OSLOB, Philippines: The effortless glide of the whale shark is a spectacular sight. Close to the surface of the water, the spotted skin of each passing giant shimmers in the refracting sunlight.
A fleeting glimpse of the world’s biggest fish - a rare and mysterious creature - would be special. In Oslob, though, a small fishing village in the central Philippines, they appear in a procession.
On this day, some 15 sharks, most of them male juveniles, have made their way into the so-called “interaction zone”. About 2,000 people will join them, and for five hours the sharks will perform lap after lap along their underwater catwalk.
These are hungry beasts, constant feeders being lured from their wild hunting grounds. They raise their colossal mouths to the surface, searching out the slow-moving feeding boats and scoffing the handfuls of food being tossed their way.
Orbiting their calmness is the chaos of hundreds of snorkellers, scuba divers and boat passengers. A flurry of flippers, selfie sticks, and frenetic splashing trail and surround the majestic creatures.
“Oslob is really a feeding frenzy,” said AA Yaptinchay, the director of Marine Wildlife Watch of the Philippines. “Now it’s become part of bucket lists. People need to do it. Everyone wants a whale shark now.”
The spectacle begins as the sun rises with the day’s first tourist boats assembling, barely 100 metres from the shore.
The visitors out early on the water have won out in the predawn hustle for a number in the first come, first served queue. About half of the daily contingent are foreign tourists - mostly from China, Korea and Japan - and they scramble for prime position in the tightly managed schedule to get their chance to see the sharks up close.
Thirty boats are allowed in the feeding zone at any given time, for only 30 minutes each. Though in principle there are rules designed to protect the welfare of the sharks, such as a three-metre buffer zone, the reality is akin to an aquarium with no barriers.
Tourists test the boundaries of what is allowed, unable or unwilling to resist touching the sharks as they pass.
A study in 2014 showed non-compliance rates with keeping a minimum distance from the sharks was 97 per cent. It is behaviour described as a “guilty pleasure” by environmental researchers.
There is nowhere else on earth where this happens.
The Oslob practice has been controversial since its inception in 2012. The industry was born by chance on the supposed request of a Korean diver who wanted to see the sharks, which are regular visitors to the food-rich waters, closer to shore.
Fishermen had always considered whale sharks pests, disruptive to their work as they tangled in their nets. Recently, they've been seen as valuable generators of cash.
For about 15 years, another eco-tourism project allowing visitors to swim with wild whale sharks had been operating with huge success in Donsol, a small fishing village in southern Luzon.
Oslob locals seized their chance to not only replicate that success but take it to whole new levels. They started feeding the whale sharks - a practice strictly prohibited in Donsol and elsewhere - and watched as the business exploded.
Now, hundreds of thousands of people are drawn to the small fishing town every year. Whale shark interaction is a 364-day-a-year activity - they only rest on Good Friday. In 2012, the attraction was visited by nearly 63,000 tourists. In 2018, that number soared to more than half a million.
On busy days, more than 2,000 people are ferried out to interact with the animals. Even off-peak, the number can reach a thousand. The notion of seasonal whale shark appearances - they are migratory creatures - is over here.
"We love whale sharks so much, we’re loving them to death," Yaptinchay said.
While the Donsol project began with shark conservation as its core function, Oslob is purely and unashamedly economic. And this multi-million dollar industry has deeply divided the country.
‘A LEARNING EXPERIENCE’
“Before, Oslob was a sleepy town. It was a quiet town,” said municipal tourism officer Elizabeth Benologa. At the advent of the whale shark enterprise, neither she nor the town’s locals expected it to grow in popularity - or notoriety - like it has.
“We were just imagining having 100 or 200 visitors each day. Maybe 500.”
It was a gross underestimation of the wonder people from around the world would find in these unique encounters. The community impact was sudden but mostly positive.
The transformation that subsequently came over Oslob has been dramatic. Hundreds of people have directly found new livelihoods, particularly outside of traditional fishing practices.
The daily incomes for those inside the union-like group that runs the whale shark operation are secretive, but understandably believed to be staggeringly high. Each foreign visitor pays around US$19 for the experience, with locals paying half that amount.
“After several years the fishermen can now send their children to school and can have beautiful houses and cars. The lifestyle has improved,” Benologa said.
Much-needed infrastructure has slowly been catching up to demand, including guesthouses, restaurants and alternative tourism sites. Shopping malls and a five-star resort are the next big-ticket items earmarked for the area.
It is on this basis that stakeholders in the business argue for its uninterrupted continuation.
Among those is one of the key national government groups tasked with oversight of environmental impacts of marine activities like this one, the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR).
Johann Tejada, a BFAR fishing regulation officer and marine biologist is an unabashed cheerleader for the whale shark interactions.
