I had two main reasons why I took a 3-day weekend journey to the Southern part of the Province of Cebu. One was to climb Osmena Peak, the highest point in the whole Cebu located in Dalaguete, and the other was to dive with the whale shark of Oslob. Of these two, it is the latter that I considered most surreal and incredibly heart stopping. Here’s the story.
On the night we arrived at Oslob, instead of going around the town, we opted to rest early at Garden Stay Resort to fully recover for the next day’s most anticipated adventure. As I retired to bed, my eyes blankly wandered at the unadorned ceiling thinking for that quest. Yes, I travelled far from Davao City to Cebu for this quest – to meet the gentle giants of Oslob they locally called Tuki. I was fully absorbed with that thought I slept just thinking of those whale sharks that put Oslob to the tourism map of the Philippines.
Prior to becoming a popular destination, Oslob was once a sleepy town. The presence of the whale sharks spotted not so long ago near the shore of Barangay Tan-awan made the town the most visited municipality now in the South Cebu. Locally called Tuki in Bisaya and Butanding in Tagalog, these whale sharks have long been visiting the waters of Oslob. When the news about it spread among diving enthusiasts, it has become the most sought after diving destination in the whole Cebu. And when it made to mainstream and social media, tourism influx become unstoppable. Many are lured to come to this part of the province and experience a dreamlike encounter with the whale sharks. I, for one, was among those who journeyed far to say hello to these friendly gigantic creatures.
As agreed, we woke up early the next day for this adventure. We were told to be at the site as early as 8:00 o’clock in morning in time for the whale shark feeding. And so from the Garden Stay Resort, we headed straight to Barangay Tan-awan. It is about 15-minute habal-habal ride from the town center. As soon as we arrived there, we headed right to the Whaleshark Briefing and Orientation Area to pay and get oriented with the dos and don’ts during the actual encounter.
The whale shark watching cost us Php 500.00 inclusive of boat, guide and snorkelling set. Less the snorkel, it is Php 300.00. During the briefing, we were told to never ever touch a whale shark; otherwise, a fine of Php 2,000.00 will be charged. We were also advised to keep a distance of about 5 meters to allow them to swim freely and maintain minimal movements to avoid bubbles as Tuki would think we are feeding them. When taking pictures, flash is not allowed and the use of lotion and sunblock is also prohibited. These are among the measures the locals implemented following a national clamour to protect and preserve these whale sharks when a photo a girl standing at the back of a Tuki flooded the internet. It gained negative criticisms in and outside of the country paving way to authorities to set proper guidelines in handling whale shark watching.
Just few minutes after the briefing, we found ourselves aboard a small boat going to the area where whale sharks are spotted, just few meters away from the shore. When we get to the area, our boatman pointed down a giant silhouette slowly swimming visibly below our boat. And he said, “That is our Tuki”. Seeing it for the first time, I was totally blown away by surprise! It was so gigantic, so huge, way bigger than our boat. My eyes were chasing at it as it swam down the waters and then it headed to one boat called Whale Shark Feeder. Here, Tuki are being fed with specie of planktons locally called Oyap. Whale sharks are used to it they come here every day to be fed. The Whale Shark Feeder interacts with the Tuki feeding it with utmost love and care as if it is his most loved pet. It was a heart warming scene for me.
When time for snorkelling, I went down the water carefully as to not make some bubbles. Equipped with goggle and snorkel, I was floating on the waters trying to search for the first whale shark I will see underwater. Just a moment later, my eyes were laid to a gigantic sea creature trying to get its meal from the boat above. I dove down under trying to get the full view of my first whale shark, and, really it was incredibly huge. I was underwater but I can’t help but burst in much awe seeing such scene. At the back of mind, everything was just a dream! But this was real! The giant whale shark in front of me was real.
I went back floating again trying to find other whale sharks. From one, they grew into a big number. Eight whale sharks we had that day. I was filled with much excitement when the three gentle giants swam together aiming at a boat with the feeder. I felt I was in huge aquarium swimming with the Tukis. It was a crazy experience! I was diving with the largest fish on earth!
Maintaining the 5 meters distance from the Tuki, I followed the biggest of the eight. Just as I thought 5 meters is enough for them to swim freely, this biggest Tuki slowly inched its way towards me. Seeing its gigantic mouth triply bigger than my head, I froze in fear I could hardly breathe. I could die in any second as an oversized Tuki about nine meters in length was coming straight at me. But then I came to mind what the boat man told me, “Whale sharks are the among the friendliest giant water creatures”. And so I stayed calm, didn’t panicked and just enjoyed the once-in-a-lifetime experience encountering the largest fish in the world! Pointing my camera at it, about a meter away from me, it veered to its right leaving me stunned and bedazzled! After that, I concluded, these whale sharks are truly cordial.
Because guests are only allowed to snorkel for thirty minutes, we did not stay long swimming with the whale sharks. As stated during the briefing, visitors are only allowed to snorkel for only thirty minutes to give way to others and to minimize tourist congestion in the area. Thirty minutes was just too short to commune with these gentle giants but that thirty minutes is enough to experience firsthand the kind of adventure, thrill and excitement truly so incomparable brought by these gigantic sea creatures.
This encounter I had with the friendly Tuki of Oslob marks as one of the highlights of my local travels in my beloved Islands of the Philippines. It is a kind of experience I will truly be proud of and would cherish forever. These whale sharks are not just blessings to the people of Oslob but they are proof that the country is such a beautiful place blessed with so many marvellous things to behold and relish.
I just pray that the locals of Oslob will continue to strictly implement proper guidelines to balance tourism and care for the whale sharks. After all, these Tukis are giant blessings to them. Tourists, on the other hand, should follow and respect these guidelines and observe proper decorum to protect and conserve these gentle giants of Cebu!
WHALE SHARKS AROUND THE WORLD: Aside from the Philippines, there other parts of the globe where sighting of whale sharks are recorded. These are also best dive sites to see and encounter the largest fish on earth. If you’re in Europe, you can travel to the beautiful country of Portugal and there you can find school of whale sharks dwelling at the waters of Santa Maria Island in the Autonomous Region of the Azores.
MORESO, diving with the whale sharks in real tropical waters like the Philippines is an experience to remember. The sea is warm, the sun is great and the waters are clear. Aside from Oslob, another famous site for swimming or diving with the whale sharks is in Donsol, Sorsogon. Long before the Oslob came to fame, Donsol is already known as the “Whale Shark Capital of the Country”. So now, you get two paradises to choose from to encounter the gentle water giants of the country!
With these amazing whale sharks, truly, IT’S MORE FUN IN THE PHILIPPINES!
SPECIAL shout-out to GRACE BONITA-KINOSHITA for lending me her PENTAX UNDERWATER CAMERA, the one I used for this entire Whale Shark encounter!