Whale Shark Watching In The Philippines
Had a whale of a time… (apologies…)
All the whale watching occurs on the small beach of Tan-awan in the Philippines.
Our morning was perfect. Clear skies. No wind and very clear waters. Though we could have done the Whale Shark watching on Sunday morning, the crowds resembled a dense pack of sardines. We were advised to wait until the Monday for significantly less crowds.
The Whale Shark watching happens just off the small beach of Tan-awan. It consists of a large dusty car park and an open air shed where the briefings and registration takes place. Numerous paddle boats line the beach. Just off the beach, an area is defined by marker buoys and this is where the Whale Sharks congregate each morning to be fed by locals in small boats.
Quite a simple process really. Each morning, the Whales Sharks arrive waiting for their feed. The tourists arrive, pay their fees and get to watch the whole process at very close quarters. The locals benefit by regular employment. The whole operation is under the control of the local municipality so the revenue is spread throughout the area. Not to some private company. It should be noted this is the only Whale Shark Watching operation in the region.
Of course this process is not without its controversy. Many feel the Whale Sharks may become too dependant upon this process and have their natural feeding habits disrupted. Others believe the sharks are actually being looked after and less subject to poaching and other dangers of the open ocean. From the villagers point of view, hopefully a long term sustainable business providing employment and local economic development.
Numerous resorts, hotels, hostels, bed and breakfasts are located either within walking distance or at nearby Oslob, just a 10 minute drive away. It is suggested in the peak times you book your accommodation in advance. During our visit in July, the online accommodation was heavily booked. Upon arrival however, it was clear that many accommodation options don’t have a website appearance so walk-ins are possible.
If you are really time poor, you can always get an early morning bus or even a taxi from Cebu. The journey will take 3-4 hours. Just ask the bus driver to drop you off at Tan-awan for the Whale Shark watching. Buses seem to depart every half hour or so.
We were staying at the Seafari Resort – less than a kilometre away by road. For their guests, they also provide a complimentary paddle boat service to Tan-awan. Subject to waves and wind, the Whale Shark watching area is just a 10 minute paddle away. Up to 8 passengers and a couple of staff doing the hard work of paddling so we just get back to sit back, relax and enjoy the scenery.
Once at Tan-awan beach, your first step is to register and attend a short safety briefing in a large open shelter. Here the rules are clearly explained:
- No touching of the sharks. Penalties do apply for offenders.
- No flash photography as the Whales eyes are sensitive.
- A four metre exclusion zone
- Wash off any sunscreen prior to boarding the viewing boats
- Whilst in the boat, the wearing of a life jacket is mandatory. (Supplied to guests)
In reality, I am sure some people do touch the sharks due to their close proximity. Even getting more than 4 metres from them was virtually impossible as they were swimming amongst us.
The photography is obviously a big drawcard with half the participants seemingly more interested in getting their photo with the sharks in the background rather than simply observing them. It is possible to hire a GoPro camera when registering. The cost was around 500 pesos which included a CD of your photos.
Once you register, it is time to pay. The prices I quote below are for foreigners – locals get a discount which is fair enough.
For just viewing the sharks from the boat, it is 500 pesos per person.
If you want to snorkel with them, it is a total of 1000 pesos per person which includes a snorkel and mask. (Both of which were in excellent condition – I even saw a person who had the task of thoroughly washing each mask after use in soapy water).
Once you have registered, attended the briefing, paid your fee and collected your mask/snorkel/lifejacket, it is time to board your assigned paddle boat. The number of persons per boat ranged from 2 up to around 10.
Your boat is then paddled out to the shark feeding area – approximately 50 metres off shore. The way the operation works is this. Your boat proceeds to the end of a line of boats who place themselves close to the shark feeding boats. (Smaller boats with just one person offering food to the sharks). You enter the water and presto, there the sharks are! Truly awesome.
Each boat is allocated 30 minutes viewing time. The line of boats move gradually sideways with the final boat peeling off to return to shore after their 30 minutes. It is kind of a Whale Shark Watching Conveyor Belt! And the system works really well. Just take note of the boat number you joined – makes it easier to find your correct boat when you need to leave the water. By the way, 30 minutes is ample time for the activity.
One pleasant bonus were the schools of small silver fish feeding in amongst all the action. Only about 10 centimetres long and shiny silver. They open their mouths up wide as they swim – catching invisible plankton and other fish food. I found this nearly as interesting as viewing the sharks themselves.
Once you return to shore, your equipment is collected. Rinse off the saltwater in the public freshwater showers. Adjacent to the car park are numerous shops selling drinks, souvenirs and delicious meals.
The whole operation starts winding down mid-morning. Best to get there as early as possible. Less crowds, less chance of the wind picking up and not as hot.
One thing definitely lacking was information about the Whale Sharks. Though some tourists just seem focused on getting a “selfie with a shark”, I am sure that others would like to know more about the Sharks themselves. Their habitat. Migratory procedures. Life cycle. Predators. Why they are endangered. Even where the registration fees go? Apart from the local economy, are any funds made available for further research etc.? These are some of the questions that entered my mind and I am sure others would be just as curious.
On a final note, this operations seems to work quite well. My big concern is as it increases in popularity, the resultant tourist numbers may be hard to handle. In the meantime, please be patient and respect the directions of the local staff.
The other concern of course is what happens if the Whale Sharks stop coming? With the local economy seemingly dependant upon this activity, this could be quite disastrous. Fortunately, the area is very scenic, the water clear, the food and accommodation great. Still plenty of reason to come to this part of Cebu.