There is a place here on the island of Cebu in the Philippines called Oslob where you can go swimming with whale sharks, everyday, pretty much guaranteed. This has been on my list for a long time. I’ve tried repeatedly in Bali and Thailand to see one, but never had any luck. Now I can finally make it happen and it’s only a couple of hours from here. Woo-hoo!
But here’s the catch. You knew there was a catch, right? There’s always a catch. The reason it’s so easy to swim with them here on Cebu is because they are lured in by local fishermen serving up tasty little shrimp called “uyap” from their boats. Yeah, that’s kind of a problem. Now, to be clear, there are safeguards in place to protect the whales. You aren’t allowed to ride or touch or chase them, and swimming is only allowed from 8AM to 1PM, so it’s not like things are out of control there. But still, the food, it’s an issue for me. These are migratory creatures, supposed to move on when supplies get low, but in Oslob, it’s an all-you-can-eat buffet every day, so why leave? That can’t be good. Plus, the whales are being taught that boats = yummy funtime snacks. Again, not good. There are safe boats out there and there are boats that aren’t safe by any stretch of the imagination. Good luck telling the difference, whale shark looking to score a free lunch.
I know there are very valid arguments that can be made in support of the feeding, like the economic benefit of tourist trade to the area. These are poor people and they are trying to provide for their families as best they can and I get that, I really do. I just wish they wouldn’t feed the whale sharks in order to do it. I have a real problem with them looking at humans as a food source or, God forbid, something they can trust. Have you met us? We may have our moments, but historically speaking, even with the best of intentions, we tend to leave bodies and chaos in our wake. And that’s why I’m going to take a pass on swimming with the whale sharks at Oslob, and continue to try my luck in places where they are left alone, free to interact with or ignore us as they see fit.
I run into scenarios like this occasionally on the road, where I’m left wondering “experience or exploitation?” I’m not saying I always come to the right conclusion, but I do try to think things through. Sometimes it’s a no-brainer. For instance, in Cambodia, if you have the cash, there are places where you can blow up a cow with a rocket propelled grenade. Yeah, seriously. I’m not going to provide a link because screw those guys. Obviously reprehensible and just not an option for me or anyone I want to know. But sometimes it’s a tougher call, like the elephant centers in Thailand and Laos. Those require research, because it definitely depends on the establishment, its staff and its mission. Helpful thumb rule – the lower the cost, the further you want to stay away. Big surprise, elephants eat a lot and that food costs money, so if you’re getting a deal, the elephants are most likely paying the price.
As far as the whale sharks are concerned, it seems pretty straightforward, at least from my admittedly first-world perspective. I still hope to see one, but if I do, it will be on their terms, and it won’t be because I came bearing shrimp cocktail. (Needless to say, the photo isn’t mine, it’s a stock photo with no attribution. Maybe I’ll get a shot of my own one day. When I’m in the right place. At the right time. With a camera that isn’t flooded out. Grrr…)