have also changed. The breeding pool of the sharks or the spread of this vulnerable and declining species may be influenced by this. It is hard to say though, as the whale sharks are difficult to study and concrete answers hard to come by. Obviously, the best thing for these whale sharks is to be freely swimming and living the way nature intended.
Having tourists visit Oslob to see the whale sharks is a relatively new practice. Back in 2011, photos of fishermen interacting with whale sharks in Oslob were featured in Mail Online. The article was largely positive, with conservationist Shawn Heinrich praising the bond that had formed between the sharks and fishermen in Oslob. It seems strange that a conservationist would applaud fishermen touching, riding and playing with the sharks until you consider just how bad the slaughter of the whale sharks in the region is. In other places in the region, the same whale sharks were being slaughtered by fishermen.
In 1997 alone, around 20 whale sharks were killed in the Philippines to be traded on the Asian market. Others were also killed or harmed by fishermen trying to protect their catch. Around this same time, the 1998 documentary “Whale Shark Hunters” hosted by William Shatner was created for National Geographic. The documentary aimed to highlight the issues surrounding the hunting of whale sharks in the Philippines and to help find alternative livelihoods for the whale shark hunters. This film lead President Ramos to ban the killing of whale sharks and manta rays in the Philippines. The Philippines became one of the first countries in the world to ban the killing of whale sharks.
The ban was a great first step but not all in the Philippines have welcomed it. The sharks can interfere with the catch of the fishermen, who already struggle to make a living. Even as recent as 2015, in response to whale sharks and dolphins eating the fish in the major fishing grounds of Tañon Strait, Nelson Garcia, mayor of Dumanjug town in Cebu stated: “I want to kill those whale sharks…Man should be the first to survive, not the whales, not the fish, because we will be violating the Bible. God said, man have dominion over the ocean, the fishes, the birds, the animals, and subdue it. That is the order of God.” Tañon Strait is a rich fishing ground, but is also part of the natural migratory path of large marine animals.
Whale sharks still continue to fetch a lot of money in the Asian market. In China, a single whale shark at market can bring in $30,000 USD or more, though the fishermen usually get considerably less than that. About 600 whale sharks a year were killed in just one slaughterhouse in Southern China, according to an investigation between 2010 and 2013. Then in August 2015, the world was shocked by videos of a whale shark in China (WARNING: Graphic!) being butchered at market while still alive. While the sharks are a protected species in Philippines, China and other countries which do not protect the sharks share many of these fishing waters, as well as the migratory paths of the whale sharks, with the Philippines.
Getting the fishermen and local people to see more value in having the whale sharks alive then dead has been key to protecting them. It is easy to say “It is important for our environment to protect the whale sharks!” but when it interferes with your livelihood and ability to provide for your family, the choice is not so easy. Groups have instead been working to educate locals and to set up profitable ecotourism projects in popular whale shark areas.
Donsol Bay and Oslob
Both Donsol Bay and Oslob, Cebu are well known for whale sharks. They have both created tourism industries for their small towns. As a result, the fishermen who once killed them in these areas now protect the whale sharks, as tourist dollars bring in more money for them and the entire community.
The major difference between the two sites though, is that the whale sharks are not fed in Donsol Bay. This way, there is no unnatural feeding, no increased contact with boats, and migratory patterns are not affected. But it also means that there is no guarantee that you will see a whale shark when you go out in your boat, even during the peak viewing season. In the past couple of years, reports from tourists started to come out that the whale sharks of Donsol Bay were gone. People were sighting one or no sharks for extended periods of time. This continued for a few years and tourism in the area dropped considerably. Though it seems that the whale sharks have been returning to the area, it is hard to lure people back.
By feeding the whale sharks, Oslob is able to guarantee a sighting of a whale shark to its visitors. Seeing a whale shark in a completely natural environment is much more thrilling but when you’ve traveled from far and wide and paid for the experience, patience is hard to come by.
As mentioned before, there are all sorts of problems with this unnatural feeding behavior. The sheer number of visitors to Oslob has also created issues. In 2014, over 110,000 tourists came to Oslob primarily to see the sharks. Conservation groups have stepped in and regulations have been applied. Tourists are only taken out to the sharks from 6am – noon each day. Time in the water or boat is limited to 30 minutes. If you plan on going in the water, you need to be free from sunscreen to help keep pollutants out of the water etc. Anyone who touches a shark will receive a fine or even jail time.
This does not seem to be enough and suggestions of limiting the number of tourists or stopping the feeding practice have been made repeatedly. They are hard to put in place though, when a guaranteed whale shark sighting means tourists and tourists mean more money for the community which doesn’t have many other employment options. The Large Marine Vertebraes Project Philippines (LAMAVE) is a great organization to check out if you would like to know more. They are working in the Philippines to research and educate, while striving to find a balance between marine conservation, and local community development.
We visited Dumaguete City in Negros Oriental which is just a short boat ride from Oslob, so we decided to go and check out the whale shark situation ourselves. If it looked like the whales were being harmed in any way, we were fully prepared to leave. We stayed in a guesthouse just outside of the town away from the sharks but wished we hadn’t. There weren’t many restaurants and our guesthouse didn’t offer meals beyond breakfast. Nearly all of the businesses catering to travelers seemed to be around the whale shark viewing area.
Before we visited the sharks, we spoke with some of the boatmen, restaurant owners and other locals. They told us the stories of how in the past many fishermen in the area (or even themselves!) would attack or kill the sharks to keep them away from their catch. Now, they loved the sharks and wanted to keep them healthy and safe. Following the rules and restrictions that had been recommended by outside organizations meant to them that tourist dollars would keep coming into the area. If there are no sharks or the area gets a bad reputation, the tourists will go and so will their jobs.
The people we spoke to at the feeding site took their jobs and the safety of the sharks very seriously. It seemed like a well-respected job in the community that many were competing for. Around 300 people work at the feeding site, not to mention all the other jobs in the community created to care for tourists.
We decided to go out in a boat to see the sharks based on the positive stories we had been told. We traveled in August and arrived around 7:30 am. There were not many people and so the three of us were sent out in our own boat with 2 staff after the safety briefing. One staff member would keep our boat in place while the other took photos for us (for an additional fee). If you are a strong swimmer, you can get into the water to view the sharks underwater. If traveling with a small child, it is best to bring your own life jacket since they may not have the correct size for little ones.
We did not see anyone touch or harass the sharks. The whale sharks did at times get very close to the boats of the feeders. They may have touched the sides of them. If feeding the sharks is truly necessary (I don’t think it is), it would seem that some sort of alternative could be arranged so that the feeders had no contact with them at all!
We had an incredible experience and feel really lucky to have been able to interact with these beautiful and peaceful sharks. However, we left with more questions than when we first arrived. There seems to be no straight-cut answer as to how to best protect the sharks.
Though Donsol Bay seems to be the clear choice for responsible ecotourism, I don’t think I would say that you shouldn’t go to Oslob. The community genuinely appears to want to find a solution that is both beneficial to the sharks but also supports their livelihood. The whales may also have arguably been more at risk when these same boatmen sought to kill them just a few years ago. Rather, supporting groups which actively work to find a balance, and report mistreatment or violations when spotted so that practices can be improved may be the way to go. It is clear though, that more can and needs to be done to help protect these gentle giants.
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