Welcome to Oslob, home of the whale shark selfie.
In this town, near the southern tip of Cebu Island in the Philippines, whale sharks are a big draw. Tourism is booming for people who want to watch, swim with, and take photographs next to the world’s biggest fish.
Since it began in 2011, Oslob’s whale shark-watching operation has become the largest such venture in the world. But the operation is controversial, because whale sharks don’t naturally gather here, unlike other such sites in the country. The Oslob sharks are hand-fed, and this essentially guarantees they will show up to thrill guests, who can snap close-range photos.
The situation raises thorny questions, for example about the impact of feeding and human interaction on the animals, the sustainability of such an operation, and the conservation value. Do the benefits outweigh potential downsides?
These questions are not merely academic, considering whale sharks are globally endangered and their numbers in the Philippines region are in steep decline. Prior to 1998, when whale sharks gained national legal protection, hundreds of whale sharks were killed in the Philippines each year for their meat and fins.
But poaching still happens here and elsewhere, since demand and markets for whale sharks remain, a primary destination being China—and a single animal can fetch tens of thousands of dollars. Their meat, fins, and oil are sold for food, and their skin for bags. (Related: The world's largest whale sharks are disappearing.)
Sunrise in Oslob
Oslob’s day begins at six in the morning, when the first tourist arrivals listen to a short briefing—no touching, no riding, no flash photography, and keep at least six feet away from the sharks at all times. Visitors don masks, snorkels, and life jackets and board outrigger boats to see the sharks. In the “interaction area,” about 150 feet from shore, the boats line up and the show begins. Feeders in small, one-person outrigger canoes dish out handfuls of thawed shrimp to the waiting sharks, many of which time their arrival to within a few minutes of feeding.
It’s called “watching,” but there’s just as much “posing.” It’s a strange sight: A line of tourists in the water hold on to the boat’s outrigger. Their backs face the sharks while they mug for the cellphones being clicked by the boat operator. The beasts are the backdrop.
Guests are told they can go to jail if they touch or get too close to the sharks, but researchers have found that more than 95 percent of swimmers break the rules—often inadvertently. It’s a melee out there, and contact happens.
Some of the sharks swim languidly at a 45-degree angle, as though their tails were weighted. Others stay almost motionless, entirely vertical, slurping the shrimp with muscular gulps—a whirlpool of water and food disappearing into their postbox-slot mouths.
Feeding ceases at midday. The sharks dissipate and the boatmen disperse. Show’s over, until tomorrow.
Shark viewing is a growing sector of the tourism industry, and other operations (in other countries, for example) use baiting or provisioning to attract animals. It’s often billed as ecotourism, but that can sometimes seem a stretch. Ecotourism, at its best, draws humans into the world of the creatures they encounter. It has low impact on ecosystems and a demonstrable conservation value. But many argue that's not exactly what's happening here.
There are some benefits to the enterprise. For one, the whale sharks in Oslob are still around. “The scene at Oslob is chaotic, and the controversy is real,” says my colleague David Doubilet, who has been photographing in the Philippines for a forthcoming National Geographic feature. “But the sharks are alive and not lying dead, fins removed, in cold storage somewhere in Asia.”
Another likely upside: A reduction in fishing pressure around Oslob. The 170 or so members of the local fishermen’s association, who feed the sharks and ferry the guests, no longer need to catch fish for food from increasingly depleted reefs. Likewise, fishers nearby can earn a living supplying the several hundred pounds of shrimp needed for each day’s shark food, thus placing less pressure on declining fish stocks.
The giant beasts also benefit the local economy. At night, the Oslob coastline twinkles with the lights of more than 50 hostels, resorts and guesthouses, as well as local homes. “The whale sharks brought the lights,” one resident told me. Who would imagine that prosperity could come to Oslob by something as simple as throwing handfuls of shrimp into the mouths of passing sharks?
Mark Rendon, a 26-year-old boatman, has been part of the Oslob operation for three years. He used to work away from home in Cebu City as a government clerk. Now he earns more, travels less, has fewer expenses and lives at home with his family.
Sixty percent of the tourism revenue goes to the fishermen, according to Rendon. Thirty percent goes to the municipality and 10 percent to the local village.
It is not just the fishers who have benefited. “Housewives have become entrepreneurs,” Rendon said—selling leis, souvenirs, fruit smoothies, snacks.
As far the sharks go, most visit for a few days or weeks and move on. But some—four percent of the total—become year-round residents. Scientists worry that sharks that take advantage of the free feed for prolonged periods may suffer ill effects, both physiologically and behaviorally.
While research has begun, conducted for example by the Large Marine Vertebrates Research Institute Philippines, basic questions about the influence of this feeding remain unanswered. The shrimp they’re fed is a less diverse mix of planktonic creatures than what they would consume naturally. It’s not junk food, but neither is it necessarily a healthy diet.
Whale sharks associate boats with free food, and that connection could lead them into danger elsewhere. Almost half of the whale sharks studied at Oslob have propeller cuts on their bodies, which must have happened elsewhere, since the operation uses only hand-paddled vessels. These animals may also be more likely to one day approach a shark-fishing vessel. Whale sharks have been nationally protected in the Philippines since 1998, but poaching persists here, and elsewhere in the animal’s huge ranges, where they may not necessarily be legally protected.
It’s also unclear what happens when these migratory animals are conditioned to remain in one place for an extended period of time, and what effect that might have on their patterns of social interactions and movement. Of the 650 individual whale sharks that have been identified in the Philippines, a quarter have been seen at Oslob. That’s a significant portion of the population being exposed to unknown survival risks.
Some would argue that whale sharks—like whales, pandas, polar bears, tigers, and elephants—are ambassadors for the natural world: charismatic creatures that move us to care for Earth and its multitudinous life. And perhaps that benefit might offset a small degree of disturbance to these creatures.
For every grinning Oslob tourist snapping a photo with a shark, could there be another who looks into the eye of that great spotted giant and sees something of immense intrinsic worth, whose existence must be protected? Or are these sharks primarily narcissistic props?
A recent study of how tourists perceive the Oslob whale shark operation found that many visitors recognize that feeding an endangered species for tourism purposes is ethically problematic—if not morally wrong—but participate anyway. Some researchers describe this type of justification as a “guilty pleasure.”
Fishers I spoke to feared that the government might decide the conservation risks outweighed the economic benefits and ban shark-feeding. That would, in effect, end their business. They hope the benefits will be seen to offset the risks to the sharks.
For Rendon, it’s simple. “I want to do this forever,” he says.
For advocates of the creatures, it’s equally plain: Wildlife should not be fed.
Meanwhile, whale shark tourism—with its unknown effects on the animals—shows no signs of slowing down.