The Whalesharks of Oslob
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:
Philippines Fun-Size: Critters and macro life
Guest Blog By Cath Bates
Instructor and Sales Consultant Cath, from Dive Worldwide, gives a rundown of some of the top areas for macro life in the Visayas region of the Philippines.
The volcanic and tectonic activity around the western Pacific Ocean has formed a nutrient-rich environment for some of the strangest marine critters to call their homes.
The Visayas region is within the central part of the Philippines – a colony of islands that are very easy to get around, with Luzon and Mindoro to the North, and Mindanao to the South. Although many divers rave about this being Big Fish Country (thanks to the thresher sharks of Malapascua and the whale sharks of Oslob and Donsol), it is also a macro diver’s paradise.
The diversity within this area of the Coral Triangle means that within a few days you can go from diving steep walls, being cushioned by sea grass beds, hovering over sandy plateaus, or getting lost amongst hard coral heads, to suddenly being cuddled by lush, fluffy coral colonies.
Pygmy Seahorses, Mandarin Fish and more in Bohol and Anda
Anda (on the eastern side of Bohol) has a coastline that is 15 kilometres of incredible biodiversity. Dive sites are between 5 and 45 minutes away from your resort house reef. Seahorse Point and Pygmy House dive sites are home to Pygmy seahorses that balance delicately on their bendy sea fan hosts. No bigger than 2.7 centimetres in length, the pink Bargibanti and yellowish Denise are protected by the Pygmy Seahorse Code of Conduct, displayed in all good dive centres.
The island of Bohol also has nudibranchs on steroids and carpet flatworms patterned with psychedelia that would make even the most open-minded hippy have a weird trip! Night dives reveal sea pens, swimming crabs, sand eels and egg cowrie.
At dusk you can enjoy the Mandarin fish courtship dance. This is a flamboyant event with two of the most colourful fish in the sea, whose names come from the dress of the Imperial Chinese Mandarin. The female Mandarin fish is joined at the pelvic fin by a male that she has deemed worthy of her attention. At rocket speed, they swim from their rubble or staghorn coral habitat high up in the water column to release hundreds of eggs and sperm.
Out-of-this-world Shrimps, Crabs and Lobsters in Moalboal
The Tanon Strait connects the Visayan Sea to the Bohol Sea. This is where you will find the island of Moalboal (meaning bubbling water). Best known for the dramatic drop offs of Pescador island and local sardine baitball, Moalboal also has a vast array of macro dive sites.
At Copton Point, Peacock mantis shrimps scuttle about, changing direction the way Austin Powers drives his luggage cart, and Kasai Wall’s hairy orangutan crabs duck and dive in bubble anemone like they are in a child’s ball pool. Masters of disguise, the crinoid shrimp and squat lobster cling motionless to their spikey homes, avoiding being dive-bombed by hungry reef fish.
At Fish Feeding (where they don’t of course feed the fish) Tozuma shrimp and Xeno crabs adorn whip corals like bosses, and punkish candy crabs decorate themselves with broccoli coral hats.
Masters of camouflage in Dumaguete/Dauin
Negros Island has the Sulu Sea to the west and Cebu to the East. This is a mountainous province, and Negros Oriental’s capital city Dumaguete is known as the “City of Gentle People”. There is a narrow channel between it and the island of Cebu, as well as the deep Negros trench. Such topography can only mean good things for divers! The Dauin coastline boasts some of the best critter diving in the region.
At Secret Corner in octopus season (October to December) you can expect to see blue ring, Mototi, wonderpus and algae octopus crawling stealth-like over the sand. These are camouflage masters who occasionally flash colour and cut some textured shapes to warn or to decorate. You may even be lucky enough to witness mating within this period.
During Frogfish February you can see all the usual suspects like painted, hairy and sargassum as well as pin-head sized juveniles. The Atmosphere Resort and Spa house reef has a vibrant yellow guy who has even been filmed for television!
Shaun the Sheep is a loveable name given to the Costasiella kuroshimae sea slug. Not much bigger than a grain of sand, the likeness to a certain plasticine animation is uncanny. They graze on a leaf-like algae, containing chlorophyll, and are otherwise known as the “sap-sucking” sea slug because of this. Take a magnifying glass with you to catch a better glimpse of these cute creatures.
Colourful Critters in Malapascua
Famous for its larger “shoals”, Malapascua also has some exquisite reefs and seamounts that are teeming with macro life. Along the white sandy coastline are hidden muck sites that many pelagic-lovers wouldn’t even know were there. Even on the shipwrecks around Malapascua, you can find the world of the tiny: shrimp patrolling the holds, schooling glassfish shielding gangways and bright mauve Hypselodoris laying their egg skirts.
The pinnacle known as Bugtong Bato is home to various types of frogfish, nudis and carpet anemone, keeping crabs and anemone shrimp safe from the current.
Chocolate island, to the south-west in the Visayan Sea, is a popular night dive location where double-snouted spindle cowrie, flatworms and banded boxer shrimp clock in for the night shift on a background of pulsating soft corals.
Gato Island is a grassy seamount poking out of the sea 45 minutes north-west of Malapascua. The island is well known for its swim-throughs and overhangs where you can expect to find Pharaoh cuttlefish, thorny seahorse and broad-banded pipefish. It also sounds like a cake, which is a winning formula for most divers!
