What it once was
The first time I went to Oslob to swim with the whale sharks, or butanding as they’re also called, was in 2012. Back then, there were hardly any people there. It wasn’t anything like the marketplace it is now. The surroundings were serene. Everything felt peaceful and calm; and it perfectly matched the whale sharks themselves.
When we rode out to the open sea, there were always four to six whale sharks around each boat. Of course, the boats were far away from each other probably so that the animals wouldn’t feel threatened. Throughout the whole time, we could see that the whale sharks were being cared for, and that their safety was of utmost importance.
I remember laying my eyes on those beautiful gentle giants and being completely in awe with their magnificence. It was one thing to see them from a far, it’s a whole different, more spectacular thing altogether to see them up close and personal, to see how huge they were and how small you are in comparison. It sent shivers up and down my spine. I came out of that experience having a much bigger appreciation of nature and its awesome creatures.
What it is now
I’ve been to Oslob two more times since then, and in each visit, I felt that the situation has gotten unpleasant. And judging by the growing number of criticism Oslob faces, I’m not the only one who thinks this way.
On my last visit, I went because I wanted to tour my foreign friends. It was overcrowded and too noisy. I felt like instead of being out in open water, I was in a giant glass aquarium where every sound reverberated in my ears. Gone was the tranquillity that was ever-present during my first visit, and in its place was this sense of haste, like everyone was just scrambling to get a picture with the whale sharks. The way I saw it, it wasn’t even a matter of being able to experience swimming with these magnificent creatures in the wild; it had become a matter of getting that Instagram-worthy photo.
And unlike before where the boats were few and far in between, this time there were two layers of boats and each boat had six to ten people and was “assigned” to one whale shark. A local on board would then feed the whale shark in order to attract it to come closer. Sometimes, the animal would get too close and bump into the boat.
Even though it is still widely known as the best place to swim with the butanding, Oslob is also slowly gaining an unpleasant reputation among animal rights activists and travelers alike. People have argued that the fact that the locals keep feeding these animals in order to maintain the influx of tourists is not only wrong but also harmful. Some people discourage others from going to Oslob to see the whale sharks as a sign of protest.
But even then, people continue to flock to the region to get a close-up with the famous animals that have now become a certified tourist attraction. And this is where it gets really complicated.
For any person who wishes to travel and see exciting things, it’s hard to pass up an opportunity to swim with the whale sharks in the wild. I myself am guilty of wanting to take advantage of such an unbelievable experience, and I couldn’t begrudge anyone else for feeling the same. It’s definitely more convenient to choose a place you know for sure you’ll be able to get that experience instead of opting for other places where they can’t guarantee that.
On the flip side, for the sake of our swim-with-the-whales experience, these very same whales are being robbed of their natural instincts. And it’s not just the animals that are affected, when I went to Moalboal, the dive master there told me that the whale sharks in the area have all gone to Oslob. The same thing can be said in Donsol in the province of Sorsogon where the number of whale sharks continue to decline. While the people of Oslob are reaping the profits of their butanding attraction, the people of Moalboal and Donsol, who choose not to feed these wild animals, are fighting an uphill battle to attract visitors and boost tourism.
Clearly, this isn’t a simple case of black and white. I myself am torn. While I find the situation worsening, I still believe that the people who do go for the whale sharks – and the people who rely on the whale sharks as their main source of income – shouldn’t be attacked.
What I believe we should do is to always strive to be informed and aware about different issues and concerns, not just in Oslob, but also in every place we travel to. This isn’t just for our own benefit; more importantly, this is so that we can open the door for conversation and action.