On our recent trip to the Philippines we were invited to visit the famous, but controversial, Whalesharks of Oslob. In the past, we had heard some negative reports about this experience and so it was with some trepidation that we agreed to go. First, we chatted to the team at Magic Island Dive Resort about what to expect. They told us that they used to boycott this experience themselves, as they had witnessed bad practices and only in the last few years, with tighter regulations being imposed, have they been taking their divers back to Oslob. With this expert local knowledge reassuring us, we packed up our camera gear and set off.
So, what goes on here? Well, for many years (some say over 100 years), way before it was a tourist attraction, fishermen have been feeding the Whalesharks that approach their boats, to keep them away from the nets and causing damage as they try to suck the tiny fish or shrimp through the small holes. In recent times, when people heard you could get up close with the magnificent fish, this practice started to bring in tourists. Now, the fishermen and the local village, make their livelihoods by selling tickets to see the Whalesharks. Tourists flock to Oslob in their thousands to get the chance to see and swim with the biggest fish in the sea.
We had arranged to do a dive first, as Magic Island Dive Resort is an accredited dive centre for this experience, and they are one of only a handful that are allowed to go beneath the surface. We geared up well outside the protected zone, as boats with engines are not allowed, so we shore-dived and swam towards the main attraction. Soon we were marvelling at the Whalesharks above us as they approached the boats to be fed. Our guide counted 12 Whalesharks, and they were mostly small to mid-sized juveniles. Sometimes the Whalesharks would dive deeper and come in to inspect us before returning to the surface. Our group of five divers and two guides were the only divers in the water, and we had an hour to spend underwater (one of the many rules of diving here). From below, you get a completely different view of this experience, and we were amazed at just how few people got into the water with the gentle giants.
To see what this experience is all about though, we also wanted to join one of the boats to snorkel with the Whalesharks, which is what the majority of people who come here do. At first glance, it looks too crowded and we were worried about what we might encounter. We got into our boat that was paddled out to the main feeding arena. You only get 30 minutes and so we were ready to get in as soon as our boat was in position. The number of boats out on the water, as well as the number of feeders, corresponds to the number of Whalesharks in the bay on that day. As there were 12 sharks, it seems that there were about 12 tourist boats too, so perhaps around 100 people every half an hour (from day break to lunchtime) going to see them.
We were very surprised to see that most people just watched from the boat, or got into the water, but held onto the boat, so there were only a handful of people in the open water. This made it a much more pleasurable experience than we were expecting. We were given very strict instructions on not approaching the sharks: we could not use strobes, we were not allowed to wear sun cream and we were told that getting too close would see us getting a red card and sent out of the water. We were delighted to see that, when one snorkeler broke these rules, he was sent out of the water immediately. The Whalesharks themselves were incredible, slowly approaching to be fed, sucking the tiny fish from the water just in front of us, sometimes horizontal, and sometime positioned vertically in the water to feed. It is amazing to see.
We had heard stories of Whalesharks that had terrible injuries from the boats hitting them, but the boats here do not use engines and the only injury we saw was the bottom of a tail missing, which is unlikely to have been a propeller injury. We had heard stories of tourists grabbing or even riding the sharks, but this was not our experience at all. We had heard that the sharks never leave, but they are free to come and go and most only stay a few days and then move on, with one individual out of the hundreds that have been recorded here staying for over 300 days, in a very rare case.
As with many shark-feeding programs, the worry is that we are changing the behaviour of these Whalesharks by the very act of feeding them. There is a research organisation called LAMAVE that are based in Oslob and their researchers are in the water every day. They have a database of Whaleshark IDs so that they can monitor which individuals are visiting the site and for how long.
Whalesharks are a migratory species that follow their food sources around the globe. LAMAVE have discovered that a handful of Whalesharks stay much longer than would be normal in this area and so their behaviour has changed. Most, though, stay for a short period of time and then move on. Of course, Whalesharks may also mistake other boats, not in this protected area, as potential food sources and therefore be more prone to propeller strikes in the future. We only did one snorkelling session and did not see any bad behaviour from the snorkellers, apart from one, who was swiftly dealt with, so we hope that this side of people’s concerns have been reduced.
The local economy is now not based on fishing as it once was, but instead is based on showing tens of thousands of people these magnificent fish. There is a new school, hospital and infrastructure in the region, funded by the tourists that come here. We were delighted to see a boat of local school children pull up next to ours, and to observe their excitement at seeing Whalesharks for the first time, in the wild, was wonderful. The more people that fall in love with our seas, oceans and marine life, the more likely it is that they will protect it. Here, the Whalesharks are worth more alive than dead with their fins cut off; it is a trade-off that we can live with.
