Notoriously known to the more conscious, informed traveler but not quite to the casual adventure-seeker, the daily sightings of Whale Sharks off the town of Oslob in Cebu is the result of ignorance, bad environmental practice, short-sightedness and greed.

Tourists swimming in Oslob. (photo not mine)

All too familiar in developing nations, malpractice, backward thinking and destructive behavior goes widely unnoticed and is sometimes even promoted by the government offices, if in line with their interests, i.e., money and influence. Politics here is usually won by fame, name, good looks (except, apparently, for the last Presidential elections we had), bold promises, an irrational fear and a strong stance against illegal drugs and perhaps the facade of being a good Christian.

In 2011, it had been made public by mainstream media that fishermen could bring out tourists a few dozen meters off the coast of Tan-awan, Oslob to swim with whale sharks – known as the gentle giants of the sea.

They are the biggest fish currently known to man that originated 60 million years ago.

Fishermen, who for a month or so a year would have some difficulty fishing when the giants were in local waters, discovered they could lure the sharks away from their fishing nets with dead shrimp, stumbled upon what was to become the once sleepy town´s rise to fame and fortune.

Unfortunately, in this case, supporting these local fishermen is detrimental to the environment at large, and I give you some points to shed light on the issue:

1. Whale Shark health and growth are negatively affected due to an unhealthy diet.

The fishermen in Oslob mostly feed the whale sharks with shrimp while their natural diet includes dozens of plankton which provides them with a balanced diet when filter-feeding.

Imagine eating only shrimp for a week; you are bound to feel weak and develop immunity and growth problems

Whale shark feeding in Oslob (photo not mine)

This is exponentially more problematic when the unbalanced diet is sustained for over a year, as seen in the behavior of some whale sharks who are tempted to prolong their usually short visits to Oslob.

2. The whale shark population will be at risk; their extinction is imminent with the current situation.

Whale sharks usually follow the algal and plankton blooms across the oceans as they occur, and then move on when they’ve exhausted the local supply. This behavior is overrun by the feeding that is done off the coast of Oslob.

Instead of migrating to other seas, the sharks stay in Oslob because the food never runs out.

Shown in blue are the warmer waters of the oceans where Whale Sharks travel through. (map not mine)

It isn’t hard to imagine how this can negatively affect the propagation of the species as some sharks are exposed to less members of their kind, while the static diet might develop complications in their reproductive systems as well.

3. Their valuable role in the world ecosystem is affected the less time they spend migrating.

As migration patterns are disturbed, not only are the sharks themselves negatively affected, but so is the ecosystem as a whole. Contrary to popular belief, creatures – even humans – are not separate from their surrounding ecosystem and should never be considered as such. When we alter in even the slightest, certain behaviors and habits of any species, the change will always have a corresponding effect on the macro-scale.

Unknown to most, jellyfish are threatening to take over the oceans due to a number of reasons.

Jellyfish populations on the rise! (photo not mine)

Some of these include the extinction of their natural predators and an increase in algae and zooplankton, which the jellyfish eat, due to agricultural fertilizers and other chemical and biological pollutants washing out into the oceans.

Whale sharks are known to eat microscopic zooplankton and algae, including jellyfish that are visible to the naked eye. Though not clear as to how many whale sharks there currently are in the world, they may be one of our last hopes in curtailing the looming likelihood that our future generations will need to wear a bio-suit to enjoy a day at the beach.

 

4. The Whale Shark’s “domestication” in Oslob makes them more trusting of boats, including poaching vessels.

 

Chinese fisherman bringing his catch to the market. (photo not mine)

Sharks are estimated to live close to 100 years; that is plenty of time to get caught by poachers. The more comfortable they get with human contact and boats, the more they will approach (out of the believe that they will be fed) poachers.

Whale shark fins. (photo not mine)

A single pectoral fin from a Whale Shark can fetch a price of $20,000 USD. While the shark fin trade is mostly driven by demand to make shark’s fin soup, other parts of the shark are less desireable. The actual meat of sharks has very low commercial value, because of its high urea content. This results in very cruel treatment, even for human standards.

Sharks are usually finned alive and thrown back into the ocean to slowly suffocate and be eaten alive by scavengers.

It would cost poachers more resources to transport whole whales to land-based facilities for processing, so they have decided to process sharks right where they are caught, for increased profit and convenience.

 

5. Seeing whale sharks in Oslob is like seeing a lion in a cage. Where’s the fun in that?

The truly adventurous cherish surprises while snorkeling or diving. Imagine the thrill of seeing a whale shark completely unexpectedly in some other part of the world.

If you’ve come all this way to see them in Oslob, you might as well have gone to one of the many aquariums in the world that captured and locked up these fish in giant glass boxes – it might have cost you less, and you wouldn’t have had to get your feet wet.

Participating in the whale shark tourism in Oslob despite knowledge of its damaging effect on the environment is characteristic of our greedy and shortsighted nature to experience things regardless of the consequences.

This is a lesson for us all:

For every tourist activity and destination, research and inform yourself before spending your hard earned money on environmentally disastrous practices and organizations.

And it doesn’t stop there, tell all your friends about it too!

 

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