Until yesterday, the largest aquatic animal I’ve seen must have been a sea turtle here in Moalboal (at least what I’ve seen under water, from the diveboat I’ve seen both shark and dolphins). At probably around one and a half meter, I thought that turtle was quite big. That was until I met the gentle giants in Donsol.
We set out from the dive shop at 5.30 in the morning, all still a bit sleepy but very excited about the day. After about two hours on the bumpy but very scenic road south we arrived in Oslob just as the whale sharks were coming in for their morning snack. You can choose to either dive or snorkel with the sharks, and to be honest I didn’t really miss my Scuba gear. They stay quite shallow all the time so you can see them really well from the surface, but maybe I’ll try diving next time just to get to see them from a different angle.
Small paddle boats take you out to the sharks, and we were all amazed to discover how big these fish actually are. They come up to the surface to eat the krill thrown in by the boatmen, open their mouths and the ocean rushes down in a rapid maelstrom. We slipped into the water quietly so not to disturb them, and got to see the entire animals under water. They are big, about six or seven metres long, and still these are only juveniles, the adult whale shark can get up to 18 metres. I tried to take some pictures but since visibility that day was rather low, I had to get close and had trouble fitting the shark within the viewfinder. A fish-eye lens would have been really useful.
We stayed in the water for about an hour (although it felt like 20 minutes), before we were paddled back to shore. It was a great experience, and after all the discussions we’ve had around the dive shop regarding the whale sharks, it felt good to have seen it firsthand. Fish feeding is of course not natural, and it’s difficult to tell what the long-term consequences for the whale sharks are. Feeding them could potentially disturb their migrating and mating patterns, and when the sharks associate food with boats, they can be harmed by propellers if they approach motorboats.
I have to say though that the sharks we saw looked very healthy, and there were some young cubs among them so it seems that two years of feeding them at least hasn’t had a huge immediate impact. The local government has also taken action to control and regulate how tourists are allowed to interact with the animals (I’ve heard some horror stories of what it used to be like before). And even though it’s not natural, I feel that it’s a lot better that the local fishermen make their living by feeding the sharks rather than selling them at the fish market.