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...

#Philippines #Tubbataha #Balicasag

  Philippines: Tubbataha + Panglao - May 2018

Dear English-speaking readers, this page is an automatic translation made from a post originally written in French. My apologies for any strange sentences and funny mistakes that may have been generated during the process. If you are reading French, click on the French flag below to access the original and correct text: 

In the Philippines, it is THE mythical encounter that all divers dream of: the whale shark, the biggest fish in the world.

First whale shark in sixty years of diving!

I know someone who's been diving for almost sixty years and has never seen a whale shark before... 😄 This diver is the 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 the Equation diving center.

I thus shared 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 first two encounters with this splendid and harmless giant of the seas (this huge shark has no teeth, it feeds on plankton and small fishes).

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 in "macro"...

Steven, who can be seen swimming vigorously close to the huge shark, had a "macro" lens on his camera (a magnifying lens made to capture the image of very small subjects). In short, impossible with this equipment to photograph a monster that is 7-8 meters long!

And underwater, when you have an SLR camera locked in its waterproof housing, there's no way to change lenses. Yes, it's a bit of a mess... 😂 Leaving with a configuration for "small" stuff and meeting "big" animals during the dive, it's the kind of anecdote which makes underwater photographers scream with laughter... The Photo-Sub Forum 's owner made an ironic comment on Facebook when he saw my pictures: "Who's that doing whale shark macro? 😱

But while I was shooting wide angle shots, Steven, not discouraged by its configuration unsuited to the big beast, took advantage of his macro lens to photograph details: the eye of the whale shark as well as the parasites it was covered with (these are the black traces you can see around its mouth and on its fins).

These are very small crustaceans, which he has managed to identify: "And who has photos of the shark's eye and its skin, infested with thousands of copepod crustaceans (Pandarus rhincodonicus), huh? And voilà!" he replies to teasing people on Facebook.

I put some of his pictures below:

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

These "whale shark lice" can grow up to a centimetre long and actually feed on algae and bacteria on his skin. This would be less parasitic than commensalismIn other words, these small crustaceans take advantage of their host, but without harming it. They are a priori harmless for the whale shark, which has very thick skin (about ten centimetres).

My quest for the whale shark

Unlike Steven, I had already encountered whale sharks before these two memorable dives of 2018 in the Philippines... But I wasn't always 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 very first whale shark was in 2006, in Thailand during a diving cruise in the Similan Islands. It was a chance encounter, which occurred on a landing. The animal, a rather young and curious specimen, had come around us 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, still in Thailand, this time in Koh Lanta, I thought I was going to meet a whale shark again. Alas, I will only admire it in 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 the well-known whale shark spots in the Philippines.Oslob (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 rather unshy whale shark that we were surprised 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

In the following years, I continued to dive a lot, mainly in Indonesia, but without ever coming across a whale shark again... It was in 2014 that I was able to admire several specimens again, snorkeling this time, during the annual Whale Shark Gathering off the Yucatán peninsulabetween the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea.

From June to September, with a peak in July-AugustThey migrate by the hundreds into these warm waters, where they can be observed feeding on the surface (on tuna eggs, among other things). I discussed this here in the article below:

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 the coast of Cancùn, on the side of Isla Mujeres and Isla Contoy. The event is natural, but has also become a tourist attraction. For the past few years, boat approaches and boat launches have fortunately been 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 ParkI knew I had a very good chance of running into a whale shark there... 😉

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 starts off very strong : from the very first day, during our very first dive in the morning, my group has the chance to observe a whale shark ! ! 😲 Small preview in the sequence below, where I can be seen fighting with my camera (the video mode refused to start). Thanks to Jérôme d'Equation Dive Center for the video below:

As a result, while the whale shark is coming straight to meet me, I only manage to make two images (the pictures below), without adjustments, triggered in a hurry over the inoperative video mode...

Never mind. I'm enjoying the show. I admire the powerful lateral to-and-fro movement of its tail fin, the very graphic gray livery with white dots. It's really a very beautiful animal, very impressive. Its 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)
Whale sharks swim too fast for divers... (Tubbataha Reefs, Philippines, May 2018)
This whale shark must have been 5 to 6 meters long. He was probably still quite young. The largest can reach a dozen meters. (Tubbataha Reefs, Philippines, May 2018)
This whale shark must have been 5 to 6 meters long. It was probably still quite young. The biggest ones can reach a dozen meters. (Tubbataha Reefs, Philippines, May 2018)

At the beginning of the cruise, I am therefore confident. There has been one, there will be more! 👌

But as the days go by, I end up jealous of my little comrades from the other palanques. Several of them, more polished than us, are going to meet the huge fish again! Which will not be our case. Well, in the absence of a whale shark, we'll still console ourselves with a manta ray...

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 it is... 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 one-on-one with a whale shark in Balicasag waters. (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 magnificent school of jacks circling near the reef, but it' s not enough to get excited like that... And then I spot an imposing shadow becoming clearer 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 approach it, our noisy, shimmering bubbles don't seem to intimidate him. It quietly performs large turns near the reef and the school of jacks, not too deep, between 8 and 18 meters, leaving us plenty of time to admire it, for a good twenty minutes.

This giant must be 7-8 meters long. He swims in no hurry, but we have to swim hard to keep up with his pace. Our air bottles are quickly emptied, so we have to abandon it reluctantly, but we go back up 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 swims 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

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  1. I had the chance to see whale sharks twice. A unique moment that marks forever the memory of a diver.
    Thank you for this reminder Corinne 🙂

    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 ... ☹️

  2. 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.

  3. 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

  4. Combining both "diving in pairs with LE Weinberg" and "seeing a diving whale shark": a great feat! The beast is impressive and majestic (I'm talking about the shark).

  5. 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 nice dives there, with or without sharks 🙂

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