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Oslob and whale-sharks

May 20, 2013

There has been much controversy about the whale shark watching at
Oslob recently. I was in Moalboal primarily for a diving holiday and
decided to visit to get a first hand experience. I reached Oslob after
a two hour drive and was a bit surprised at how amateur the operation
looked. Essentially it was a few fishermen with bangkas (outrigger
boats) and a few folks to manage the crowd. The fisherman throw food
(krill or other crustaceans) into the sea to feed the whale sharks who
surface to gobble it down between 6am- everyday. The briefing
mentioned marine biologists and water police who would monitor the
proceedings but it was difficult to spot anyone who kept either
tourists or whale sharks from coming to genuine harm.

The experience gave me rather mixed feelings. On one hand, it was
eerie and exhilarating to be close to such a magnificent animal while
on the other it was strange to see them reduced to essentially puppies
following a food trail. I don’t know why I particularly feel this way
– dolphins and other animals perform at various shows and this
domestication rarely elicits such a reaction. Perhaps it’s the fact
that whale sharks are considered ‘wilder’ than dolphins et all but
this seems far from a water-tight explanation.

The debate online has raged about the pros and cons of this behaviour;
I am not naive enough to think that this can just be stopped since
there is a huge economic incentive for the local community. However
would it be possible to limit the damage – real or otherwise? For
example, if these gentle giants migrate to Oslob for a few months in a
year anyway then could the feeding be stopped and visits arranged for
tourists only during this period? Assuming this happened then the fees
to see them could be jacked up considerably for the community to stay
revenue neutral – 1000pesos could easily be raised 3-4 times for
foreigners considering this is very much a unique experience? What if
the Philippines government invested in setting up a conservation
centre and actually looked to get the local community involved with
raising awareness combining forces with Donsol perhaps? While there
would be a significant startup cost, I am hoping that this would
change the landscape of interaction for future generations and
actually generate research grants and so on. I simply refuse to buy
the argument that there are only two options – status quo or the local
community returns to fishing.

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