I never really paid attention to the issues that has become such sensitive topics, especially regarding animal rights, until I started traveling more. I rode an elephant, I posed with a captive animals, and I even swam with three different dolphins in the ocean (although, that one, I still stand by my decision that those dolphins are fully taken care of in a rescue center). The rest, I did with zero awareness that it was even an issue, or that they were even dubbed as unethical. (READ: I Rode An Elephant And I’m Not Proud Of It)
Not too long ago, I swam with whale sharks. Not once, but twice. On different occasions. The first time I did, I had no idea there was even a controversy regarding these gentle giants. For all I knew, we were going to be taken deeper into the ocean where we’ll be able to see these precious wild animals. Of course I was surprised when it turned out that although it definitely wasn’t the shallow part of the sea, we weren’t necessarily in the middle of the ocean like I imagined. I went again the second time because it was that amazing that I wanted my husband to experience it too. That, and because I wanted to learn more about the controversies and to stay conscious about any signs of unethical practices.
But before we probe deeper, let me just make it clear that I am in no way advocating nor preaching to you. I simply want to share with you my own experience and the knowledge that I now know. Besides, at the end of the day, you’re still making the final decision to go or not, and chances are, your curiosity and concern has led you to this article.
There are a few places across the globe that offers an experience to swim with the whale sharks. While it could cost around $200-$300 in places like Australia or Mexico, a 30-minute session with these sea creatures in Oslob, Cebu will cost foreigners $30. Of course with the cheap price comes with it the possibilities of questionable practices, exposure (and overload) to irresponsible tourists, and well, an experience that isn’t as authentic as you may be led to believe.
Starting off with the authenticity we all tend to seek, as much as I loved and treasure my experience, it really wasn’t a very authentic one. You’re surrounded by numbers of tourists who has flocked to this town for the very sake of swimming with the whale sharks. You’re taken on a short boat ride off the shore where the whale sharks return every morning to be fed by boat men, which is their way of summoning them. You’re basically inside a circle where the whale sharks are swimming around in the middle and tourists are struggling to get near enough to take a decent selfie for proof. Now I’m not going to claim that I wasn’t one of those trying to capture the memory, because no matter how inauthentic this whole circus actually was, it was just mesmerizing to be near these beautiful creatures. I was in awe, and swimming next to them was such an incredible experience.
ETHICAL OR NOT, THAT IS THE QUESTION
There’s been a few concerns raised regarding the Oslob whlase shark circus. There’s a specific article circulating online (that I can no longer seem to find) claiming some pretty important issues advocating why you shouldn’t swim with the whale sharks here. Some of the claims in the article appears inaccurate to me based on my own personal experiences and based on the conversations I’ve had with the locals. I made sure to keep an eye for any signs of maltreatment and abuse during my experiences, so here’s my take on some of the main concerns;
1.) Tourists are touching the animals.
Mostly, FALSE. The article included photos of people riding and touching the whale shark. This is obviously a big no NO. I myself would even condemn those dumb enough who thinks it’s okay to touch any wild animals. You wouldn’t want to be touched by anyone if it was the other way around, would you? Those photos, however, were actually taken from a nearby town, presumably of locals.
Anyway, before swimming with the whale sharks in Oslob, they bring you to a briefing center where they give you the pointers, do’s and don’ts, and the consequences, should you break the rules. They make you shower and rinse off your sunblock to protect them. You will be fined quite a good amount of pesos if you were caught touching the whale sharks, and I have witnessed how the boat men and the entire crew in the circus really try hard to prevent this from happening. They make sure you don’t get too close to them and if you are, they will drag you away. These are master mermans keeping an eye on everyone including the whale sharks, so that was quite a relief to see that they do look out for them. However, with increasing amount of tourists swimming with them on a daily basis, I would assume that there will still be instances that the rules would not be followed– may it be from stubborn or heartless tourists or accidental touches from being a horrible swimmer, it won’t be easy to monitor this at all times.
