First, let me say that I’m not a good swimmer. In fact, I just recently know how to make myself afloat and thread on open waters, but that doesn’t stop me to head to my next adventure: swimming with gentle spotted giants frequenting the shallow waters of Tan-awan Oslob, some 112 kilometers south of Cebu City.
Whale sharks can be seen in a small barangay called Tan-awan, 10 km away from the center town of Oslob. Whale shark watching in Cebu started in the last quarter 2011 and like a wildfire and it created a buzz and became popular all over the world when the news hit the mainstream media last November 2011. By December 2011, local fishermen interacted with the whale sharks by feeding them that resulted tourists to flock the beach of Tan-awan to see them first hand. Soon large numbers of tourists began arriving in Oslob not just to see the whale sharks being fed but also to snorkel or dive with them. After just two years, Oslob has become one of the major tourist draw for Cebu.
Sea of Controversy
No one knows why whale sharks came flocking at this small barangay in the southern-most tip of Cebu. First, whale sharks naturally do not spend a lot of time on the surface and shallow waters. Second, they are migratory species that supposed not to stay in a particular site for prolonged periods of time. And lastly, these gentle giants in full grown could reach over 40 feet in length and weigh in at more than 20 tons do not just nudge into boats to play and/or ask for food. There’s something special about Oslob and the whale shark activity in the area.
One day a group of whale sharks (Rhincodon typus or butanding to the vernacular) came near shore nudging the fishermen’s boats. Fisherfolks mistakenly thought they are asking for food, so they gave them krills. Soon enough, when tourism boomed, the fishermen gave up fishing all together and focus on luring the whale sharks to surface for tourist to look at. This activity is far different from what was doing in the Bicol region, which is used to be the whale shark capital of the Philippines. For the longest time, it was Donsol, Sorsogon in the Bicol region that is the place to go if you wanted to dive and swim with these gentle creatures that feed only on krills (alamang in the vernacular) other small fishes and microscopic planktons.
In my opinion, stricter environmental policies made whale watching in Donsol less fun. Aside from the fact that interactive activities in Donsol are limited to six viewers per whale shark and they are required to be at distance not closer than 10 meters. This is far different from what is happening in Oslob. Stipple of whale sharks sometimes as many as 14 would come every morning till noon near the shore of Tan-awan to interact with fishermen. Tourist cannot avoid not to bump into these whale sharks specially when they begin to congregate or move around from boat to boat. Tourist opted to go to Cebu instead of Sorsogon because of this. This is why the RDC of Region 5 (Bicol) wrote to the Secretary of Tourism, requesting support for its position to halt the whale shark feeding activities in Oslob and petitioned to have the activity be stopped for it jeopardise the tourism of Donsol in the Bicol region. But eventually it was dismissed and agreed that there’s nothing wrong with the activity by the members of Central Visayas Regional Development Council.
Crossing out item on my bucket list
One of the things that got me excited when I went to Dumaguete last month to visit a very good friend is that Oslob is just an hour ride by fastcraft. So there I was, after touring and roaming around the old university town, I find myself boarding on a boat and heading to Cebu one clear July morning. Soon as we reached the port, I noticed the clear blue waters and white sanded beach of Oslob that is very inviting for a quick dip. But I said to myself no – I had more interesting activities line up for myself that day
From the port, we were picked up by our multicab and we drove the empty road of Oslob for 15 minutes before reaching the point. We arrived around 9 o’clock and the whole place is buzzing with activities. I can see from the distance that whale shark watching was at full swing. I can hear intermittent shrieks and shouts of frenzied tourist having a swell time at the waters. Seeing all of them hyped me up and put me in a sense of excitement for whats about to happen.
If you wanted to swim and snorkel with the whale sharks, entrance fee is 500php per head for locals and 1000php for tourist. If you decided to just stay on boat and just watch the creatures go to the surface, you just need to pay 300php for locals and 500php for foreigners. The fee includes a life vest, snorkelling mask, and the boat rental. Fins and underwater cameras are for rent at 60php and 500php respectively.
As soon as we had paid for everything and I was about to jump to the boat, we were lead to a small area for some “environmental briefing” which is basically the dos and don’ts when your already there interacting with the whale sharks. At this point my head was already filled with swimming butandings and these were what I only gathered from the short talk:
- • Whale shark watching is only at 6am to 12 noon
- • Whale shark viewing is only 30 minutes maximum
- • Sunblocks are not allowed to be used when you swim with the sharks
- • Flash photography is not allowed
- • Touching is prohibited. Fine of 2,500php and imprisonment of up to 6 months when seen by the underwater marine biologist patrolling the entire activity
- • Allowable viewing capacity is maximum of 6 viewers per shark
- • Maintain the distance of 4 metres from the whale sharks at all times (although I would soon found out that this is barely impossible)
So after all the fees had been paid, briefing done, now it’s time for us to hop on a boat and cross an item on my bucket list!
Talking to the TOWSFA (Tan-awan Oslob Sea Warden Fishermen’s Association) member I found out that they are not actually feeding the sharks. “di sila mabusog diri” (they won’t get full on these) said Mang Kanor smilling, as he showed an open plastic containg reddish alamang as he scattered it outside his boat. “pantawag ra namo ni” (we just give it to call their attention) I also found out that they have names for each whale sharks that regularly come to the shallow waters of Tan-awan. One particular shark that almost never left our boat is “Roxy“. The boatman gave us 3-4 more names but I forgot them already. When I inquired how do they know, he told me that the regulars who come to Oslob had tags on them put by marine biologist watching and patrolling the entire activity under.
