Diving with gentle giants: A guide to whale watching in Oslob

Oslob is (in)famous for the whale shark experience, which can get environmentalists really riled up in a hurry. The local fishermen used to hunt migrating whale sharks for their fins and meat. In recent years however, they’ve reinvented themselves as whale shark guardians and tour guides, taking thousands of tourists daily to snorkel or dive with these gentle giants.

Over the course of this article, you’ll learn more about booking a seat on the boat out, what to expect when swimming in the sea, and get tips to help make the most of your whale shark experience.

Groups of tourists swimming with whale sharks in Oslob
Groups of tourists swimming with whale sharks

Reserving a seat on the boat

This industry is tightly controlled and is centered around the Whale Shark visitor centre in Tanawan, located 9km from Oslob town. The locals work with the police to make sure every visitor pays the standard price (500 Pesos for locals, 1,000 Pesos for foreigners) to swim with the whale sharks. Anyone caught sneaking into the bay without a guide risks a hefty fine and dealing with an angry mob of fishermen. After the entry price, there’s the lucrative add-ons, like underwater camera rentals, flippers, personalised tours etc.

The early morning chaotic scene in the Whale Shark Visitor Centre
The early morning chaotic scene in the Whale Shark Visitor Centre

Every day at the crack of dawn, visitors start queuing up at the visitor centre before 6am. The worst time to visit is after 8am, when the average wait time extends to 2-3 hours. Amid the flurry of activity and din of confusing instructions, visitors are shuffled between sections, handed over to various official-looking employees, and then on to a quick briefing on what NOT to do when in the water. Basically, you just can’t wear sunscreen or touch the whale sharks, as some of them have started to show signs of skin damage from human contact.

From there on, you’ll put on a life vest, collect a tired-looking snorkel kit and herded onto a boat packed to the brim with 10 to 15 people. Despite appearances, this is a well-oiled tourism machinery that runs on a tight ship (pun very much intended). The boatman will paddle 50m out to join over 30 other similar boats, and then the party begins.

Heading out to sea to see some whale sharks in Oslob
Heading out to sea to see some whale sharks

Swimming with whale sharks

Each dive session lasts for 30 minutes. After reaching an unoccupied area, the boatman will anchor the boat to a buoy and tell everyone to get into the water. There’ll be a momentarily pause as everyone looks at one another, before the first brave soul steps gingerly into the freezing waters. The rest of the group follows soon after.

The whale sharks aren’t hard to spot. A row of fishermen in their own boats nearby will toss chunks of plankton into the water at regular intervals, attracting the whale sharks to swim over. It takes barely a minute before the first squeal of excitement breaks the monotony of concentration. From somewhere far away, a huge silhouette looms forward and breaks the surface with a sinister fin sticking out.

Getting out of the boat and into the water
Getting out of the boat and into the water
A whale shark swims past awestruck tourists in Oslob
A whale shark swims past awestruck tourists

An average whale shark grows to 4m in length, which is an impressive sight as it glides past awestruck observers. The boatman will alternate between shouting at overzealous visitors to stay closer to the boat, and helping to take photos underwater. At times, a curious whale shark will swim in the path of tourists, scattering them and leaving a trail of flailing limbs and bubbles in its wake.

The half hour passes quickly, and the tourists are quickly gathered back on the boat. Without missing a beat, the boatman steers the boat back to shore, all ready for the next batch of tourists waiting patiently in line.

Returning to shore, all ready for another batch of tourists
Returning to shore, all ready for another batch of tourists

Staying safe in the water

While the boatman does look out for potential hazards, it’s hard to keep track of so many excited tourists running amok around the boat. You’ll want to keep these tips in mind as you swim with the sharks:

  • Wear long sleeved rashguard if you have one. Jellyfish are known to swim in the same waters, and visitors do get the occasional painful sting.
  • Stay close to the boat, and always pay attention to where you are. Many tourists will drift away with a slow current, so keep an eye on your boat even as you peer down into the water.
  • Bring your own snorkel kit, if you’re sensitive to hygiene and cleanliness. It’s doubtful that any of these swimming equipment are sterilised before reuse.
  • Don’t force yourself to swim, if you’re uncomfortable being on the water even with a life jacket on. You can choose to stay on the boat and observe for a smaller fee (300 Pesos for locals, 600 Pesos for foreigners).
Keep the life jackets on for your own safety
Wear a life jacket for your own safety

The environmental debate

Many environmental protection groups decry the abuse of the whale sharks, and are petitioning for the authorities to reduce heavy tourism footprint in this activity. Part of the reason is that by keeping the whale sharks in the bay and feeding them, they are disrupting the migratory patterns that help these animals regulate their mating cycles. Far from maintaining an authentic wildlife experience, the whale sharks are now trapped in a virtual cage in an open air zoo.

