Swimming with Whale Sharks: Who knew?

On the 22nd of July my family and I set off early in a rented van to a place called Oslob, on the way there we stopped at a large church with a miraculous crying virgin Mary statue and spent a couple of hours there. I don’t really like churches but religion is a major part of life for many Filipinos so I will write about it another time. As a result of the church visit we were late to Oslob and had to stay overnight in a little beach hut hotel in order to see what we had come to see.

On the 23rd of July, which happens to be my birthday, my sisters and I got up at 5am, as directed, before waking up my dad, who had done the directing at about 6am. About an hour later we were taken down the road a little bit to be briefed on how to safely swim with whale sharks. The gist is that you have to stay about 4 meters away from them at all times and not touch them as well as not wearing any chemicals like sunscreen while swimming.

I know what you’re thinking (if you’re like me and you wanted to be a marine biologist when you were little – another normal thought is ‘what’s a whale Shark?’ I will also elaborate). You’re thinking ‘how the dickens can you swim with whale sharks (the largest sharks known to science- filter feeders, with white spots and a gentle nature)? They are migratory and as rare as hen’s teeth’. Well, it turns out some of them are defying nature in Oslob. Perhaps instead of migrating, these sharks –mostly juveniles (of about 12-20 feet I would say) have decided to hang about and visit fishermen for a krill breakfast instead. It seems that when this first began happening only one or two sharks were recognised, but as time went on it was as if they started bringing friends. Now I believe there are about 16, including an albino one, that visit.

Now, I did not know at the time but this activity is controversial. It is worth baring in mind that this is a relatively new occurrence and has gone through some teething issues. It seems to me, from what I saw in Oslob, that every care and consideration is taken to protect these sharks and keep them safe. Tourists are briefed and rules are enforced by marine biologists and officials, In addition to that, locals are now more educated about the sharks and are very protective of them. However, the reservation that I have is that teaching sharks to be comfortable around humans can be risky for the sharks. Many sharks are, of course, hunted extensively for their fins or meat and the sharks that are curious about boats may also be hurt by propellers and engines, there was a case of this associated with Oslob in 2012 on a shark named Fermin. That said, hunting is a wider and more complex problem and I did not observe any injuries on the Oslob whale sharks. Since the boats there are now not permitted to use engines, maybe the sharks will be able to distinguish between Oslob boats and other vessels. There is also some debate as to whether the sharks were being ‘bribed’ to stay in the area, or just to appear for tourists. I don’t know but some now have tagg’s so perhaps this will be discovered soon.

We went on a little blue wooden boat that our guides were paddling themselves (no motors of course, they are a little flighty) out onto the calm sea, where the fishermen and sharks were gathered. We watched them for a short time. We could see their fins from the beach, but as we began to see their colossal head’s and gaping mouth’s sucking up handfuls of krill and watch their enormous bodies swim under and around our boat, it took a little while to take in their scale and get used to the thought of getting in the water with them, we were told that we only had half an hour out there though, so we quickly became brave.

We had to get in without splashing, so that we did not frighten them, but if they looked huge from the boat their scale was unbelievable in the water- and these were juveniles, the largest recorded adult whale shark was 40 feet long. Not long after I got my first look at the two in front of me- including a larger, somewhat indifferent one called Edward, I began peering around trying to find someone else to see if they were as amazed as I was, I found my sister Lovely next to me and when we both turned a little more to our right we were confronted buy an enormous open mouth, close to a meter wide. We jumped out of our skin and backed off, trying to use the boats bamboo ballasts as a barrier. This is when we found out how completely casual these sharks acted around swimmers (though actually they are quite curious creatures and I am pretty sure one or two of the smaller ones were deliberately popping up near Lovely because unlike everyone else she would give a little shriek and swim away very fast if they got too near) they ordinarily seemed to pay no real attention. The four meter barrier was four our protection as much as the sharks’, if they get crowded or frightened they can very quickly flit away and if a person were to get hit by their tail they could probably end up with a few broken bones.

We swam for about an hour as it turned out, since it was a Tuesday and there were very few tourist boats we were permitted a longer stay. I think we saw between 6-8 close up, it was hard to guess because they were swimming between different clusters of boats. My favourite one was called Bubbles; she was lovely because she was so photogenic, at first she came towards us from the boats on the right and unlike the others, ate with her belly towards me, I was really annoyed because I did not have the underwater camera and she swam off to the boats on my left. Bubbles kindly came back in not too long (I recognised her because she was one of the smaller ones and somehow seemed a little more relaxed –almost day dreamy somehow) and again ate with her belly facing me. This time I had the camera though, and I was a very happy girl.

When we were told it was time to go back Lovely and I were allowed to just hold onto the ballasts and be dragged back to shore instead of getting in the boat. This was fun, as we got to both snorkel and splash about, unfortunately there were a few little stinging things in the water at that point, and though I am fine, Lovely has been itching and red all day.

I had an ‘oh my god’ moment when a large whale shark, maybe Edward again, swam directly underneath me, while the boat was still moving. For the biggest fish in the ocean whale sharks can be very hard to see coming, I couldn’t do anything but try and pull myself up using the ballasts and keep my legs up. I was most annoyed that this shark was not observing the parameters set by marine biologists for its conservation, but I suppose you can’t really argue with an animal that big, they go where they like, when they like. After that I kept my goggles on, in an effort to keep an eye out.

Lovely actually spotted a pair of sea turtles a few seconds later, which is amazing, I had only ever seen a small one from a boat before and I thought that was the best I would ever do, I had the camera and managed to take a couple of shots then I passed it to our best swimming guide who chased them a little (he had flippers unlike me) and managed to get some better pictures. I suppose that these things can happen when creatures are not frightened by engine noise.

After we were done I spent the rest of the day thinking things like ‘I wanna go again’ and ‘I miss the sharks, remember when we had sharks?’ I had done many awesome things in my life, but I think that was the awesomest, I can’t even imagine that swimming with dolphins could be more exciting.

Later in the day I got a massage, ate a nice Greek meal (some of which was set on fire dramatically), got to eat cake and free ice-cream and then was given presents, including one I already owned (my tiny i-pod which I had been missing for ages). I found out that Britain had a new baby prince (A bit delayed admittedly from lack of internet and news channels) and everyone had to be nice to me and make me tea because it was my birthday; overall I think that day was a contender for best day ever.

It is worth mentioning that it is very hard to show either scale or distance in photographs and some sharks may appear closer than they are, because they are huge.