Oslob Whale Shark Tour; The Good, Bad and In-between
What Started it All:
For as long as the fishermen have been fishing around Tan-Awan village in Oslob Whale sharks have been aggregating. The fishermen were never happy with the whale sharks, as they would eat the fishermen’s catch, sucking on and damaging the nets as a result. This unfortunately resulted in the fishermen killing many whale sharks to protect their livelihood.
One day a dive boat had been doing some dives in the area and heard about the whale shark aggregation. The divers offered some fishermen a small amount of money to not chase or harm the whale sharks, so that they might have the opportunity to dive with these gentle giants as they came to eat their catch. Soon other dive groups caught wind of the opportunity to dive with Whale Sharks and the word spread like wild fire.
The fishermen soon realized there was more to gain from protecting and promoting these animals, taking small paddle boats with guests just off the beach while others were sorting their nets nearby.
At First Uncontrolled Chaos:
Before the Tan-Awan Municipal stepped in, things were very unorganized. There was very little structure and it was local villagers taking out whom ever they could sell on their “tour.” This very chaotic model saw many boats maneuvering around many people and lots of Whale Sharks and some near misses.
Sadly these tales of recklessness that occurred in the beginning has soiled the positive changes that have occurred to help protect the Whale Sharks and guests.
Over the years, more restrictions have been put in place in order to help protect the whale sharks. There are now restrictions on the number of boats and the number of swimmers allowed on the water at any given time. The boats and guests are now controlled as to where and when they can swim alongside these Whale Sharks. Even more importantly marine biologists are present each day to keep an eye on the activities to make sure there are few negative impacts caused by people. Sadly these tales of recklessness that occurred in the beginning has soiled the positive changes that have occurred to help protect the Whale Sharks and guests.
How It’s Organized:
The Whale sharks that are encountered at Tan-Awan are still wild animals and free to come and go as they please from the area. Natural hierarchy behavior can still be witnessed, with the larger individuals feeding first, while the smaller younger individuals wait a bit further away.
The whale sharks are enticed to visit the Oslob Whale Shark Tour area in the morning by feeding them a small amount of shrimp and krill from dedicated ‘bait’ boats. While this does entice the whale sharks to be present in the area each day, the small amount of food that is fed to the sharks, and the short hours over which they are fed, is not enough to fulfill their large appetites (juveniles are estimated to consumed upwards of 20kgs (40lbs) of plankton each day). A marine biologist once gave me the analogy, “It’s like a human trying to survive on a handful of M&M’s, the sharks still naturally forage to fulfill their appetite.” By 12 noon the feeding stops and all of the individuals have left in search of other food sources.
It's like a human trying to survive on a handful of M&M's, the sharks still naturally forage.
Why Promote The Oslob Whale Shark Tour:
Some wonder why we continue to operate the Oslob Whale Shark tour if we have to create all these rules.
Are we really altering their behaviour?
Is it bad for the Whale Sharks?
Aren’t humans in the area just profiting from exploiting these wild animals?
The answer is not so simple. But it is great we are asking ourselves these questions. It’s our moral obligation as humans to make sure we are not damaging our environment.
It’s a Delicate Balance:
Marine biologists stationed at the Oslob Whale Shark Tour have been able to identify many of the individuals that pass through the area. They monitor and record how many days the sharks are present and identifying new individuals. From these records they know that the individuals do not stay around permanently, sometimes staying for a few days before moving on, with the longest visiting whale shark staying for nearly a year.
It is theorized that this could be due to the age of the individuals. Wild animals really have two needs, to eat and to reproduce. Everything else is in their life is filler. During the non-migratory period it seems the juveniles that are not yet sexually mature and do not follow breeding migration paths stay in our nutrient rich waters to feed and continue to grow. The option of this free breakfast entice them to stick around. This is also seen as the very large (10m+) older sharks show up between May, June and July, while the other times of year we tend to see the smaller whale sharks (5-8m). Once they reach maturity, they will then begin to follow migratory paths. As yet we still do not know enough about Whale shark species to know what happens on these journeys, as to date, no mating behavior or birthing has ever been witnessed, maybe the additional monitoring offered by this controlled feed with offer additional incite as it does in other controlled Shark feeds.
Is it Really Bad for the Whale Sharks?
Over the past 15 years I have worked in four locations that practiced Shark Feeding. I have had the opportunity to work with Marine Biologists studying the various shark species and witnessed shark behavior on a near daily basis. I am a true believer and supporter in Shark Feeding tours and know the value that a live shark can bring to an economy vs a dead shark.
While there is a change to everyone population of sharks in a given area of the ocean, we have to remember the ocean can support a great deal more sharks, after all more than 200,000,000 sharks are slaughtered and removed every year. We still find these fed sharks following their natural migratory patterns. In the Bahamas every Sept and Oct the shark feed population would drop from nearly 40-50 sharks a day to 7 as the sharks left to breed. Fiji was the same with the Bull Sharks who would disappear in November and return in February.
Some argue that being around so many people hurt or bother the sharks. Humans to a Whale Shark are like flies to a human. If they start to get bothered they can simply swim off.
But ultimately here is the reality. Whale Sharks were being HUNTED before the Oslob Whale Shark Tour began. Unfortunately even though protected The Philippines (and other developing nations) do not have enough resources to track and punish these poachers. By implementing the Oslob Whale Shark Tour the sharks now have local advocates speaking and protecting on their behalf. The villagers see the benefit of tourism in the area and want the tour to be safe and successful for their livelihood.
With these regulations and monitoring projects in place, nearly 100,000 visitors get to safely see and learn more about these amazing animals each year. That is 100,000 people who now know how amazing these animals are and will flinch when they see photos popup on-line of Whale Sharks being slaughtered, maybe even in their own county.
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