Why You Shouldn't Swim With Baited Whale Sharks in the Philippines

22/09/2014 11:53 | Updated 20 November 2014

There's only one thing I can tell you about the town of Oslob in the Philippines: don't go. There is a tendency amongst travel bloggers to over romanticise, but I wouldn't want to lie to you. I'm taking inspiration from Paul Theroux, whose The Great Railway Bazaar might just qualify him as grumpiest travel writer ever, and telling you the honest truth not to bother.

Oslob is situated on the south west coast of the island of Cebu. We approached it by boat from Panglao Island and it loomed magnificently on the horizon until it towered over us. A mountainous body expelled from the sea, it is the geological formation that makes Oslob the perfect site for 'whale shark watching' and this is what it is famous for. Fine white pebble beaches descend into crisp clear water in a dramatic incline that leaves you waist deep almost as soon as you enter the water. From there the steep drop allows for larger animals such as whale sharks to swim easily close to shore. Do not be deceived by the idealized image of an organic, spiritual experience watching for whale sharks in the large open sea and, once found, swimming with them. Perhaps you envision a meeting of souls occurring as you float eye to eye with one of these creatures known for their majesty. At Oslob, this will remain a fantasy.

Whilst the Oslob Whale Shark Watching centre attempts to construct a formal semblance of health & safety and care for the environment, you are more likely to be poked in the eye by another tourist's flipper or rather as another account reported, see a whale shark poked in the eye by a boat propeller. The Centre feeds the whale sharks a big helping of krill throughout each and every morning to keep them practically captive. Literal boatloads of tourists are then paddled back and forth just off shore where the boats form a semi circle, further entrapping the baited sharks for a jostling audience. Having the sharks become reliant on people for food is not particularly conducive to a healthy ecosystem, nor is the exploitative attitude and lack of understanding for ethical interactions with wildlife that it fosters. This is best demonstrated in the controversial photo of a young girl riding a whale shark like a surfboard in nearby Bolijoon, and only reinforced by the encouragement of one local we met that you could "touch them".

There are other limited things to do in Oslob: there are the Tumalog Falls that have a healthy 4.5 star review rating on Trip Advisor, as well as an old fort and church that make for a nice walk along the sea front. For budget travellers it is wonderfully cheap to stay in the town, as it is to ride the bus (142 pesos / less than £2) the three-hour journey from Cebu City. The town is small and pleasantly un-touristy; if you want somewhere to spend a few days observing Filipino life that isn't dominated by selling tours or surfing lessons then this is it, but please don't swim with the whale sharks.

Author Maria Sowter spent two years working for an international conservation organisation and this post was originally published on her travel blog Journey to Patagonia.