As much fun as it is on the surface, nothing compares to the beauty that was happening down under.
Two things were running in my head as I jump off the boat and started to swim. I wish I had brought my DSLR on the boat and I wish I had an underwater case for it! Everywhere I looked was picture perfect! Whale sharks swimming everywhere. I was even nudged by one of them as it approached our boat. We were lucky that day for twelve of them decided to show up.
The current that day was a bit strong and since I’m not really a good swimmer, I was struggling to stay beside the boat. When I was in the waters I realized that 30 minutes seemed like hours. I kept asking the boatmen is it was time’s up already and they just smiled back at me.
I must say that the whale shark watching is one of the, if not THE highlight of all my trips this year. I highly recommend these close encounters with them. Try it even at least once! The adrenalin rush from being near them is something worthwhile and memories would definitely stay with you for years to come. Who knows how long these gentle giants will hang around in the shores of Oslob, but until then, I hope we will learn a thing or two on how to protect these fantastic gentle beasts of the sea for posterity and hopefully, in perpetuity.
Oslob is not just all about whale watching. There are other things Oslob can offer for adventurers who wanted diverse activities during their stay. Some of them are:
1. Tumalog Falls
I have to give a fair warning. If you wanted to go into this very unique, misty falls, you have to make a descent into a very steep slope. The easiest way to do this is to rent a motorbike (50php round trip) and hitch at the back of the rider. The ride is only 15-20 minutes but the whole trek is entirely difficult given the inclination of the road. I do not think this can be easily traversed on foot as gravity will be against you going to and fro.
The falls strongly reminded me of the newly discovered Asik-asik waterfalls in North Cotabato. The water seemed to be seeping from the walls at the side of the mountains. The water is not really that strong and you can enjoy bathing under it. A huge but shallow pool surrounded by huge bamboos is perfect for wading and swimming. I had been to many waterfalls all over the country but this is one of the few that stood out for me.
2. Oslob Church
Few metres from the municipal building stood a very impressive bastion of faith that is uniquely Cebuano which had been erected since 1830. Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, like most of the Spanish-era churches in the country is facing the sea. It’s distinctively yellowish façade is made up of corals like the rest of the church definitely stood the test of time. The church measures 64m long , 15m wide and nine meters high with a plain but impressive facade. The four-storey, octagonal bell tower is 30m high. The dome has neo-classic style.
3. Cuartel Ruins and the Heritage Park
The heritage park is located along the town’s boulevard area and very close to poblacion’s public beach and just in front of Oslob Church. This is where you can find the location of the remains of the hundred year old watchtower. Cuartel Ruins, the imposing rectangular block of skeletal structure at the other side of the heritage park used to be the prison building during Spanish time, and walls surrounding by – as old as the church. The Spanish cuartel was built by forced labor in 1898 believed to be one of its kind in the country.
You will be amazed on how the ruins together with the heritage park are conserved. Kudos to the local government of Oslob!
4. Sumilon Island
Cebu is well known for its fantastic beaches and Sumilon island just minutes away from Oslob is no exemption. With its powdery white sand, romantic infinity pools and facilities, pristine sand bars and natural lagoons – the place is perfect for beach bums and nature lovers. Inside the island there is a private resort that you visit for a day trip or stay for few days. If you want to experience a perfect island getaway visit their site (www.bluewatersumilon.com.ph) for rates and promotions. But if you just wanted to swim and bask in its virgin white shores, hire a boat that would take you in the sand bar located at the western dock of the island (1,500php) and/or do a day trip inside the island for 1,500php per head inclusive of buffet lunch, and usage of their facilities like their infinity pool, kayaking and trekking. You can pre-boooked or just walk-in at their jump off site located few minutes from the beach were whale shark activities happen.
Getting there and Away
Going to Oslob from Cebu, you need to head straight to South Bus Terminal which is beside Elizabeth Mall. The terminal is clean, organized and board signs for different municipalities are placed on front of the bus.
Ceres Bus Fare: (non-air-conditioned)- 150php
Ceres Bus Fare: (air-conditioned)- 155php
Travel time: 2-3 hours
Head down south early so you can arrive at Oslob by 6-7 in the morning when sun is not really that irritating to the skin since you are not allowed to use sunblock when you interact with the sharks. The roads going to Oslob is full of zigzags so it is advisable for you to take meds for motion sickness.
If you’re coming from Dumaguete, you have an option to ride either a bigger but slower Ro-Ro or a fast but smaller fast craft to reach the port of Oslob. Fastcraft Oceanjet (200php) and Delta lines (120php) had the travel time of an hour and Ro-ro boat Alysson (120php) it is 2 hours. Terminal fee: 14php.
There are daily trips from Manila to Cebu and Dumaguete via, CebuPacific, Zest Air and AirPhilippines.
Upon reaching the port of Oslob, If you arrange a multicab to pick you up like what we did, It would only take 10-15 minutes to reach barangay Tam-awan.
I highly recommend Gwen Gallano to arrange the tours for you if youre planning to visit Oslob. Very accomdating and friendly, she’ll make sure your visit is worthwhile. She can be reached through mobile at +63927 581 8502 and email at email@example.com.
Sample Trip Budget:
Here’s the breakdown of my expenses when I visited Oslob
400php – Round trip fastcraft fare
500php – Entrance fee for whalesahrk watching
500php – underwater camera rental
120php – multicab rental to Tumalog falls
100php – motor rental going to Tumalog falls (including tip)
75php – multicab rental to Heritage Park
200php – lunch
100php – miscellaneous
Overall the trip costed me under 2,000php. Not bad for a once in a lifetime experience right?