Oslob, Philippines

Should we go to Oslob? The question had been plaguing us for weeks. Well, actually just me because when I asked Val if we should go to Oslob she replied, “is that in the Philippines?” It’s a place to see whalesharks. We’d had a lackluster whaleshark experience in Donsol and a thrilling one in Panglao. I felt like I should count my blessings but my curiousity was also peaked. Oslob is unique because you’re guaranteed to see whalesharks, but the thing that guarantees their presence also presents an ethical dilemma. In the end we decided to go because it was only an hour away.

The big problem in Oslob is that they feed the whalesharks and no one is sure how, or to what extent, this affects the sharks behavior. It all came about in mid-2011 when whalesharks were eating all the krill that fishermen were using as bait for smaller fish. One of the fishermen was a former divemaster and recognized a huge opportunity. An immense amount of money could be made from tours, far more than their original catch would ever generate. There was also a concern that without a viable economic alternative to fishing some of the fishermen might try to eliminate their competition. So the fishermen retooled and began feeding the sharks daily, gradually drawing them into a small area close to shore. Newspapers began to write articles and soon Oslob was known internationally.

We arrived just after the municipal government had raised permit prices up 500%. We could now snorkel for 30 minutes for $17 or shell out $37 per dive just for the permit alone. Most dive shops were boycotting the change which meant there were very few divers. We weren’t crazy about the price but since it had all but eliminated other divers for a few weeks it was the best possible time to pay it. Ethically we weren’t were at a stalemate. Seeing our indecision our hotel offered us a substantial discount on equipment and it pushed us over the edge.

After only a few minutes the giants were appearing everywhere. They stuck close to the boats, where fishermen paddled with one hand and dropped handfuls of krill into the shark’s mouths with the other. Occasionally they broke away and glided out to deeper water. As a test we swam out a little farther to see if we could position privately observe the sharks coming and going. We found a good spot, out of sight from the boats and other divers, and the magic began. Every few minutes a giant would glide past, sometimes very close. It may have been contrived, and in fact if felt like we were in a giant aquarium, but it’s hard to ignore the majesty of 40 foot long animal when it’s two feet in front of your face.

Unlike Donsol the behavior of snorkelers and other divers was polite and orderly. No one touched the sharks or even got too close, in fact the only time we saw sharks in close proximity to people was when the shark themselves swam near to them. All rules were followed. Another difference was the clear water, you could easily see the entire shark and the one 30 feet behind it. This and the abundance of the sharks meant that there was no frenzied mob a meter away from the sharks, as is so prevalent in Donsol.

Being able to dive was incredible. We had the freedom to remain still in as deep or shallow as we wanted, allowing us to observe the sharks in a detailed but non-invasive way. Sometimes we had to swim a few meters to the side so that our bubble would not touch the sharks. Other times the sharks surprised us and we felt it better to remain still for risk of accidentally kicking them. These close encounters were thrilling, even more so because it was a demonstration of the sharks curiosity, or indifference, as they had come close of their volition.

So is the situation in Oslob okay? Honestly I don’t know and there are valid arguments on both sides. The Philippines is a dangerous place for a shark to be habituated to boats. There are many health concerns for the individual sharks such as poisoning and infection. The potential interruption of their migratory patterns is huge concern. Some wonder if the over-fishing of the krill they eat will cease to allow them to feed naturally, this is unlikely however because  krill are the most abundant animal on earth. These hand outs can only constitute a small portion of the overall diet of these sharks and there is nothing is physically restraining them from leaving at any time.

In the end I have chosen to regard Oslob as a well-intentioned amateur zoo with a very lackadaisical security policy. Does it harm the sharks? If so probably only in a superficial way. Judging from their size they are almost exclusively adolescent sharks with very few babies or true giants, this may simply mean they are young, curious, and eager for a hand out when it’s offered. The pessimistic outlook might say that this is a critical age for developing survival skills. Regardless as Oslob becomes more and more popular things will either get out of hand or regulations will change. Either way the constituency who will benefit the most are the people of Oslob who are now experiencing the economic boom of a lifetime. They now truly understand that sharks are more valuable left in the ocean than exported to East Asian soup bowls.

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Scott Dusek is a writer and photography from Seattle, Washingon. He has spent over five years on the road traveling to over 60 countries. When Scott is not writing you can find him trekking, climbing, and scuba diving in far flung corners of the world.