“No whale sharks have ever been killed during the entire operation. No tourists were harmed,” he said. “So why would you say it’s a bad thing?”
Nonetheless, there is a long queue of environmental groups and researchers producing evidence that greater care needs to be taken to prevent unknown long-term impacts on what is an endangered and protected species.
Understanding of whale sharks, their behaviour, breeding and resilience is still far from complete. But already there are warning symptoms.
The Large Marine Invertebrates Research Institute Philippines (LAMAVE) is one the leading groups studying the what is happening in Oslob. Their field studies have raised ethical and environmental questions around the feeding of the sharks.
Research showed the potential for the annual movements of whale sharks to be modified, their hunting habits to be altered and their reliance on humans to increase. Already, sharks in the Oslob area associate boats with food and have adopted a vertical feeding position directly below them to more easily reach the shrimp being thrown by human feeders.
It is unusual and worrying, according to AA Yaptinchay. “They’re not meant to be in that shallow depth. It affects body temperature regulation, causing stress to the animal making them more susceptible to disease and reproduction could be affected,” he said.
Some of the sharks are also showing “anticipatory behaviour”, arriving within five minutes of the feeding boats every single morning, without fail.
These are concerns that Tejada says are overhyped and unconfirmed. “Until now it has never been proven,” he said.
“I’m not saying it’s perfect. Because it's the first time, it’s a learning experience. There’s nowhere else to compare.”
He says the local community “should take advantage of the opportunity” to change their lives now, knowing that whale sharks could be “gone in the blink of an eye”.
“It’s meant to be adaptive management. If it’s not working, then let’s try to look for another solution.”
‘WHAT HAPPENED TO THE DINOSAURS?’
Operators certainly do not have carte blanche in Oslob. Over the past year, Philippine authorities have had unsustainable tourism operations in their crosshairs.
The highest profile case saw the six-month closure of the holiday resort island of Boracay, labelled a “cesspool” by President Rodrigo Duterte and held to more strictly enforced environmental standards.
Tourism officer Elizabeth Benologa says Oslob is “absolutely” concerned about a future shutdown affecting their community. In response, a multi-stakeholder task force is in place to monitor the whale shark situation and recommend any needed changes.
But she is already convinced that by “showing love” to the whale sharks they are actually being helped and possibly saved from threats like climate change.
“As long as they are here, we make them feel like they are really loved,” she said.
“What happened to the dinosaurs? Why did they not survive? It’s because nobody cared for them. Nobody had a relationship with them. We are always just afraid of the animals. Why don’t we let the animals love us and we will love them too?
“Dinosaurs didn’t know where to go or who would be their knight in shining armour during climate change so they died. But here we can help these animals. If they cannot adapt, they will die,” she suggested.
“I want the environmentalists to open their minds, open their hearts, not just for the animals but the people around them. “
Meantime, legislation is being pushed through at a national level that could fundamentally alter the future of shark protection in the Philippines. The Philippine Shark Conservation Bill, which could be passed in 2019, would support more shark conservation programs on a national scale.
Crucially, new laws would outlaw the feeding of sharks, although Yaptinchay concedes that Oslob is likely to be exempt from the restriction. He says he can live with that, as it would still mean no new sites could start operating.
“I don’t think all the stakeholders know what is hitting them. It’s a good year for sharks.”
In many ways, the plight of whale sharks in the country is both a conservation success story and a cautionary tale. Awareness and pride is high in the Philippines - the whale shark even features prominently on the 100 peso banknote.
The country stands tall and strong on marine conservation issues compared to its neighbours, particularly around species like whale sharks. It is the sole Southeast Asian party to the Convention on Migratory Species, and has proposed better marine protection networks around the region, where cases of whale sharks being hunted remain.
Still, operations in Oslob remain a blip on its ambitions.
For their part, the local fishermen say they do care about the whale sharks and their sustainable future. They have promised to keep improving their practices; indeed, they need to.
“This is a huge blessing. It is because of them that we have food on our tables, so it is just fair that we take good care of them and conserve them so they live longer,” said Oslob Sea Warden Mark Rendon.
It is an acknowledgment of a duty of care that appears to be ignored by many of the tourists in overloaded boats who pursue the whale sharks in their snorkelling equipment.
On their interaction tours, there is no environmental or learning information about whale sharks provided, and the rules and safety briefing is conducted in English - a problem for scores of the visitors.
Regardless of best intentions, organised chaos ensues as a result.
“I wouldn’t label Oslob sustainable. It’s like a theme park ride,” Yaptinchay said.
“I wish people would care more about the animal, rather than their selfie."
This is the first in a two-part series looking at the plight of whale sharks in the Philippines. The second part can be read here.