There is so much more we could write about this, but it will have to wait for another time. We were expecting our experience with the Whalesharks of Oslob to be a negative one, based on the stories we had heard, but in fact we came away having enjoyed it and we were re-assured that it is not a circus. This is not for everyone, that is for sure. It is not a wild encounter. We hope that the work of LAMAVE will continue to improve how the experience is run, so that the impact on the majestic Whalesharks is kept to a minimum, giving divers, tourists and locals alike a chance to see one of nature’s gentle giants up close.
For more information please have a look at the following websites:
A Welcome Return (Part 2)
I’m hoping by now you would have read Part 1 of my ‘A Welcome Return’, all about joining La Galigo Liveaboard once again, but this time exploring the delights of Komodo National Park.
The trip was really starting to hot up, with great scenery above the water and great encounters underwater. It was the little critters that were stealing the show and it was about to get even better. Here is how the rest of the trip panned out…
I was more than psyched for day 3. With a dive full of life to start with at ‘Castle Rock,’ followed by what should be an adrenaline-fuelled drift at ‘The Cauldron’ aka ‘Shotgun’, It was sure to be an adventure. Sure enough, once we descended along the pinnacle at ‘Castle Rock’ to around 25 metres, we were surrounded by an abundance of fish life. Numerous banner fish, schools of fusilier and surgeonfish swam in unison, while the odd friendly batfish would come to check each diver out. A distant school of jackfish were joined by the odd tuna and a circling whitetip reef shark to add the predators to the list of life. It was such fun floating amongst the amount of life before letting the current take us onto the reef. A few macro delights were waiting, as a blue ribbon eel and leaffish were spotted, alongside a friendly hawksbill turtle. This was certainly a dive that didn’t disappoint.
It was time for ‘The Cauldron,’ a notorious dive that struck fear into the hearts of some and was legendary to others. Tales of masks flying off in the current made for a little nerves before descending, but excitement from others about how the drift can shoot you through the channel between Gili Lawa Laut and Gili Lawa Darat. However, it was a little different for my dive and the current was fairly mild in comparison to what I expected. It still had enough current for a nice push through the channel and also provided some great marine life encounters. Another new shark species for me was a major highlight, as I finally got to see and photograph a bamboo shark. It was also the site for our only manta ray encounter of the trip. Unfortunately, the manta had passed my group before we saw it and we only got the tail end as it glided through the current away from us. A smaller mobula ray was also spotted at a distance, and a small school of bigeye trevally before… you guessed it… yet another friendly hawksbill on the safety stop.
Day 3 was becoming the best diving day so far and I’d say the next dive at ‘Golden Passage’ was my favourite wide angle dive of the trip. I just love cephalopods and am a big fan of cuttlefish. Three rather large broadclub cuttlefish at the very start of the dive were more than welcome and provided great photography opportunities. We then had an amazing drift along the passage with a bit more oomph than ‘Shotgun’. More hawksbill turtles along the way, a sleeping bamboo shark in the overhangs, and a dancing school of fusiliers provided extra marine life joys. We finished the diving day with a night dive at ‘Gili Lawa Darat Bay’. Wow!!!! Once again, critters stole the show, along with a rather successful bobtail squid snooted photography shoot for me. Devil scorpionfish, nudibranch, flatworms, shrimps, squat lobsters and juvenile harlequin sweetlips made sure every single minute was interesting.
After a short documentary about Komodo dragons on the evening of day 3 to get us excited for seeing them, I was definitely more than excited! Day 4 was a day of giving it our best shot to get some great manta ray action. We started with another beautiful pinnacle reef around ‘Crystal Rock’. Small school of batfish, Napoleon wrasse, whitetip reef sharks, a blacktip reef shark and lion fish greeted us, before we moved on to try for mantas once again. Back to ‘Karang Makassar’ and a drift along the sand and rubble, passing small sections of coral formations that would act as cleaning stations. Unfortunately, we were once again unlucky with our manta ray sightings but this dive did deliver more interesting encounters: A bamboo shark resting out in the open before swimming off, green sea turtles, hawksbill turtles and, once again, a large broadclub cuttlefish.
A final day dive at ‘Mauan’ in the hope of seeing mantas wasn’t much to write home about in this instance. We gave it our best shot with the mantas and that’s all we can ask of the accommodating crew onboard. Unfortunately, wildlife doesn’t always play ball and on another trip you could have some of the best manta ray action of your life. However, the final night dive of the trip more than made up for it. Wow, wow, wow!!! What a dive! With some of the most unique critters you can find. So much so, I have been asked to keep the dive site quiet in fear of the information getting to the wrong people and bad practice being at play. A shame it has to be that way but a necessity at times. While numerous species of nudibranch were spotted on the dive, it was the elusive ghost melibe that stole the show. A transparent nudibranch made up of white lines, giving it a skeletal appearance that was hard to photograph but soooo exciting to see!
