The sun is rising over the small town of Tanawan in Oslob, Cebu. It lights up the handful of homes and shops on the single road and the small and rocky beach. There isn’t much around. All is still and calm – the usual order of things here.
Suddenly, the clock chimes six, and people begin to emerge. Tricycles fill the streets, fishermen take to the shores and tourists spill from coaches onto the tiny beach. It’s the start of six hours of daily chaos in an otherwise eerily quiet town, and it’s all because of one thing: whale sharks.
The seaside town of Tanawan is home to the unique tourist experience of swimming with whale sharks. The magnificent creatures, 10 metres (32ft) in length (on average) with distinctive markings and gigantic mouths to slurp up food, are totally harmless to people. They’re the gentle giants of the sea. And here, for around £16, you can float and snorkel amongst them.
It’s the definition of bucket-list fodder, the kind of experience so many dream of. But with wildlife tourism comes questions of conservation and sustainability. The whale sharks visit Tanawan daily because the local government approved the feeding of them from the bay in 2012. Fishermen throw out small amounts of krill each morning, and the whale sharks gather, ready for the influx of tourists.
Inevitably, this could affect the natural behaviour of the creatures and disrupt their normal feeding patterns. Some environmentalists have lobbied against Oslob, calling the practice damaging to both whale sharks and the environment. For a creature of globally declining population, listed as endangered since 2016, this is problematic. But things are beginning to change in this quiet town, and it’s all thanks to the thriving local community who have sustainability and conservation in mind.
One of the biggest evident differences seen since whale shark watching began in Oslob is in the workers changing their former practices, made possible through tourism providing an alternative income. Whale sharks are an endangered species and, for a long time, they were fished, hunted or cruelly finned alive in some places across the globe, even after laws were set to protect them. The fishermen in Oslob weren’t involved in such practices, but destructive fishing and overfishing were an issue here. Now, with former fishermen making money from selling tickets, goods and food to tourists (almost every shop front in Tanawan boasts a smiling, cartoon whale shark luring visitors in), they have taken it upon themselves to protect the whale sharks from threats. As profits have increased, so have conservation efforts.
Destructive fishing – which historically even involved dynamite and cyanide – and overfishing in the area are down, so there’s less threat to endangered species and coral reefs. In fact, research found an increase in fish stocks and species of fish in Tanawan, since the coral reefs which the whale sharks depend upon are being protected, too. With money coming from tourists, locals no longer need to sell fish in such volume to eat and sell, and nearby fishers can earn by supplying shrimp used to feed the whale sharks.
Meanwhile, Oslob uses part of the profits from ticket sales to pay for daily sea patrols by volunteer wardens, called Bantay Dagat, to ensure friendly practices. Local fishermen formed the Tanawan and Oslob Sea Wardens and Fishermen’s Association to help with conservation, and Oslob now finances the management of five marine reserves for biodiversity.
Communally, Oslob has truly begun to thrive with the increase of tourism. In a developing country, in a small town 10km (6mi) from a central city, this is important. Former fishermen have spoken about how, previously, they struggled to feed their families. Their children didn’t go to school, their houses were not built to withstand the common threat of typhoons. Now as tourism businessmen, they have gone from earning around £1.10 per day to around £50 per day.
Tanawan children get an education, some local houses are made of concrete and the parents can put food on the plates of their children.
The government of Oslob claims revenue goes back into the community to improve infrastructure and, importantly, reduce poverty levels.
Crucially, to make up for the influx of tourists, locals and officials have implemented tighter regulations on whale shark watching. Sticking to these rules helps the aim of protecting the animals from harm, and all tourists must remember that behaviour impacts wildlife here and elsewhere across the world.
Rules include no touching of the creatures, no feeding from unauthorised personnel, no motorboats, no flash photography and no sunscreen to be worn in the water. Visitors have reported seeing tourists removed from tours for breaking these rules, although some researchers found most break them accidentally.
Oslob isn’t the only place to see whale sharks. Sites across the Philippines such as Donsol offer the experience in a place where the creatures naturally migrate, so there isn’t the worry of affecting behaviour.
Projects looking into whale shark tourism in Oslob continue, with environmental organisations like LAMAVE (Large Marine Vertebrates Research Institute) regularly conducting field research and monitoring individual sharks.
Of course, there are concerns about sustainability, and we as tourists have a responsibility to protect the environment we’re lucky enough to enjoy.
For now, it seems conservation efforts are growing in the little town, as the very people who initially affected the environment of these endangered creatures are now working together to try to protect them more. While the seas may benefit, so do the town and the tourists who get to witness one of nature’s most beautiful marvels.