Marine biologist Steven Weinberg in tete-a-tete with a whale shark in the waters of Balicasag. (Philippines, May 2018)
Marine biologist Steven Weinberg in tete-a-tete with a whale shark in the waters of Balicasag. (Philippines, May 2018)

In The Philippines, Let The Whale Shark Come To You

Dear English-speaking readers, this page is an automatic Google translation from a post originally written in French. My apologies for the weird sentences and the funny mistakes that could gave been generated during the process. If you can read French, the original and correct version can be found here:

  Philippines: Tubbataha + Panglao - May 2018

In the Philippines, it is THE mythical encounter that every diver dreams of : the whale shark, the largest fish in the world.

First whale shark in sixty years of diving!

I know someone who has been diving for almost sixty years and had never seen a whale shark before ... 😄 This diver is marine biologist Steven Weinberg !

Yes, the author of the famous identification books for underwater flora and fauna that divers passionated about biology avidly leaf through. (For the uninitiated, we even say "THE Weinberg" about his books which are a reference, a bit like "The Bescherelle" for French spelling books.)

I was honoured and fortunate to have Steven Weinberg as a regular underwater buddy in the Philippines during the month of May 2018. It was while on an unforgettable diving cruise at Tubbataha Marine Park, followed by a short stay in Panglao (Bohol Island). A trip organized by my friends Carol and Jérôme of Equation Dive Shop.

I has the pleasure to share with Steven Weinberg a great moment in his life as a diver and marine biologist : his very first encounter with a whale shark! ! ! 👌 Or more exactly his two first encounters with this splendid and harmless giant of the seas (this huge shark has no teeth, it feeds on plankton and small fish).

The first time was at Tubbataha. The second one at Balicasag Reef, an island located in front of Panglao. Video images are worth 10,000 words ... Here is a short footage that I made underwater :

Photographing a whale shark with a macro lens

We can see Steven finning energetically very close to the huge shark, had a "macro" lens on his camera (ie a magnifying lens made to capture the image of very small subjects). In short, impossible with this equipment to photograph a monster measuring 7-8 meters long!

And under water, when you have a camera reflex locked in its waterproof case, no way to change lenses. Yes, it's nerd ... 😂 Starting with a configuration for the "little" and meet "fat" during the dive, this is the kind of anecdote that makes laughing underwater photographers laugh ... Photo-Sub Forum There is also a little ironic comment on Facebook seeing my images: "Who is the whale shark in macro? 😱 »

But while I was shooting wide-angle photos, Steven, not discouraged by his unsuitable configuration for the big beast, took advantage of his macro lens to photograph details: the whale shark's eye and the parasites it was covered (these are the black marks that can be seen around its mouth and on its fins).

They are very small crustaceans, which he managed to identify: "And who has photos of the shark's eye and its skin, infested with thousands of copepod crustaceans (Pandarus rhincodonicus), huh? That's it! " he answers the jokers on Facebook.

I put some of his photos below:

The details of the whale shark photographed by Steven Weinberg in macro ... (Balicasag, Philippines, May 2018)
The details of the whale shark photographed by Steven Weinberg in macro ... (Balicasag, Philippines, May 2018)

These "whale shark lice" can grow up to one centimeter long and actually feed on algae and bacteria on the shark's skin. That would therefore be less parasitism than commensalism, that is to say, these little crustaceans profit from their host, but without harming it. They are a priori safe for the whale shark, which has very thick skin (about ten centimeters).

The Long Quest for the Whale Shark

Unlike Steven, I had already met whale sharks before these two memorable dives in the Philippines ... But I have not always been lucky in my quest for the biggest fish in the world.

It should be noted that the species is threatened with extinction and a victim of shark finning(fins are worth a fortune in Asia, where they are considered a refined dish, even aphrodisiac). For divers, encounters with this beautiful animal are rare and always impressive ...

EPISODE # 1: THAILAND 2006

"My" first whale shark dates back to 2006, in Thailand on a dive cruise to the Similan Islands. A chance encounter while we were at the safety stop. The animal, a rather curious and young specimen, came to us and turned around our group, for long minutes ...

With a whale shark in Thailand, in 2006.
With a whale shark in Thailand, in 2006.

