Swimming with whale sharks: Cebu, Philippines

The most magnificent creatures

What an incredible swim!

I caught the night bus from El Nido to Puerto Princesa which was far more pleasant than the day bus, even though the air-con felt like it was set to minus three. I was joined by Jaimie and a group of other backpackers I had previously bumped into which was good as it meant we were not alone when we were dropped off at 3:30am. We headed straight to Dunkin Donuts for free 247 wifi (what else!) and a strong coffee.

Iced coffee and bucko pie. Got to love Julie’s!

After spending a few hours enjoying 24 hour electricity, I suggested we try Itoys Coffee Haus for breakfast as I had read about it on another food and travel blog. Breakfast was good – I had a cheese and mushroom omelette with an extra helping of bread (good bread!) and butter – but the wifi didn’t work, so we all had to chat which was an effort in our tiresome daze! That afternoon we all took a trike to Puerto Princesa airport for a flight to Cebu. It turned out we were part of a larger group of backpackers catching the same flight to Cebu and we had all previously met one another at some point in the Philippines, which was strange considering how large the country is and how little backpackers there seem to be there. The journey with Cebu Pacific reminded me of the ones I sometimes take with budget airline Ryan Air in Europe except that on this journey, the crew members play a game where the first passenger to hold up a certain item like a black pen won a t-shirt. It was a little strange but I found it humorous even though it meant I got zero sleep.

In fight games with Cebu Pacific Airlines

Our group departed once we landed in Cebu and I was joined by Chelsie, Deet and Amy who like me, were in no rush to make the onwards journey to one of the nearby island like Malapascua. We checked into modern and very accommodating Tr3ats guesthouse which was good value even though the beds were a little short, especially for a guy like Deet. Cebu is a little like Manila but on a smaller scale and because of this, my initial impression wasn’t great. By this point I was absolutely knackered so I went to bed at 9pm after grabbing some traditional Filippino BBQ’d meat sticks and rice from the Siri Siri (eatery) across the street.

Delicious BBQ chicken and rice – Filipino style!

Chelsie, Amy, Deet and I woke up at a grim three am the following morning to catch a local bus four hours north of Cebu to the small seaside town of Oslob. There’s only really one reason to visit Oslob and that is the chance to swim with whale sharks. Oslob is the only place in the Philippines where this is guaranteed as food is fed to the sharks to entice them closer . I was a little sceptical about the activity as I don’t agree with animals made to behave differently to how they would normally if left at peace in their natural environment, but I had little chance to swim with them elsewhere so I temporarily forgot my morals for a chance to learn more about these fantastic creatures.

Bus on fire!

I slept for most of the bus journey despite it being just as bumpy as any other and like all Filipino buses, playing ridiculously loud party tunes. I mean, seriously, who truly appreciates 5,6,7,8 and Barbie Girl at five in the morning? All of a sudden the bus stopped and everyone flew out. Why I thought? Was this Spice Girls song really that bad? Awoken from our sleep we slowly rolled off the bus to see what all the fuss was about. We soon realised the bus was actually on fire! After a few buckets of water on the engine the driver started piling everyone back on only to be met by a stampede of families running back off the bus as it relit. I didn’t fancy our chances so we caught a trike the rest of the way to Oslob, which luckily wasn’t too far away.

The rules of swimming with sharks

All the hotel resorts in Oslob offer whale shark swimming but save yourself some dosh and go directly to the registration desk instead of paying 50 pesos or so for a ride up the road and the use of a shower (there is one to use for free at the registration desk). It should cost you no more than 1000 pesos unless you are Filipino and get it half price.

Ready for my encounter

In true touristy fashion (although we were the only western idiots to be there at that time in the morning) we were required to have a short run through of the rules; no touching the sharks, no going within a few meters of the sharks etc. OK got it, I could happily stay away from a shark not to risk paying the hefty fine. We were ushered onto a small fishing boat which travelled just half a mile out from shore. I put on my snorkel gear and jumped right in not having a clue where the whale sharks were or what one even looked like. It was then I felt something brush past my leg. Surely not?

Face to face with a whale shark

I quickly ducked under water and realised I was face to face with not one but two giant whale sharks. Wow! All I could think about was that I was going to get fined for being so close but it was impossible not to. Realistically, how quickly can you swim away from a gigantic creature spanning over ten metres in length? The half an hour in the water I was allocated was spent capturing that all important ‘Kodak movement’ and admiring the beauty of these fascinating creatures. I felt lucky to be able to study them so close and also to know that although the encounter wasn’t in my eyes morally right, it allowed the sharks to be tracked for future research and conservation plus the money I paid went towards the community, many who are struggling to make ends meet – see how I am justifying my moral dilemma here?

Up close and personal with a whale shark

We were absolutely shattered by the time we arrived back in Cebu and felt a little sick after spending the morning swallowing the fish guts that were fed to the sharks. All I wanted to do was to go to bed but there was a fiesta happening a little way along from the hostel and there was no way I would sleep with all the loud music from the bingo and Mr Gay contest, so I gave in to peer pressure and joined Amy and Deet in town at Viva bar for a couple of cold pints of beers. The fiesta happened to be a nightly occurrence during my entire stay. So much for a quiet couple of days in Cebu!

Pints of San Migual at a Viva a Bar in Cebu

I made up for it the next morning with a well needed lie-in and spent the day lounging around at Tr3ats hostel catching up with some “life admin”. Chelsie and I spent the evening in Robinsons Mall picking up hard-to-find home comforts like cheese sandwiches and dairy milk chocolate. That night played host to another noisy fiesta outside the hostel but lucky enough I got to sleep soon after one. It was time to leave Cebu having seen none of it, but taking it easy meant I felt relaxed and ready to head into the unknown to disaster-struck Tacloban to help volunteer after super typhoon Yolanda.

Living life, loving travel,

H x


2 thoughts on “Swimming with whale sharks: Cebu, Philippines

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *