Two organizations are dedicated in whale shark research. Both organizations are asking divers who had the luck to make some underwater pictures to send them these pictures for scientific reasons. As Mark Holmberg from ECOCEAN Whale Shark Photo-ID Library explains: “To help us uniquely identify individual whale sharks from photographs, we just completed work on a pattern-matching system that allows us to scan for other photos of the same shark if we have good left- or right-side shots of the shark’s natural skin patterning. This is an excellent and very possibly more reliable method of tracking these animals than traditional spear-based invasive tagging.
The sleepy town of Oslob on the southern tip of Cebu became famous for the daily appearance of whale sharks. Fishermen using Krill (small shrimp) as bait were often approached by the whalesharks. The result was a beautiful relationship between the fisher men and the Tuki (whalshark in Visayan, the local language).
This relationship came to the attention of a few travelers who naturally wanted to share this magical experience, and did so by blog and social media. The unintended result was a rapid onset of mass tourism which Oslob was poorly equipped to handle, and changed the local area forever, and monetized the bond between the fisherman and the Tuki.
At the beginning of 2011, the situation had reached a critical point, several negative acts committed by tourists and locals caused a lot of concern for the animal’s welfare. An ordinance was passed by the Philippines Government preventing any further feeding.
Savedra was among the first to put their weight behind the ordinance, all activity in Oslob was immediately suspended. The many daily enquiries for trips there were declined, we shared the ordinance and a recommendation not to go to Oslob.
Sadly, the ordinance did not have the desired effect, what happened instead was even more detrimental. In place of dive centers and eco-tourism outlets, less scrupulous operators started taking groups there. Even more deliberate contact being made with the animals every day, visitor numbers not being controlled, a circus like environment formed. The ordinance was appealed by the community of Oslob, lost a lot of its support, and eventually faded away.
What we learned over time is people will go there regardless of requests otherwise, and for as long as money is being made in Oslob nothing will be done to stop it. Many campaigners make good arguments as to why it should be stopped and put a lot of effort into trying to make that happen, it has not.
We believe trying to stop operations in Oslob at this stage is hopeless, what we seek to do is to change from within. We look to other whaleshark tourism spots like Donsol and seek to push Oslob in the direction of their model. No contact, reducing feeding, hopefully one day stopping it entirely, controlling daily tourist numbers to prevent stress to the animals, and more than anything else to educate locals and tourists alike of the threats to these wonderful animals.
If we could wave a magic wand and stop it tomorrow we would, in the real world the best, we feel, that can be done is to be present, have a voice and make positive changes where and when the opportunity presents itself. We understand the desire to be close to the whalesharks, it’s close to the top of the list of why we became divers in the first place. If you would like to visit Oslob we will take you, but we will strictly enforce local policies, and our own policies, that are in place to protect the sharks from us.
Whenever and wherever you account whale sharks, always strictly adhere to the following guide lines:
Swimmers and divers
- Do not attempt to touch, ride, or chase a Whale Shark
- Do not restrict normal movement or behaviour of the Shark
- Maintain a minimum distance of 3 metres from the Whale Shark
- Do not undertake flash photography
- Do not use underwater motorised diver propulsions
- Behave in a calm controlled manner and prevent stressing the animals
Please be advised there are wardens in Oslob that will enforce these policies and apply penalties to those who intentionally break them, they have our full support, the welfare of the animals will always come first.
If you would like to know more about research being done in Oslob, and other parts of the Philippines, or better still donate to make more research possible, take a look at Large Marine Vertibrates Project Philippines LAMAVE. They have been doing some excellent work in the area for a long time, their friendly volunteers can normally be found around Oslob.