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:
I'll take you back to Sogod Baythe bay of the whale sharks", in the south of the island of Leyte, in the Philippines... On my first trip there in 2008, I didn't see them. Twelve years later, I was luckier!
The biggest fish in the world
Say the word "whale shark" (or requin-baleine in French) in the middle of a gathering of divers and you will immediately see their eyes shining. Of course, it's the biggest fish in the world. And the most harmless of the great sharks. Enough to excite humans wearing fins...
Moreover, the animal is stylish, with its white geometrical tattoos on its huge tapered body. Really, in my eyes, it is the most beautiful and coolest of all sharks!
As an adult, the whale shark can exceed 10-12 meters. And even reach 18-20 meters for the tallest! Another similarity with the whale is that this shark has a huge mouth without teeth - well, it's just like, its teeth are only a few millimetres long. It's not equipped to bite, it's really a nice monster.
To feed, it filters seawater by opening its mouth wide, swallowing plankton, small fish and tiny crustaceans. You can imagine how much protein such a big beast needs...
When you love, you don't count. I can't get jaded to the whale shark... So I'm really glad I could add a new episode to the series. It was early 2020, in the Philippines, just before the health crisis...
To hope to see a whale shark, you can force fate a little by going to the right season in areas that it is used to frequent.
Sogod Bay, in the south of the island of Leyte is one of those places. Humans wearing fins are likely to see these large sharks swimming and feeding along the coast, not far from the small village of Pintuyan.
When? Between February and April. Sometimes a little earlier or a little later. Scientists at the LaMaVe Institute say you can see them as early as November and as late as June.
Whale sharks return to Sogod Bay almost every year. Their migrations seem to be closely linked to the southwest monsoon. With a bit of luck, we can come across them by chance underwater, while scuba diving, along the drop offs and coral reefs of the bay.
But the excursions organized specifically to observe them are done on the surface by snorkeling (fins-mask-snorkel). These "whale shark watching tours" are usually organized near the southwest coast of Panaon, the long island of about 30 kilometers, which forms the eastern limit of the bay, just south of Leyte.
I came here for a few days to do some underwater photography, of course, but also to meet my friend Carol from Equilibre running Equation Dive Shop in Bohol, who I haven't seen in a long time. She accompanies Charlène and Florian, a young French couple on holiday in the Philippines.
The four of us get along very well, we make a good underwater team. My diving buddies and I are obviously very excited when we hear that the presence of whale sharks is confirmed and that the "whale shark trip" will take place on the third day after our arrival.
On D-Day, we happily embark on the great banca (or bangka) of the SBSR, a traditional Filipino outrigger boat, which has been adapted for diver-tourists. The camera batteries were recharged and the waterproof camera housings were sealed. We can't wait!
Heading for Pintuyan, then, across the bay. From Padre Burgos, the crossing takes about 40 minutes.
Briefing before getting into the water
In Pintuyan, the approach of whale sharks is regulated. Since 2009, it must be done by snorkeling (fins-mask-snorkel) as I said earlier, scuba diving is no longer allowed.
It is the local fishermen's association Kasaka which manages whale shark eco-tourism activities in Pintuyan and the Son-Ok Marine Protected Area, with the approval of the local authorities. There is a small contribution for access to the site.
The people of Kasaka get help and advice from the Philippine Research Institute LaMaVe (Large Marine Vertebrate), which has had a base in the village since 2013. This non-governmental organization (NGO) is dedicated to the study and protection of the marine megafauna in the archipelago, especially in tourist areas, and raises awareness among Filipinos and foreigners alike on these issues by citizen science.
A representative from Kasaka and a young woman, a marine biologist from the LaMaVe Institute, come on board to meet us before the session in the water for a short briefing.
Rules? No motorized navigation near sharks, no feeding them, no touching them, no flash photography. Once in the water, you must keep a distance of 3-4 meters with them, do not block their path and avoid any behaviour likely to disturb them. The small graphic below summarizes all this.
Humans with fins and giant sharks
In the meantime, a flotilla of mini-bancas has moored at the stern of our boat, with a long rope. They're Kasaka's guys, in charge of supervising the whale shark tours.