Another contentious issue is the impact of having thousands of tourists appear before these shy creatures daily. Besides the stress on these animals, the whale sharks have also shown sign of skin disease from skin contact and chemicals in the waters. To reduce the risk of further damage, the whale shark visitor center a limit on the number of visitors daily.

A constant stream of visitors, packed onto crowded boats, head out to see the whale sharks every day
A constant stream of visitors, packed onto crowded boats, head out to see the whale sharks every day

Many people are calling for a boycott on visiting Oslob, and to visit Donsol instead for an authentic and ethical whale shark diving experience. In Donsol, local guides need to seek out whale sharks, and are not allowed to encourage them to stay in the area. The trade-off, of course, is that sightings are not guaranteed. If you’re keen to check this out, check out this 10-day itinerary in Luzon instead.

Travel tips for budget travellers

The dive resorts in Tanawan are more expensive than those in Oslob town, due in no small part to its close proximity to the whale shark visitor centre. If you can wake up early and find a habal-habal or motorcycle taxi (50 Pesos each way, 10-15 mins drive) to the visitor centre, you can save a fair bit on accommodation.

Tricycles and habal-habals are popular means of local transport in Oslob
Tricycles and habal-habals are popular means of local transport

If you’re just heading into Oslob as a day trip, you can keep your bags and personal belongings in any of the dive resorts for 100 Pesos per person. This package includes a locker, baggage storage, shower facilities, transport to the whale shark visitor centre and a resort staff to facilitate the whole process. If you’re not keen on figuring out everything or are tight on time, this is a relatively inexpensive option to consider.

There’s also plenty of shops and guesthouses renting scooters at 700 Pesos per day. Gasoline is also very affordable in the Philippines, so you can save a lot on transport if you ride along the coastal road along Oslob on your own scooter.

Where should I stay in Oslob?

There is a wide range of hotels and guesthouses in Oslob, catering to varying budgets and tolerance for cleanliness. Many enterprising locals have also converted their landed homes into guesthouses, opening up one or two bedrooms for tourists.

Oslob is really small, and the only 7-Eleven in town serves as the de-facto town centre. This is where local kids hang out after school and tourists shop for cheap and familiar food. Outside, habal-habal and tricycle drivers hang out waiting for customers.

The local 7-Eleven in Oslob
Some cities are centred around mega-malls. Oslob is centred around a 7-Eleven.

For a very affordable place to put up at, Castro Verde is run by a couple of chaps looking to get in on the tourism trade. A basic room with a bed and a fan costs 600 Pesos per night, and you can rent a motorbike or scooter for 700 Pesos a day. The place is also located right smack in the middle of town though, and just 3 minutes from the 7-Eleven. You’ll need to manage your expectations though – this place really looks like someone’s home, and the room can be truthfully be described as spartan.

If you rather stay in a proper tourist-friendly place, check out these guesthouses and hotels deals currently on Booking.com.



Booking.com

Oslob is also the best place to base yourself at, since there’s more shops, restaurants and places to see in town. If you prefer to be where the main action is at though, a dive resort in Tanawan is your best bet. Aaron’s Beach Resort is located just a stone’s throw away from the whale shark visitor centre, and prices start from 1,200 Pesos for a non air-conditioned room.

The front desk at Aaron Beach Resort
The front desk at Aaron Beach Resort, where you can get everything from whale watching packages to scooter rentals.

Getting out

If you start early enough, your whale shark experience should end by mid morning at the latest. For the rest of the day, you can take a walk in the Oslob heritage district and explore the ruins of an uncompleted Spanish barracks, visit the impressive Catholic church just beside it, and take a slow walk along the fortified coast.

The impressive colonial era church built by the Spanish
The colonial era church built by the Spanish
The Cuartel in Oslob
The Cuartel. This is an uncompleted building meant to serve as a barracks for Spanish soldiers.

Just off the coast, you’ll see Sumilon Island. Famed for its sandbar and gorgeous beach, you’ll need to hire a boat to get there. If you’re going it alone, a boat will cost 1,500 Pesos. To save costs, wait for more tourists to arrive and try to share a ride and split the costs. A Wanderful Sole has a detailed write-up on this.

Alternatively, hire a habal-habal driver for 120 Pesos and visit the Tumalog Falls. However for a truly magical (if crowded) experience, you’ll want to visit Kawasan Falls, located 1.5 hours away from Oslob by car or motorbike.

While you’re at it, squeeze in a visit to Osmeña Peak and see Cebu from a different vantage point. As the highest point on the island, you can be assured of gorgeous views… as long as the weather holds.

Kawasan Falls is renowned for its clean, clear waters
Kawasan Falls is renowned for its clean, clear waters
The view from Osmeña Peak
The view from Osmeña Peak

There’s more to Oslob than just whale sharks, so plan ahead and make the most of your trip here!

(Check out this 4-day itinerary covering Cebu and Bohol)

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