EPISODE # 2: THAILAND 2007

A year later, again in Thailand, this time on Koh Lanta, I thought I would come across a whale shark again. Alas, I was only able to admire one on a video, made by another diver who had the good fortune to see him in real life

EPISODE # 3: PHILIPPINES 2008

The following year, on my very first trip to the Philippines, hoping for a better fate, I decided to go diving to Sogod Bay (island of Leyte), bay known to be frequented from March-April by the majestic sharks. In vain. I did not see a single one during my dives. That's the way it is, the ocean is the one that decides...

The dark side of the feeding in Oslob. In the Philippines, the presence of whale sharks is almost guaranteed at well known spots ofOslob (Cebu Island) and Donsol (Luzon island). But I have always preferred to avoid these sites where hordes of tourists tumble and where are organized without caution for commercial purposes, the feeding of these wild animals (in Oslob) and snorkeling excursions. To better understand, I invite you to read the very informative post of the blog Little Travelers around the worldwhich explains the situation well.

The wild little whale shark we had the surprise to meet at Balicasag in this month of May 2018 (watch the video at the beginning of the article) was probably coming from the Oslob site in Cebu, the two islands being not far from each other for this big migratory fish, able to travel long distances ...

EPISODE # 4: MEXICO 2014

The following years, I continued to dive a lot, mainly in Indonesia, but without ever coming across a whale shark... It was in 2014 that I was able to observe again several specimens, as a snorkeler this time, during the annual gathering of whale sharks off the Yucatán peninsula, between the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. From June to September, with a peak in July-August, they migrate by hundreds in these warm waters, where they can be seen feeding on the surface (of tuna eggs mostly).

I had talked about it here → What a hell of a mouth, these Mexican whale sharks !

To read also, this scientific article in English → Why Giant Sharks Swim To Cancun For Spring Break: The Science Behind The World's Largest Whale Shark Aggregation

This spectacular aggregation of whale sharks takes place off Cancùn, near Isla Mujeres and Isla Contoy. The event is natural, but has become a tourist attraction too. In recent years, boat approaches and launching have been fortunately regulated (only two people and a guide in the water at the same time per animal). It is therefore advisable to choose an authorized operator who is respectful of surface procedures, in order to disturb as little as possible the big fish banquet.

Whale shark. (Isla Mujeres, Quintana Roo, Mexico, July 2014)
Whale shark. (Isla Mujeres, Quintana Roo, Mexico, July 2014)

EPISODE # 5: PHILIPPINES 2018

By boarding in this month of May 2018 on a diving cruise at the Tubbataha Reefs Nature Park, I knew that I had a very good chance there to come across a whale shark... 😉

Tubbataha is indeed a marine sanctuary, protected since 1988 and UNESCO World Heritage since 1993. It consists of two atolls and of a shallow coral reef, located far from any inhabited land, about ten hours' sailing from Puerto Princesa (Palawan Island) in the Sulu Sea.

The crossing is possible and allowed to the boats of divers tourists than three months in the yearduring the dry season (mid-March to mid-June) when the area is not threatened by typhoons. It is THE mythical destination for diving in the Philippines. The park is home to many different species of sharks and fish, as well as manta rays, and the coral is beautiful.

→ Photos and video: diving cruise in Tubbataha in May 2018

For us, it is a spectacular start : the very first day, during our very first dive of the morning, my group has the chance to observe a whale shark! ! ! 😲 Small preview in the sequence below, where I see myself fighting with my camera (the video mode didn't want to work). A big thanks to Jérôme ofEquation for the images below :

Result, while the whale shark comes straight to me, I manage to take only two pictures (the photos below), without settings, triggered in a hurry over the inoperative video mode...

Never mind. I enjoy the show. I admire the powerful back and forth side of his caudal fin, the gray livery with white dots very graphic. It is really a very beautiful animal, very impressive. His calm swim fills me with a pleasant feeling of serenity ...

I can not believe how lucky we are. We end the diving amazed, happy.