Paddle in hand, they'll be our spotters and tour guides. Some of them have diving masks on their heads so that they can take a look below the surface. Their mission: to spot the sharks' shadow, report them to us, ensure our safety.
After a few minutes of navigation to reach the area, the guides detach their mini-bancas from our boat and scatter on the waves. Once our motor is turned off, the waiting begins, the time for them to paddle towards the coast and to spot whale sharks. If there are any... They may be somewhere else. Their presence is never guaranteed. But we are lucky.
Soon enough, some guides come back to our boat and invite us to take a seat with them in their pirogues with outriggers. In a few strokes of the paddle, they bring us closer to the beach and bring us to the right place, waving from one banca to the other. Yes, the big fish are there!
It's time to get into the water. All you have to do now is to fin and open your eyes wide...
As I experienced in 2014 in Mexico, snorkeling with whale sharks is a sport... 😅 Nothing to do with scuba diving. It's much less comfortable and much more exhausting. You get tossed around by the swell on the surface and you have to swim hard to keep up with the animal swimming nearby, a few metres deep.
The big guy moves forward peacefully, with a slow lateral movement of its tail fin, its mouth open, swallowing all it can of plankton. Despite its apparent slowness, it is moving fast. There is no point in swimming frantically to try to catch up with it. It's better to wait for it or one of its fellow creatures to come back. There are a few of them that day, swimming back and forth, in a loop, close to the coast. Just wait and watch for the cries and signs of the guides in their bancas.
Beauty and power
The conditions are not ideal for making images. The visibility is very bad, there are a lot of particles in suspension. You can see the shark popping up at the last moment in the greenish fog of the water, my autofocus is slipping.
I still manage to take a few photos and record short, slightly shaky video sequences of a specimen that keeps passing by and by, indifferent to our presence. I made a small clip of less than a minute that I post below.
The guides, for their part, are well versed in the comings and goings of big fish. They regularly invite us to go back up with them on board their small bancas to let us go a little further, or to hang on to the hull to take a breather. They also make the broom boats to recover the most exhausted of the small humans with fins who do not have enough energy left to swim...
I got a little further away from the others, when a guide nearby pointed to the water in front of me. I put my head back below the surface. The imposing whale shark that I filmed a few moments earlier is back. I switch back to turbo mode with my fins, to keep up with it on its starboard side, making sure I keep the required distance.
I see the massive rectangle of the head approaching, the gaping mouth, the tiny eye, the quivering slits of the gills and the faithful remoras waddling under its right pectoral. I contemplate, subjugated, the checkerboard with white polka dots scrolling by, the dorsal fin, and the slow and regular swimming of the enormous beast. What beauty, what power! But already it has passed, and however much I swim, all I can see is the coming and going of its tail, like a goodbye... And then it becomes a shadow again and disappears again in the turquoise mist.
I raise my head out of the water and decide to end my observation session there, on this magnificent reverence. I signal to a guide to pick me up in his mini-banca and take me back to the SBSR boat, which is anchored a little further offshore.
Our little troop's on board. We are amazed and delighted at our luck - it's not every day you see animals like this - but also a little frustrated by the poor visibility in the plankton-laden water.
Feeding and over-tourism in Oslob
Pintuyan is not the only place in the Philippines where you can swim with whale sharks. Some 220 km away, on the island of Cebu, the village of Tan-Awan in the municipality of Oslob is the most famous site. And the most controversial.
If you're offered to go, refuse. You'll find out why...
In Oslob, while whale sharks are no longer caught and slaughtered as they once were, they are now fed. This is called feeding . Thus baited, many of these sharks stop migrating and remain year-round on the spot.
Accustomed to associating the presence of boats with food, they no longer hesitate to approach any boat at close quarters. Some get nicked by the propellers. As for fin strokes and contact with humans splashing in the water, they are almost systematic. A study published in October 2020 by researchers at the LaMaVe Institute found that 95 % of Oslob's whale sharks showed scars attributable to tourism.
Since 2012, whale sharks in Oslob have been the subject of wild tourist exploitation. At the end of 2011, images of fishermen, having fun throwing handfuls of shrimp to the sharks to attract them and amuse the few tourists at the time, spread through the media and social networks... And the crowds soon arrived, as Cebu Island has an international airport, easily accessible in the archipelago and well connected to the capital Manila.