The unique critters didn’t stop there, as another highlight macro critter – the paddle flap scorpionfish – was spotted to the excitement of the guides and cruise director Fareez, who screamed and danced (with excitement!) underwater. Definitely a sought-after critter in the underwater photography world, and we had two join us for the dive. There was a lot of sand and sediment in the water, making it difficult for photography and I wasn’t completely ecstatic with the shots I got, but loved to see another new-to-me species. But guess what? The fun didn’t stop there, as a black frogfish was sitting under some broken coral just next to the scorpionfish. WHAT A DIVE!!!!!!
After such an incredible final night dive, the final day also finished the trip in incredible fashion, ensuring the need to return was firmly there. Starting with a first dive at Pengah, where a banded sea krait hunting throughout the reef was a great start, and more colourful coral formations around the pinnacle, with amazing hard coral just below the surface. It was a dive for wide angle and macro, as ladybugs, different nudibranch, and a leaf scorpionfish were found. As well as a large octopus working its way through the reef before hiding when we locked eyes. The final dive really put the icing on the cake. It was a macro dive amongst sand and rubble: numerous nudibranch again dazzled, with the ‘Pikachu’ nudi my favourite. Peacock mantis shrimp, spearing mantis shrimp, longhorn cowfish, orangutan crab, squat lobster and shrimp ensured a special dive before the grand finale – a thorny seahorse. What a dive and what diving for my five days in Komodo National Park.
Well, the diving might have been over, but the trip certainly wasn’t. In fact, it was time for one of the tours I’d been looking forward to the most. Time to see Komodo dragons on Rinca Island. As much as I love liveaboards, it’s always nice to get back on land. A jetty led us onto a boardwalk path, where within minutes we laid our eyes on our first dragon, before getting closer to the information centre and seeing the big male that commands the area. Sprawled out on the floor, his size was immense. A great start but I longed for those close encounters and not looking down from a platform.
We were soon through the information centre and onto the wild ground to start our very short trek. We didn’t need to go far at all as a resting large female was just next to the information centre, followed by a small juvenile who came running through stealing all the attention. It was a little cutie and fun to see and photograph. Being a photographer, you always have images in mind before you go somewhere. I was desperate to get a large dragon postured up facing or walking to the camera. I quickly realised that these were lazy animals in the midday sun (as am I). It’s too hot and they risk overheating if they’re too active. I began to lose hope for the shot I wanted, as we trekked a short while up the hill and found another resting female. Amazing to see once again before it was all too soon ready to leave. I could have trekked so much more of the island.
As we waited around the outside seating area of the information centre, I was going through my shots with Fareez and explaining the shots I was hoping for. He said maybe I would get lucky while we waited for the others to explore the gift shop. I knew I didn’t have long. Suddenly, some commotion back outside on the wild ground caught my attention. DOUBLE JACKPOT!!! I went flying out of the gate and there was a dragon walking directly towards me. Postured up, showing off its muscles, only made better by the fact that it was the huge male that swaggered into his arena. Showing off to his adoring crowd. I was completely made up and thankfully got some shots I was happy with. He slowly walked around using his tongue to taste all the flavours, before finally slumping on the ground, sprawled out in the shade.
My trip was now complete, or so I thought. I got what I wanted and was happy to return to my family completely content (apart from losing my drone that is!) That was until the grand finale, the little extra I didn’t know I needed, but it’s always those moments that separate a great trip from an unbelievably fantastic trip. The little extras that make you long to return.
Moored up at Pulau Kalong under an amazing sunset, we waited for the show to start. A spectacle that only nature can deliver soon ensued, as thousands upon thousands of flying foxes left their daytime roost on the island. Engulfing the orange sky with black silhouettes akin to the batman sign. They just kept coming and coming for the next hour or so before we enjoyed an amazing BBQ dinner on the top deck and an incredible show of songs and dance from the amazing crew. Another fantastic trip onboard La Galigo and I can only hope I’ll be back soon.
For more information about diving in Komodo:
Sean Chinn Instagram: @greatwhitesean
Whatsapp: +62 812 2000 2025
A Welcome Return (Part 1)
After an incredibly successful trip onboard La Galigo last October exploring Raja Ampat, I was so happy to jump back onboard. This time exploring another bucket list destination – Komodo National Park.