The whale shark is swimming too fast for divers ... (Tubbataha Reefs, Philippines, May 2018)
The whale shark is swimming too fast for divers ... (Tubbataha Reefs, Philippines, May 2018)
This whale shark was 5 to 6 meters long. He was probably still young enough. The largest can reach a dozen meters. (Tubbataha Reefs, Philippines, May 2018)
This whale shark was 5 to 6 meters long. He was probably still young enough. The largest can reach a dozen meters. (Tubbataha Reefs, Philippines, May 2018)

At the beginning of the cruise, I am therefore confident. There was one whale shark, there will be more ! 👌

But as the days go by, I end up jealous of my mates from the other diving groups. Many of them, luckier than us, will meet again the huge fish ! But we won't be that fortunate. Well, if there is no whale shark, we will be comforted by a manta ray instead...

And then, a few days after the cruise in Tubbataha, we experienced this second incredible encounter, totally unexpected, in the waters of Balicasag, that you can see in the video I've published at the beginning of this post... A real surprise. Balicasag is a very nice dive site, but not famous for very large animals like Tubbataha. This is usually the turtle kingdom !

But here we are... A whale shark was waiting for us near the reef !!!

Marine biologist Steven Weinberg in tete-a-tete with a whale shark in the waters of Balicasag. (Philippines, May 2018)
Marine biologist Steven Weinberg in tete-a-tete with a whale shark in the waters of Balicasag. (Philippines, May 2018)
The Balicasag site is best known for its many turtles. (Bohol, Philippines, May 2018)
The Balicasag site is best known for its many turtles. (Bohol, Philippines, May 2018)

The two divers at the front of our group are the first to enjoy the show. Jérôme of Equation Dive Shop, who guides us, knocks on his tank to attract our attention, because Steven and I are loitering far behind, busy with our cameras as usual. Jérôme is super excited and waves at us with a big gesture.

At first, I do not understand. Certainly, there is a beautiful school of trevallies that turns around the reef, but this is not a reason to get excited like that... And then I see an imposing shadow in the blue. A silhouette that I know well. No way ! ! ! 😲

I immediately began to fin frantically, as fast as possible, to see it from closer, before the big beast ran away !

But the whale shark of Balicasag does not run away. He lets us get close, our noisy and twinkling bubbles do not seem to intimidate him. He quietly performs large voltes near the reef and the school of jacks, not too deep, between 8 and 18 meters, leaving us all the time to admire it, during about twenty minutes.

This giant must be about 7-8 meters long. He swims without hurrying, but we have to fin hard to keep up with his pace. Our tanks are quickly emptied, so we have to leave it behind with regret, but we go up to the surface with stars in our eyes...

Enoooorme !!! (Balicasag, Panglao, Bohol, Philippines, May 2018)
Enooooh! ! ! (Balicasag, Panglao, Bohol, Philippines, May 2018)
The whale shark is swimming quietly, here about ten meters from the surface. (Balicasag, Panglao, Bohol, Philippines, May 2018)
The whale shark is swimming quietly, here about ten meters from the surface. (Balicasag, Panglao, Bohol, Philippines, May 2018)
The whale shark lets us palmer at his side. (Balicasag, Panglao, Bohol, Philippines, May 2018)
The huge fish lets us palmer at his side. (Balicasag, Panglao, Bohol, Philippines, May 2018)

  Philippines: Tubbataha + Panglao - May 2018

    1. @Karl: yes, these are rare and beautiful encounters, and all the more precious ... With overfishing and fin trade, there are unfortunately fewer and fewer sharks in the ocean. It is a privilege and a chance to have been able to observe them in their natural environment. Not saying it's still possible in a few years ... ☹️

  1. It is very sad to think that possibly in a generation, we will not see certain species, what is even more is the fact that the officials do it for non-essential purposes. There are millions of ways to make money without endangering animal or plant species.

    In any case, thank you for continuing to testify and raise awareness.

    Good luck for the future.

  2. Always beautiful pictures! They interest me especially as the whale shark is the only project "aquatic" that I have to live after my troubles in diving: I think there is a possibility to me still a little pleasure, in PMT Oman or Mozambique

  3. MAGNIFICENT ! Beautiful video and photos, bravo!
    I remember the first time I met a whale shark in Richelieu Rock, Thailand, when I accompanied tourists. Our masks filled with tears of joy and we had a completely magical moment.
    In 10 months of diving at Similan, I saw several others, as well as many manta rays. But the pleasure has remained so intense!
    I'm going to the Philippines in February 2019, and I hope to do some great dives, with or without shark 🙂

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