Diving holidays for macro, muck and critter lovers
Below are some inspirational trip ideas from the Dive Worldwide website for getting to the best macro meccas in the Philippines. Not all the dive sites are beautiful to the eye at first glance, like muck and rubble, but what lies within them are some of the most vibrant and fascinating creatures you ever did see!
Discover the Visayas
This popular itinerary includes dives in Malapascua, Monad Shoal and the Moalboal peninsula.
Access some of the best diving locations in the Philippines by liveaboard, including Dauin, Balicasag, Pescador and Malapascua.
Island Hopping Dive Safari
A stress-free diving adventure exploring stunning islands in the Visayas. An excellent choice for viewing macro life and pelagics.
Magic Dive Experience
Experience the magic of the Philippines! This trip combines two dedicated dive resorts in the Visayas – expect superb reefs, turtles, and exceptional macro life.
Dive Into Luxury
A luxury island-hopping itinerary, spending five nights in two of the Visaya region’s finest dive resorts – Atmosphere Resort & Spa and Amun Ini.
If you are interested in any of these trips, please get in touch with the friendly team of travel consultants and diving experts at Dive Worldwide or call 01962 302 087. You can also subscribe to Dive Worldwide’s regular enewsletter.
Five best places to find Big Fish in the Philippines
Guest Blog by Phil North
Divemaster Phil North, from Dive Worldwide shares his five best spots to find Big Fish in the Philippines.
If diving with the ocean’s giants is on your bucket list, the Philippines is the perfect destination. Whale sharks, striped barracudas, turtles, hammerheads, manta rays, dugongs, and even 2-metre-long Napoleon wrasse can be found here.
The Philippines is in the Coral Triangle – the most biodiverse coral reef on the planet – so its waters are bursting with marine life, including large pelagics, sponges, and over 2,500 species of fish.
So where should you visit to see the biggest and most exciting species? There are over 7,000 islands in the archipelago and several world-class diving sites to choose from, so read Dive Worldwide’s guide to discover the best diving spots for big fish encounters in the Philippines.
Outstanding marine biodiversity and reef sharks
If you’re after an abundance of big fish, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Tubbataha will not disappoint.
The dive season runs from March to June, with a chance to see a spectacular range of species, including tiger shark, hammerhead, leopard shark, grey reef shark, nurse shark, manta, marble and eagle ray, whale shark, barracuda, tuna, hawksbill and green turtle, and dolphins.
Tubbataha is the largest marine protected area in the Philippines and offers superb diving opportunities. It is located 150 kilometres from Palawan in the Sulu Sea, so you will need a liveaboard to access these world-class dive sites.
Recommended dive trip:
When to go: April – June
Shark Encounters – rare thresher sharks
Shark enthusiasts will love this world-famous diving location.
Monad Shoal, also known as Shark Point, is the only place in the world where rare thresher sharks can be seen daily.
This iconic, but usually shy, species gets its name from the distinctive tail which it uses like a whip when hunting. Here, you can encounter thresher sharks as they are swimming around the cleaning stations in the shallow reefs. You may also find white-tip, black-tip, bamboo, and nurse sharks in these waters.
With beautiful coral gardens and white sands to rival Boracay, Malapascua is a popular destination for divers and holiday-makers alike.
Recommended dive trips:
Big Fish Tour
When to go: November – April (but possible all year)
When to go: April – June
Sharks & Reefs
When to go: All year round
World’s largest rays and fish
Bicol – Donsol and Ticao Island
These popular diving destinations are frequent haunts of the world’s biggest ray and fish species – the oceanic manta ray and the whale shark.
The Manta Bowl dive site, in Ticao Pass, is famous for its manta ray population and for being one of the best diving sites in the Philippines.
Whale sharks migrate to Donsol between late November and May, which is the best time to enjoy close encounters. Although whale sharks can exceed 15 metres long, they are gentle giants that filter-feed on plankton, krill, and small plants.
Big Fish Tour
When to go: November – April (but possible all year)
Reef sharks, hammerheads and schools of pelagic fish
Apo Reef is one of the most celebrated dive sites in the Philippines and an excellent place to find sharks or other big pelagics. Hammerheads are one of the top attractions in these waters, but black and whitetip sharks, and even occasionally thresher sharks visit here. You can also expect to encounter other large species like groupers, tuna, eagle and manta rays, large trevally, turtles and, if you are lucky, dolphins.
Club Paradise Resort – offering daily dive trips to Apo Reef
When to go: anytime
When to go: April – December
Barracuda, turtles and dugong
North of Palawan – Coron
We know, not all these species are technically fish, but they are impressively large pelagics.
Dugong, also known as sea cows, were even thought to have inspired sailor’s stories about mermaids! This near-mythical marine mammal is listed as a vulnerable species on the IUCN Red List, but you may be lucky enough to spot one on an eco-tourism dive in Coron.
At Barracuda Lake, you can look out for the legendary giant barracuda (though even the regular ones can be over a metre long). This is also a great location for viewing green and hawksbill turtles.
Dive Coron Bay on Sangat Island (also excellent for wreck diving)
When to go: October – June
When to go: April – December
Top choice for big fish encounters:
Big Fish Tour
This underwater safari visits some of the best sites for whale shark, thresher shark, and manta ray encounters. The two-week tour includes up to 14 diverse and exciting dives, with stays at relaxing tropical beachfront resorts.
Find out more
Get in touch with the friendly Dive Worldwide team for first-hand advice on your next diving holiday to the Philippines. They offer a superb range of resort and liveaboard options. Visit the website, send an enquiry, or call the expert team on 01962 302087.