The water is still, and the settled weather a contrast to the stormy days experienced earlier in the week. September is not heralded as a time to island-hop, due to the frequency of typhoons. I glimpse my first whale shark and hold him in my sights for a silent, slow thirty minutes. Immersing myself in the water, with snorkel and mask, I am mindful to keep my distance. I am transfixed. I linger on its exquisite markings. I feel water rushing into its mouth as it feeds, just inches away from my face. My time was over far too soon. A love affair had started under the waters of Oslob that morning. One that I was unashamed of and able to tell my husband about.

As long as 50 years ago in the waters of the sleepy village of Oslob in the Philippines, dugout canoes would take to the sea to fish for Uyap. These small shrimp would only come to the surface at night, and soon they became the livelihood of the village. They also became a staple of the diet of the magnificent whale sharks that fed in the area.

The pattern of night-time visits continued. The whale sharks kept returning and in time befriended the local fishermen.

People began to talk. Just shy of three years ago word got out and the birth of Oslob’s whale shark tourism started – at this time without any legislation or control. News travelled between fisherman and passing dive boats. For a small backhander, you’d be promised an underwater meeting with these magnificent juvenile fish, averaging seven metres in length, in shallow waters off the beach.

Pictures soon reached the internet. In 2011, there was an open controversy between the tourism industry, fisherman and marine biologists.

With international focus suddenly thrown on the sleepy fishing village, a number of research teams arrived from as far afield as Italy. In 2012 legislation was put in place to protect these creatures and avoid exploitation.

The whale sharks still come. The fisherman bait with fresh shrimp caught the night before. Sometimes, up to 20 arrive at a time in the shallows during the morning. The money paid by tourists is later pooled each day and shared amongst the villagers involved. The interactions are now very controlled. Sea Wardens are in the water during the mornings to ensure controls are enforced. Restricted to 30 minutes in the water, and respecting the 4-metre distance rule goes some way to managing the experience. Thus, tourism can really become a positive force helping the fishing community to foster more responsible interaction practises.

Thanks for reading

Clare Burkey

Author: Clare Burkey