Whale shark watching is something you will probably find in a large number of tourists’ bucket lists. Swimming with these gentle creatures and basking in all their glory right in their natural habitat – who could refuse? But is their ‘natural habitat’ all that natural to begin with?
Whale shark watching has become increasingly popular amongst tourists and adventure seekers across the globe. With that, it has even become its own segment of the local tourism industry as well. Spanning up to 12 metres long on average, whale sharks are known to be the largest fish in the sea. Since they are docile creatures, swimming with whale sharks are perfectly fine. For most, it is considered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and just the mere idea of swimming alongside a gigantic critter can be invigorating.
If you ask someone from the Philippines where to go to see these majestic creatures, best believe the first thing they’ll tell you is to go to Oslob, Cebu.
Where On Earth Is Oslob?
Oslob is a coastal town located in the southernmost tip of Cebu, Philippines. Whale sharks prefer warmer waters, which is why you’ll find them in more tropical areas such as these. Cebu Island offers a wide range of adventurous activities such as scuba diving and snorkelling in Moalboal; canyoneering in Badian; rock climbing in Cantabaco, and the list goes on. But the one that trumps them all and reigns supreme? You guessed it – whale shark watching.
Whale shark watching is definitely the main event when you visit Cebu; kind of like the main course of a three-course meal. This tourism industry in itself is booming with no intentions of slowing down, accommodating up to 1,000 tourists daily. Besides watching these gentle giants, you even have the option to snorkel, dive and even swim with them.
The Problem With Commercialized Whale Shark Tourism
For the longest time, there has been controversy surrounding the operations involved with whale shark watching in Oslob. Environmentalists and even tourists alike have questioned the ethics behind their operation and whether they have the whale sharks’ best interest in mind. So what exactly is the problem with this seemingly harmless activity? The lasting impact of these activities on the whale sharks themselves is far more harmful than it appears.
Disruption in feeding patterns
The bottom line is that all wildlife should not be fed. Not just whale sharks, but all wildlife. However, since the fishermen in Oslob regularly feed them to lure them closer to the coast, these creatures have been domesticated. Whale sharks normally feed on plankton, but they are usually fed with krill by the local fishermen.
This disrupts their natural feeding patterns, losing essential nutrients that can otherwise only come from their natural diet. In the long run, this may result in negative effects on their growth and even reproduction.
Migration being affected
The more the whale sharks are fed each time, the more this distorts even their migration patterns. They are highly mobile creatures and the mere fact that these creatures are conditioned to stay in one place for long periods of time is already unusual.
In Oslob, they are usually limited to a small area, not too far from the coast whilst being swarmed by tourists for that perfect ‘whale shark selfie’. According to marine biologists, this may have lasting effects on their breeding habits and behaviours.
Physical Interaction with these gentle giants
Although visitors are instructed not to touch or hold the whale sharks in any way, this has not deterred them from doing so. Rules regarding physical touch and interacting with the whale sharks are usually established during briefings, but there are still those who refuse to comply. There have been reported incidents of grabbing, pulling, and even riding of whale sharks by irresponsible tourists.
Any form of physical contact with these creatures may strip them off of their natural layer of mucus, which is essential for their health. Whale sharks are also not often exposed to the bacteria that humans have on their skin, and this may also cause infections.
Practising mindful tourism
Not all tourists are well-informed or well-intentioned when trying out new things on holiday. Some may come with good intentions to respect their place of visit while appreciating what it has to offer. But there are some that simply don’t care.
It’s also hard to put the blame on the people behind the operation of these industries, especially when their livelihoods depend on it. With wildlife tourism on the rise in many places in the world, one can only hope that ethical measures are being taken to ensure the safety of these animals and that local governments are doing their part to implement stricter policies to protect them.
Animal tourist activities will always have its flaws and no operation is perfect. But as tourists, it is vital to practice ethical tourism as much as possible when travelling and to always respect and take care of the environment and its inhabitants.