Strangely, it’s not the underwater world around Komodo that makes it such a bucket list destination for me. Growing up fascinated with the biggest species of each animal, the Komodo dragon has been a lifelong ambition for me to see. I was so excited to now get the opportunity, while also knowing the diving around the National Park would be way more than an added bonus. In my mind, Komodo was synonymous with crazy currents, mantas and some suspect visibility at times. I was expecting really tricky adventurous diving. What I found, was actually very surprising to me and left me with a very pleasant content feeling after the trip. Let’s find out what La Galigo’s Jurassic Komodo trip had in store…
I was on a much shorter trip this time (6D/5N) compared to my Raja trip last year. Now, I’m going to try hard not to compare Komodo with Raja Ampat, but it is hard not to, after doing both trips relatively close in time to each other. However, what I found were two places that complimented each other so well. Their differences are part of their charm and the reason why both are must-do trips. This was evident in the contrasting landscape while exploring the islands around Komodo. The drier climate creating stunning rugged savannah islands rising from the clear blue waters. Covered in a mixture of yellow and green grass, creating a beautiful golden glow at sunrise and sunset. With isolated trees creating a focal point and hillsides leading into idyllic white sand beaches. Another breathtaking area to explore and no better way than to sail from island to island.
11 guests were onboard for my trip and diving was split into three groups, no more than four divers with each dive guide. A spacious dive deck plenty big enough for the number of guests onboard and two speedboats transporting us to each dive site. An extremely helpful crew providing a comfortable journey and making sure we barely had to lift a finger. The food onboard was again super delicious, with the Soto Ayam being a highlight, while the beef rendang again had my mouth watering. With spacious rooms throughout and comfortable beds and pillows, another relaxing stay was on the agenda between dives. Speaking of dives, let’s see what underwater had in store…
Apologies!! I am going to compare Komodo and Raja Ampat one last time, this time in relation to the check dive. In my mind, before I had dived both, I had Komodo as the place with crazy currents and sometimes poorer visibility, with Raja as the opposite. My check dives couldn’t have been further from what I had imagined. While my dive in Raja was limited vis and a relatively strong current, diving in Komodo started super relaxed, with next to no current and some amazing visibility at ‘Sebayor Kecil’. Such a pleasant start to my Komodo trip with beautiful reefs full of healthy hard and soft coral. Yellow snapper swimming in unison, lion fish, crocodile fish and a blue spotted stingray welcoming me nicely to life underwater in Komodo.
Following on from such a relaxed dive, I soon realised it was the little critters that were going to steal the show in this beautiful paradise. The first night dive at ‘Sebayor Besar’ showed me what treats I had in store for the trip. With a very small red octopus only few centimetres in size, followed by a larger reef octopus. Nudibranch, peacock mantis shrimp, crabs and more made sure every minute of the dive was enjoyed before getting back onboard. The night wasn’t finished, as a fun game of ‘Cards Against Humanity’ broke the ice with everyone onboard and was the perfect example of why I love liveaboards so much. Meeting people from all walks of life while confined to life onboard broadens your horizons. It was a great laugh with a great group.
The next day followed on with some more beautiful reefs full of life. ‘Tarawa Besar’ and the magical ‘Batu Balong’ were the dive sites of choice. A mixture of stunning hard coral formations and vibrant soft coral dazzled like a Van Gogh painting full of colour. It was also the introduction of some friendly turtles, in particular a number of hawksbill that quite happily swam between divers and allowed for close interactions. A grumpy green sea turtle was the highlight for me, as it rested amongst the coral in the final moments of ‘Tarawa Besar’. I just love their patterned shell.
Whitetip reef sharks, scorpionfish, a giant pufferfish, moray eels and more made sure it wasn’t all about the turtles. And, to be honest, the dancing anthias on top of ‘Batu Balong’ amongst the pristine hard coral provided the bliss on the safety stop. A delightful end before disappointedly, I finally got unlucky with manta rays on dive three. We were at ‘Karang Makassar’ in the hope of drifting along the rubble and sand to get lucky with a moment with some majestic mantas. I’m normally quite lucky with manta rays and have had some pretty wild encounters around the world over my diving life. However, this time nature unfortunately didn’t play ball. Fingers crossed for next time!!
Thankfully it didn’t take away from what was another amazing day in Komodo. A sunset trek on Gili Lawa Darat got us back on land and we enjoyed the amazing scenery. Incredible views over the bay and the island resembling a snake head were made even more enjoyable by yet another gorgeous sunset. With deer roaming free, it was a great mini adventure, getting a close-up view of these rugged savannah islands before another fantastic night dive at Komodo Bay.
Numerous nudibranch were spotted and even a flatworm working its way over a scorpionfish’s head and eye provided some funny entertainment. I’m a sucker for a cuttlefish, so getting the chance to see and photograph a small one is always special. However, the most unique critter was the Lembeh sea dragon. Such a cute and surreal-looking creature that unfortunately wasn’t in a great position for photography. Hopefully I’ll get another chance one day and capture its unique beauty.
What a great start to life in Komodo onboard La Galigo. Be sure to stay tuned for part 2 and see what delights awaited us.
For more information about diving in Komodo:
Sean Chinn Instagram: @greatwhitesean
Whatsapp: +62 812 2000 2025