Whale sharks are something that we all want to see. They are majestic gentle giants. There are some things that you just have to see at least once in your life and whale sharks are one of them.
At the end of 2011 we were more than excited to have the chance to interact with these impressive fish. Word was spreading that in the southern Cebu town of Oslob that there were several whale sharks in residence. For a few months we had been seeing the odd whale shark around the coasts of Dauin, but nothing predictable. Here was an opportunity to schedule dive trips to see them. Of course we organized a trip as soon as possible.
It was amazing. There were several whale sharks and only our divers. From the start we would not allow our divers to actually use scuba with the whale sharks, preferring to snorkel instead. For over an hour our customers swam around and snapped some fantastic pictures. They were the only people there besides a couple of the local fishermen who were acting as guides. Everyone was happy, everyone was satisfied and everyone was raving about the experience. Naturally we continued to send trip to snorkel with the whale sharks and then do a couple of dives at nearby Sumilon Island. Of course as the word spread the site saw more and more visitors, and the fees to participate also went up. Several shops were now dropping big groups of divers under the whale sharks while lifejacket festooned bodies littered the water above them. Scheduling was nonexistent and the sheer number of people at any given time was staggering. Local government started to get involved and rules and regulations were implemented. Problem was the government didn't have any more clue than the locals how to handle this sudden boom in tourism. Policies changed weekly and it became impossible to keep informed of what was happening. The place became a mess. I'm sure most of you have seen the infamous picture of a person "surfing" on a whale shark.
Our divers were coming back from the trip disillusioned and disheartened. Many expressed that they wished they had not participated at all. The phrase that was thrown around the most to describe the situation was "the place is a zoo".
Still we continued to send customers there, now with the warning that "it's a zoo". We found we were expending a lot of time and effort managing people’s expectations. Continually we had dinner conversations revolving around the positive and negative aspects of Oslob. As we were organizing trips we were defending the locals and the value of the educational opportunities. To be honest it was draining our energies and we would joke that we just wished the whale sharks would move along.
Eventually the negative comments were just too consistent and as the situation deteriorated we couldn't bring ourselves to defend the things being done there. We still believe that the whale sharks in Oslob had the potential to be both a boom to tourism and a fantastic opportunity to educate locals and tourists. Unfortunately that opportunity was slipping away.
It was a difficult decision, but we would no longer be running trips to see the whale sharks of Oslob. As an environmentally conscious dive resort it was becoming impossible to see the benefits outside of the short term monetary ones. We were prepared to see our booking drop as we became the only shop in the region not going to Oslob. People wrote to us asking about going to see the whale sharks and we told them we couldn't take them. The majority of people expressed disappointment but it didn't slow the bookings to any major extent. We have many fantastic things to see along the Dauin coast and Apo, Siquijor and Sumilon Islands are all amazing. People respected our decision and recognized the point we were trying to make. Within weeks the rest of the dive centers in Dumaguete/Dauin also stopped going to Oslob. A whole region was making a stand.
Six months later and all of the shops in our region are still not venturing to Oslob. We are keeping an eye on it though. Maybe in the future we will have a positive update. What we did learn though is that our customers support our environmental decisions. It makes those hard decisions easier to make knowing that you have our back.