We needed a break from the chaos of Hong Kong and decided on a quick trip to Cebu, an island in the Philippines. It is renown for its beautiful beaches, crystal waters and freshest mangoes, coconuts, pineapples and bananas.
Whilst our family love beach holidays we don’t like to JUST stay at the resort sipping Pina Coladas and swimming in the pools and private beaches. We love to explore and try to give our sprogs unique and interesting experiences. As I asked around friends and colleagues here in Hong Kong they couldn’t recommend anything in Cebu aside from, well – basking in the resort sipping cocktails and swimming. A little disheartened I searched online and couldn’t believe my eyes when I discovered Cebu has a marine wildlife sanctuary where you can swim with whale sharks.
Whale sharks are large gentle sharks that use their giant mouths to feed on plankton and smaller sea creatures – unlike the rest of their shark cousins – so the idea of swimming with them isn’t as dangerous as it may sound. I couldn’t find accurate pricing for the whale sharks so had to wait until we got to our hotel in Cebu to see if this adventure was going to be affordable and accessible or not.
The whale sharks themselves are located in Obslob, which is around 3 to 4 hours (depending on traffic and road conditions) from the main city/tourist area of Cebu so this was a full day trip. We opted for a private tour for our family and paid just over 16,000 pesos (Around US$360, AU$475) for all 4 of us.
The tour included:
– an air conditioned car (people-mover) with driver
– our own tour guide who gave us commentary along the way about the cities, the people, the culture and anything else we were interested in.
– the trip from our hotel to the whale sharks and back (with a few detours on the side if we wished) – 3 to 4 hours each way.
– a ride on a traditional Filipino outrigger (bangka) out to the whale shark area, a 1/2 hour swim with the whale sharks, plus snorkel gear hire.
– lunch at a restaurant next to the whale sharks beach. The lunch included Philippino fried chicken, bbq pork, grilled pork, stir fried veges, rice and fresh local fruits (mango and banana) plus a drink each.
– a couple of stops at tourist sites along the way. As we had kids who weren’t interested in churches or festivals, aside from stopping at a famous local snack (chicharon) stall we opted just to experience the whale sharks.
We also opted to pay an additional 550 pesos once we got to the whale shark headquarters to hire an underwater camera and have all the photos cut to a CD for us while we had lunch.
So how was it?
Absolutely AMAZING! Mindblowing! A once in a lifetime experience that was more than I could have imagined. While “expensive” in Philippines terms it was well worth EVERY cent. The hardest part is the LONG drive to and from the small town where the whale sharks are accessible. It certainly isn’t a drive I would want to do myself as the driving in the Philippines is crazy.
Once you arrive at the whale sharks headquarters you have to sign in and listen to a 5 minute seminar on what not to do around the sharks. ie no touching, no getting within 4 metres, no sunscreen, etc. Most of it is common sense but better to be safe than sorry. These encounters are actually managed by the Philippines government, not private operators, so everyone has to go through the same process before being allowed to go out and see the sharks. After the talk our guide signed us up and paid for our experience and we were given life jackets and goggles (you could use your own if you wanted). Then it was a climb onto an outrigger and a short paddle to the whale shark area.
Straight away we had a whale shark swim past. Now, admittedly, these sharks are here for a reason and that reason is they are being fed by a smaller boat. Having said that, the sharks come and go as they please and different sharks come on different days so they aren’t completely dependant on this feeding. The feeding is only done until 12.30 pm after which no whale shark feeding or swimming is allowed.
When we were there we were fortunate as 8 whale sharks were in the area and at one point we had 3 sharks around us while we were swimming in the water.
Bethany and I jumped in the water but opted to stay near one of the bamboo side booms on the boat. I’m glad we did because whilst we tried out best to stay 4 metres away from the sharks, the sharks didn’t have the same issues with distance and came right up to us as well as going under the boat. At one point a shark came up right underneath Bethany and she almost ended up unintentionally riding it as she tried to carefully swim away from it before it emerged above the water!
This resulted in us unintentionally touching the sharks as they glided by so close their fins touched our feet or bodies despite our best efforts to stay out of their way. To see them as such close proximity and be touched by them was exhilarating and unbelievable. Ducking our heads below the water to watch them sail silently past we were able to make out their distinct markings as well as discover they had their own ecosystem of fish trailing along with them.
This whale shark came right up under me as I was taking photos underwater of another shark and I had to desperately try and float above and to the side of it as it glided under me. Despite its size it wasn’t scary but I did try to consciously stay as far away from its tail as possible. Although they are gentle in nature they are HUGE and with that comes a lot of power in the tail that could unintentionally hurt you if you got in its way.
Bethany was fascinated by their motion and their gills. The ability for her to experience an encounter where she got to see a shark in its own habitat and not hidden behind perspex was exhilarating and educational for her. She came away in awe of these creatures and is even more eager to ensure creatures like these still exist when she grows up.
Unfortunately the water was a bit murky the day we swam so we weren’t able to get a lot of underwater shots.
All too quickly the 1/2 hour was up and we had to climb back into the boat and head for shore. This is the hardest part of the whole adventure – climbing back into these narrow but high boats. It was a very unglamorous experience trying to ungracefully climb back up. I’ve got a few bruises from the experience, but again well worth it to be able to have entered the whale sharks world for a few brief moments in time.
- Wear your swimsuit. Even if you don’t want to jump in the water with the sharks, you’ll need to wade through the water to get on and off the boat.
- Don’t apply or wear sunscreen. If you do you will be asked to wash it off before being allowed to enter the water with the sharks.
- If you’re intending to go swimming take a towel with you to use after the encounter.
- The toilets/showers at the headquarters are very basic – no toilet paper, etc, so bring your own tissues just in case.
- Definitely invest in some sort of underwater camera – whether your own or hiring one at the site (550 pesos). Our guide on the boat took over 300 photos of and for us.
- Even if booking through the hotel expect to be asked to pay in cash for your tour. Make sure you take enough cash with you if you wish to do one of these encounters.
**Swim with whale sharks achievement UNLOCKED**
Another thing ticked off my bucket list I never thought I would get to do.
Would you swim with the sharks?