Swimming with Whale Sharks in The Philippines

I know people say that the ‘shark’ title is misleading and that these creatures are harmless and gentle, but there is still the not so small matter of their size. At around 15ft I have never encountered an animal so large, so close, let alone an animal which in any way resembled a shark. I was sat in the small wooden boat, contemplating the extent to which the lack of an engine would hinder our escape when a huge shadow appeared just under the surface of the water. Stretching the entire length of the boat and beyond, the creature hovered in pursuit of the fish being thrown overboard for it. Before long it was joined by another and another. All circling the area around which the guides were feeding them.

We had had one recommendation for a hostel on the southern side of Cebu, which as it turned out was one of the scarce few hostels outside of the capital city. After a three hour bus journey from Cebu City we made it to Bolijoon. As soon as we arrived at Nordzee hostel we were handed an a4 sheet of paper full with a list of activities  for our time in Cebu. Although some of them, including ‘play with the goats’ weren’t my top priority, it proved what I had already heard; that Cebu was packed full of things to do. The list included an array of waterfalls nearby as well as canyoning, windsurfing and of course the main lure of the south; Whale Shark snorkelling.

I had spoken to many people about seeing the whale sharks and the general consensus seemed to be that we should aim to get there as soon as it opened at 6am to avoid the crowds. So at 5:30am the next morning we hopped onto our hired scooters and drove the 25km to the whale shark centre. Despite the early start there was still a number of people milling around and already a few boats in the water. We joined the queue for the registration detailing the specific activities and asking for our nationalities. We were then directed to a selection of plastic chairs in front of what resembled a whiteboard on which was a diagram of the animals we were hoping to see. It was here that we were briefed on the protocols of swimming with the sharks; swim 4m away from them, do not use flash photography underwater, and do not apply any sunscreen or chemicals which could affect them. We were then handed life jackets, stashed our clothes and bags in an outdoor locker and were ushered off to a nearby boat.

After my initial shock of seeing the huge shadowy bodies and ominously protruding fins our boat came to halt nearby the other gently bobbing boats. As it turned out only three of us were getting off, the rest choosing to remain and observe the creatures from afar. Certainly even the sight of these huge shapes moving sedately through the water was spectacular, but as we donned our masks and snorkels and lowered ourselves gently over the side of the boat, it was a whole other world. The water was murky at this time of morning so initially I gazed into the depths, seeing nothing but the haze of dusty particles lit by an early morning sun. Until through this comes a huge gaping mouth. The sharks seem terrifying but, perhaps so used to human voyeurism, do not even pause on their mission for plankton. Instead  they swim right on past, so that you can appreciate the scale of these majestic animals as their gorgeous blue and white speckled visage just goes on and on past you. I had been nervous before this encounter but there was no need, these animals are not only completely harmless but graceful and peaceful. It is a thing of wonder to simply float in the water and observe their tranquil progress as they search for food.




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