2.) The whale sharks are getting injured from motorized boats.
FALSE. They do not take any motorized boats to the main area. It is done so to prevent harming them. It doesn’t mean they can’t harm themselves when they accidentally bump against the boats though.
3.) They could get bacterial infection from being hand-fed.
UNSURE. As far as I’ve seen, they toss the food to the whale sharks, without necessarily touching them, as what was implied on the said article. The whale sharks I swam with also appeared healthy with no signs of injuries or any sort of infection. Of course, this is merely based on my observation with my naked eyes behind my goggles. Plus who’s to say how clean their hands are.
4.) Lack of nutrition.
Sadly, TRUE. Whale sharks travel far and deep in search of food, mostly for planktons, their personal preferences. In Oslob, they bait them with krill, not necessarily feed them, which apparently does not give them the appropriate nutrition they need.
5.) Feeding them every morning disrupts their natural migratory practices.
UNSURE. Whale sharks are very nomadic. They wander across the depths of the sea in slow speed as they migrate and search for food. By summoning them every morning in the same location, these creatures’ migration patterns may or may not be compromised when they become dependent on this alone for their nutritional resources. Most of the whale sharks I swam with were a lot smaller then I expected, and as a local I’ve spoken to has confirmed (who also used to work with marine biologists in the area), those ones were actually just babies, as their mothers have already left and migrated to Australia. According to experts, it’s a little early to detect if this claim is true, and while I’m hoping that it doesn’t lead to that, experts’ predictions seems to believe it just might.
TO STOP OR NOT TO STOP, BUT WHAT ABOUT THE LOCALS?
I’ve spoken to locals and asked them whether they were aware of the controversies. They were of course, as it has been going on and that organizations has been trying to shut them down since the rise of the circus, according to one of them. But here’s what most people disregard; the whale sharks are predominantly the main source of income for majority of the locals in Oslob town. No matter how lovely the small town of Oslob is, the whale sharks IS the main attraction, so everything related to the tourism business will be highly affected should it ever come down to shutting down the entire attraction. Oslob has been thriving because of the tourists flocking here. It forced them to be creative and to find ways to thrive and make a livelihood out of it. So if these organizations come together to shut it down, what about the locals? Most of us are so quick to make judgements regarding matters that we feel so strongly about that we sometimes forget to look at it in a different perspective– the HUMANS trying to feed their family. It’s a matter of morality vs. survival, and when that’s the case, we all know that sadly, morality ends where survival begins.
At the end of the day, I think it remains a catch-22. I do believe that the Oslob tourism board are doing their best to preserve the rights of the animals, and to also find ways to keep a sustainable lifestyle for its residents. I do believe that they are working hard to improve the whole ordeal. And while you can’t make everybody happy, the decision to experience something yourself is entirely up to you. If this doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, or whether you just feel strongly and passionately about this issue, yet still want to experience swimming with gentle giants, there are other places in the Philippines where you can experience swimming with them in the wild. Donsol is one of the famous spots where whale sharks are commonly spotted.
Like I said earlier, I went twice on different occasions. Although I was unaware of the issues the first time I went, I knew a little better when I took my husband the next time around. But do I support unethical tourism? No. Am I okay with the said effects/claims regarding the whale shark circus? Absolutely not. What I support is experience. Kindness. Awareness. Seeing things with my own eyes. Hearing from both sides. Understanding different perspectives. Learning.
We all have different views on certain issues, and that’s okay. That’s what makes travel so special– differences. I don’t know where I completely stand yet in this matter, and it’s okay to allow yourself to be confused too. All I know is that whatever it is, we should all be kind– to animals and to other human beings.
After all, without my experience, I wouldn’t be able to share with you what I know now. Because maybe, just maybe, it’s personally experiencing these controversial things that opens our eyes and inspires us to make a change.
Did I miss out on any important information on this matter? Feel free to educate me more down on the comment section below. I’m no expert so I welcome anything to add to my knowledge!
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