Philippines

How to Swim with Whale Sharks in Cebu

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Swimming with Whale Sharks

Swimming with Whale Sharks: The Experience

I huddled excitedly in the banca boat, clutching my life vest to my chest as we paddled half a dozen yards from the shore.

“Okay, jump in!” our captain called to us.

Plop! Plop! Plop!

The rest of the people on the boat splashed into the water and started frantically doggy-paddling, life vests still on. I slowly shrugged mine off.

“Is it okay if I leave this in here?” I asked, pushing the life vest to the bottom of the boat.

The captain sized me up, the only non-Filipino customer for this run. “Are you a good swimmer?” he asked. I nodded vigorously.

“Okay,” he said, indicating toward the water. In a flash, I was in the warm water, adjusting my snorkel. In the distance, a dorsal fin sliced through the water silently and ominously. Excited chatter rose from the groups of swimmers clustered around the boats, and I felt my heartbeat pick up.

“Dive now,” I heard the captain call as the dorsal fin disappeared beneath the water. I took a big gulp of air through my snorkel and dove deep.

A dark shape moved through the cloudy water in the distance, growing larger and larger. And suddenly… it was right there in front of me. A whale shark.

Hand Holding Whale Shark
NOT TOUCHING IT! Though the photog did tell me to dive when it was too close.

Easily over 18 feet long, an elegant arc of a creature paid me no mind as it sucked and spat it’s plankton meal. It glided past my wide-eyed observation, a flash of deep brown speckled with uniform white dots. I had never been so close to something so big, and I silently thanked nature for giving these sharks a filter instead of sharp teeth.

I spent the next 20 minutes fancying myself a mermaid, swimming alongside these magnificent beasts and posing for a photo or two. It was a borderline spiritual experience, and even the thrashing crowds at the water’s surface couldn’t detract from the peace and power that I felt in the silent depths.

Jenn and Whale Shark
It’s a magical dance in the moonlight

How to Swim with Whale Sharks in Cebu

So you want to replicate this experience yourself? There are plenty of companies who offer full tour packages from Cebu City who can take care of everything. But don’t do this! It’s totally possible (and cheaper) to do it yourself. And I think it’s more fun!

Here’s how:

Getting There

The whale shark viewing is in Oslob, on the southern end of Cebu. To get to Oslob:

  • Get to the Cebu South Bus terminal
  • Take a Ceres or Sunrays bus to Bato/Oslob (P150 for AirCon/P80 for non AirCon)
    • Trip time is approx. 3 – 4 hours
  • This bus will stop at the Whale Shark Watching Center, or you can take it to town to your accommodation

My recommendation? Get in a day early, find a place to stay, and spend the entire next day exploring the Oslob area. You can head back to Cebu in the late afternoon/evening. I was lucky to meet a young Filipino student named Vitex in line to board the bus who not only kept me company, shared his snacks, and offered me a commentary on the sights as we passed, but he also made sure the driver stopped exactly where I needed to be dropped off. The people of the Philippines are truly kickass.

Staying There

There are a fair few accommodation options in Oslob and the surrounding area. I wanted to keep my costs low since the cost of swimming with the sharks was going to be high, so I stayed in a hostel (recommended by my friend Vitex!). It was called Nordzee Hostel, and it was located in Boljoon. This was only about 20 minutes away by bus to the whale watching center, and it was an awesome place to stay! A pretty view, good vibe, comfy dorms, and a good restaurant to boot.

Unfortunately, the accommodation can be pretty hit-and-miss in the Oslob area, so do your homework before choosing a place to stay.

Be sure to check more than one source when looking at guesthouses/hotels/hostels! I always like to compare and contrast TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet, plus check ratings for Hostels on apps like HostelWorld.

Seeing the Sharks

You need to purchase your tickets at the Whale Shark Watching Center. I recommend doing this in person and paying cash to avoid online scams/overpayment. Don’t worry, as long as you get there early enough you will be able to see the sharks.

Many sites recommend that you arrive at 5:30 a.m. Frankly, I didn’t find this necessary. I ended up needing cash before I went, and of course there wasn’t an ATM in Oslob (there really are no ATMs in rural Philippines). So my good intentions were dashed when I had to travel 20 minutes in the opposite direction just to get cash, then hustle the 40 minutes back to the Whale Shark Center. I didn’t get in the water until about 8:30/9 a.m., and there weren’t crazy lines like I’ve read in some reviews. Just make sure you’re there before noon, when boat stop.

After you pay (P1200 if you’re a foreigner), you make your way to the briefing center next door. You are taken through safety procedures and warned not to get too close or to touch the animals. Then you’ll move in groups to your small bankas (canoes with float supports), where you’ll be rowed out to see the sharks!

Things to Watch Out For

There is a good deal of controversy over swimming with the whale sharks in Oslob.

Many people are upset that the animals are fed by local fisherman solely for tourist dollars, and insist that this harms their migration patterns. There have been reports of tourists blatantly disregarding the rules and touching the whale sharks, and of boats bumping into them as they feed. And most people complain about the sheer number of people in the water at any given time.

Perhaps because I went a little later in the day, I didn’t experience anything other than the feeding. There were a good number of people in the water, but many of them stuck to the surface and stayed very close to the boats. I was one of very few people actually free diving with the sharks (and I was encouraged to dive by the captains).

I and my fellow shark-watchers always maintained a respectful distance from the creatures. But sometimes the sharks would swim toward us! We’d scramble to get out of their way as they chased down the next tasty bite of plankton.

Whale Sharks
Trying to dodge

Perhaps I visited on a good day. I strive to be respectful of the natural world I’m traveling in, which is why I refused to see the tigers in Koh Samui and I spent the day bathing and playing with elephants at the eco-friendly Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai instead of riding them. But I’m sure there are people out there who will shame me for giving my tourist dollars to an organization that doesn’t perfectly protect these whale sharks. Do what you must.

Other Sights in Oslob

After you’ve spent your morning frolicking with the whale sharks, jump on a motorbike and head up to Tumalong Falls.

You will feel like you stepped into a scene from Fern Gully when you catch sight of the stunning, lacy cascade of water tumbling down the rocks into the pristine pools below. It’s a popular activity, so it’s usually pretty busy. But if you can get there in the morning, you might get the place to yourself. Either way, you won’t want to miss it.

Tumalong Falls
I can’t even with this waterfall…

Whale Sharks: Worth It?

For me, this is a huge yes.

It’s something that’s been on my bucket list for a while, and I’m happy that I’ve checked it off. Only time will tell if access to these beautiful animals becomes better regulated, or declines to a point where it is no longer ethical to support it. Floating in the water while one of these huge and powerful beasts glides past is an experience unlike any other.

Whale Shark Cebu
So beautiful, so graceful