In six years, Oslob's annual tourist attendance has increased more than fivefold, from 98,000 in 2012 to 508,000 in 2018. Thanks to the gentle gluttonous sharks, the once very poor fishing village has become a prosperous seaside resort. For many inhabitants, this is an unexpected change of life.
On Tan-Awan beach, you have to take your turn to splash around with the whale sharks for a few minutes... Below are a few tweets that illustrate the situation:
Over the years, Oslob has developed a real "whale shark mass tourism" with the approval of the authorities. The rules for approaching these large wild animals without disturbing them are not respected at all. Their behaviour and diet are disrupted as a result. Such disastrous abuses are regularly denounced by environmental associations and scientists.
From fishing catches, whale sharks have become fairground beasts... 😳 Sad paradox.
"The scene at Oslob is chaotic, and the controversy is real," comments the great American underwater photographer David Doubilet, in an article by National Geographic published in August 2018. But at the same time, "the sharks are alive and not lying dead, fins removed, in cold storage somewhere in Asia,"he adds.
I put below the link of this article from National Geographic , which sums up the paradox of Oslob's whale sharks, both protected and exploited:
At the end of January 2020, the LaMaVe Institute decided to suspend its scientific observations and educational interventions at Oslob (and I imagine that the health crisis then only confirmed this decision). The NGO deplores on its website"the lack of significant changes and the unwillingness to shift away from unsustainable tourism and management practices by the local and regional stakeholders" regarding the interactions with whale sharks.
Since then, the coronavirus has been responsible for drying up the flow of international and Filipino tourists to Oslob: the number of bathers at the Tan-Awan site has dropped down from more than a thousand a day before the health restrictions to only ten or so in early August 2020, when the authorities authorised the resumption of activities.
The impact of over-tourism and feeding in Oslob has been the subject of a quantified and documented study by researchers at the LaMaVe Institute. Conducted from 2012 to 2018, it was published at the end of 2020 on the Open Science website of the British Royal Society:
Educated about these drifts in Oslob, the people of Pintuyan in southern Leyte do not want to make the same mistakes. The village is striving to develop a more ethical and responsible eco-tourism around the whale sharks of Sogod Bay. To create the conditions to watch them without (too much) disturbance.
So no feeding here. No crowds hungry for selfies-souvenirs in front of the big fish either.
In fact, the relatively isolated location of the region, far from major airports and tourist spots, has for the moment preserved it from an unmanageable influx of visitors. Between my first visit in 2008 and my stay in 2020 I have not noticed any obvious change in the atmosphere. The area seems to have remained rather quiet.
I'm hopeful it stays that way. With its unbaited whale sharks, small marine protected areas and local initiatives to preserve coral reefs, Sogod Bay mainly attracts patient and contemplative divers, nature-loving visitors and travellers in search of authenticity and simplicity. A priori all are aware and a little concerned about the potential impact of their activities on the environment.
In terms of "whale shark tourism", Sogod Bay seems for the moment to have found a balance between positive benefits for the local population and the preservation of big fish. In February 2020, the LaMaVe Research Institute updated on its website an assessment of its main observations in South Leyte, mixing science, tourism and social issues:
330 different specimens have been recorded in Sogod Bay.
they're mostly juvenile males.
a specimen identified in Sogod Bay was also identified in Taiwan, 1,600 km away.
satellite tracking reveals that whale sharks in Sogod Bay frequent several other key habitats in the Bohol Sea
thanks to the whale sharks, the women in the community association Sea Breeze manage to generate additional income by making souvenirs that are sold to tourists in a sewing workshop set up with the organization Sew Mates.
To find out more about the various whale shark programs run by the LaMaVe Institute in South Leyte and elsewhere in the Philippines (Oslob, Donsol, Palawan, Tubbataha), you can visit their page below:
Finally, if you can't see it in the water, you can admire the whale shark on the back of the 100 pesos (less than €2) Philippine banknotes issued from 2010 onwards, a sign that it has become an animal that counts (a little) in the country...