Swimming with whale sharks in the Philippines is really one of those travel bucket list experiences. In fact, no matter where you are in the world, a close up encounter with these gentle giants is one of the most incredible experiences you can have.
Oslob, on the island of Cebu in the Philippines, has become famous for its whale shark population. Oslob and the whale sharks here were virtually unknown until a about 6 years ago when a video online went viral. Now the experience of swimming with whale sharks in the Philippines is firmly on the bucket list for most travellers. And it was also on mine.
However, since actually swimming with the whale sharks, I’ve realised that this activity in Oslob has become a highly controversial topic amongst travellers.
So in this blog post, I’m going tell you all you need to know about swimming with whale sharks in the Philippines. Both discussing the whale shark experience at Oslob in a detailed guide, as well as the argument as to whether it’s ethical or not.
It’s important for each person to make their own informed decision, so I really hope this blog post does that. Animal tourism is a contentious issue and the welfare of animals in tourism is receiving growing attention across the globe. Take a read below and let me know your thoughts!
Swimming with whale sharks in the Philippines: A Practical Guide
How to get to Oslob in the Philippines?
The most common way to arrive in Oslob is via a 4 hour bus from Cebu City’s South Bus Terminal. The buses are clearly signed and you want a bus to Bato as the end destination. The drivers are helpful and friendly, and if you tell in advance you need to jump off at Oslob, they’ll give you prior warning.
Another option is to arrive via ferry from Dumaguete into Bato where it’s a short bus or tricycle along to Oslob.
Whilst in Alona Beach on Panglao in Bohol, we also noticed several day tours over to Oslob to swim with the whale sharks, so that’s a possibility too.
Another alternative is to stay in Cebu as your base, and join an organised tour such as this one covering both Kawasan Falls and swimming with the whale sharks.
Where to stay in Oslob?
Firstly, it’s important to know that the whale sharks are located just outside of Oslob in an small town called Tan-awan.
My research prior to arriving led me to believe that I’d want to stay as physically close to the Briefing Centre as possible, as this is where the boats leave from.
So I ended up picking the very budget and simple accommodation option adjacent to the centre called Sharky Hostel. It was absolutely fine for the night – a simple wooden hut with a bed and a fan that was right next to the Briefing Centre. The bathrooms were shared in a small outhouse. The hostel was run by a lovely family who had several puppies too! Check rates for Sharky Hostel here.
However, we barely got any sleep due to noisy chickens that couldn’t have been more than a metre or two from our beds all night.
Looking on Google Maps beforehand showed numerous accommodation options along the main road in Tan-awan, and had I known that they were actually just a 10 or so minute walk to the Briefing Centre, I’d have preferred these.
Here are a couple of other accommodation suggestions in Oslob.
The Whale Shark Experience at Oslob
How do I arrange the experience to swim with whale sharks in Oslob?
You do not need to book beforehand. You can just turn up at the Whale Shark Briefing Centre and pay. This is the website of the Oslob Whale Shark Centre.
How much does swimming with whale sharks cost?
We paid 1000PHP which I believe is the tourist price (as of Jan 2020). It is cheaper for locals though.
What time should I arrive at the Briefing Centre?
It is widely agreed that getting in the water as early as possible is best to avoid the crowds. To be honest, this was the key reason I picked Sharky but even at 6am, there were lots of people there.
What happens next?
After you’ve paid and filled in a short form, you sit down to listen to a brief talk about the whale shark experience. You’re told to not wear any suntan lotion as it is dangerous for the whale sharks. You’re then instructed on how to conduct yourself in the water. Then you receive a life jacket and snorkel before being swiftly directed into a boat. A local man paddles you out and attaches your boat to a semi-circle of boats. From here you can take off your life jacket and slip into the water to swim with the whale sharks.
The Ethical Debate
How did I find swimming with the whale sharks?
Honestly? It was a hectic, rushed and stressful experience. There were probably about 7 whale sharks swimming about in total. But with everyone trying to get near them and to take the perfect photo (us included), it was a scrappy experience in the water. This, together with some tourists who kept shouting loudly and refusing to let go of the boat whilst in the water and kicking about, made it a frustrating experience.
However, we did get a peaceful minute or two with the sharks and that was momentarily magical.
Overall, we had about 20 minutes or so to make the most of swimming with the whale sharks – it was really rushed.
Would I do it again in Oslob in the Philippines? Am I happy I did it?
No. And yes – they’re truly huge and majestic creatures but I would love to find them completely in the wild. Oh, and with no-one else around.
So is swimming with the whale sharks in Oslob unethical?
The purpose of me addressing this issue is more for each to make their own informed decision before choosing to swim with them.
The reason whale sharks can be guaranteed here every single day is because they’re fed straight from the boats. There is a strong argument that this affects their migratory pattern which is having a knock-on effect to their mating habits. They’re also an endangered species.
On the other hand, previously the locals who now work at the Briefing Centre used to kill the sharks to sell on. A lot of people don’t realise this. This town is highly reliant on tourism now, which means they’re unlikely to go back to killing them or other marine life to sell.
People also believe that the boats’ engines and propellers are dangerous and hazardous for the whale sharks. I confirm that the boats are wooden with no engines or propellers. The local guides paddle out about 20m from the beach and join the boats up with a bit of rope.
In the briefing, they explain we were not permitted to go close than 4m and the guides enforce this in the water too. Touching them is forbidden.
Swimming with whale sharks in the Philippines
I hope that this guide on swimming with the whale sharks in Oslob has been useful. Both as a guide, but also as a means to consider the ethical issues concerned with swimming with whale sharks in the Philippines.
Let me know what you think in the comments. I’d love to hear from you!
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Disclaimer: This visit to Oslob was entirely paid for by myself and there was no involvement from the tourism board or a hotel. This is an independent guide.
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