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Travel Journal: Swimming with the Whale Sharks

We went to Cebu a few weeks ago to attend the wedding of our long time friends and we wanted to squeeze a day trip to Oslob to watch the “Butandings” or whale sharks. We drove over 100 kilometers stopping at Carcar to buy their famous roasted pig or lechon at the wet market and buy puso which is rice cooked in these small woven baskets made from coconut leaves.

Fridge Magnet Souvenir

We were so excited to see them but before you could go out to sea in these small boats, you had to go and sit through a short briefing on what are the dos and don’ts of whale shark watching.

  • Do not touch the butandings
  • Stay at least 3 meters away from the head and 5 meters from the tail.
  • Do not swim near their mouths.
  • No flash photography
  • Do not use sun block since some of the chemical components may be harmful to the butandings
  • The viewing is set for 30 minutes

The following are included in the PHP 500 or about SGD $15 package:

  • Boat ride (non-motorized)
  • Life jacket rental
  • Snorkel rental

Apparently these whale sharks have started appearing in the area in the 80’s. Fishermen would feed them and no one really thought that there was something special about these gentle giants. Then a diver came along and he was so awestruck when he swam with these whale sharks and then news started to spread about them.

small wooden boats used to ferry tourists to the viewing area

We rode on a small non-motorized banka or wooden boat that was good for 8 people. The two fishermen who were with us had to paddle us to the viewing site. Despite all the care that the fishermen are putting in, some whale sharks get wounded when they bump into boats with their fins and tails.

When I first saw a whale shark swim past me I forgot to breathe for while. There were a few of them swimming around that afternoon. I saw one the size of a bus swim a few feet below me.

Butandings or Whale sharks

One fisherman would feed the whale sharks with these small shrimp and the paddle near the boats where the tourists were so they could see them. We were asked not to swim away from the boats and hold on to these bamboo outriggers for our own safety since there was a current in the area.

 

The fishermen have grown to love these buntandings and they even have names for them. The one that we saw often was called Kulas.

Coming from a third world country, I understand the fishermen who have capitalized on this and made it a tourist attraction. Our seas are not as bountiful as they were before and fishermen are having a hard time making a living. You could hear how grateful and affectionate the fishermen are as they talk about butandings as their friends and saviors. Me, I’m just grateful I had a chance to swim with them just this once.

I found this great documentary by Blue Sphere Media which perfectly captures the sentiment of the local fishermen towards these gentle giants.

Befriending Giants – Whale Sharks of Oslob from Blue Sphere Media on Vimeo.