A Whale of a Time in Oslob!

Maria Eleanor E. Valeros (The Freeman) - September 7, 2014 - 12:00am

CEBU, Philippines - It was the day before a typhoon was announced to have entered the Philippine Area of Responsibility. Our small group was checking the touted improved system for whale shark watching and interaction in Oslob, at the southeastern tip of Cebu. Our interest was prompted by photos that earlier went viral in the social media – of fishermen feeding the “butanding” (Rhincodon typus) and that of a teenager making a surfboard of a whale shark’s broad back.

Personally, I was disgusted – enraged even – to see the photos. I swore never to patronize the “butanding” tourism come-on in the south, in order not to encourage the exploitation of the poor water creatures. It was to be my small way of making the town leadership and people come to their senses with regards to the “butanding.” 

Three years hence, and the upset has melted away, what with news that regulatory policies on whale shark watching and interaction have been imposed and observed by-the-book. The fact that we were advised to come between early morning and before noontime is proof of the improvements instituted.  A cutoff time has been imposed – 1 p.m., intended to allow the “butanding” to swim back to the deep waters, somewhere off the neighboring Sumilon Island.

The whale sharks are lured to shallower waters in a feeding frenzy on bits of fish and helpings of shrimps. Visitors aboard boats are taken away to a kilometer from the shore by fishermen-turned-tour guides. Ronald Frolio, my swimming buddy that day, is the one who basically educated me on how to have “a whale of a time” with the gentle giants. Ronald has since embraced underwater photography because of his love for life underwater.

True, I found the whale sharks to be the gentlest of creatures. But as we were briefed by the local tourism staff to stay off around four meters away, I had to be tugged several times back towards our boat through my flotation device. “But if it’s the ‘butanding’ who comes near you, don’t panic; it’s a harmless creature,” Ronald assured.

Swimming along with the whale sharks were other, smaller fish species, perhaps to take advantage of the scraps from big brother. While underwater, I spotted a sea snake. But so as not to alarm my companions, I just kept it to myself. Overall, the creatures I swam with were just wonderful. Only that we went there at the wrong time, as the sea soon turned rough because of the approaching typhoon.

The boatman had told us earlier that we would be allowed to remove our vest to brush off a little buoyancy, dive a bit deeper and catch a perfect angle for a souvenir shot of a lifetime with the most beautiful non-cetacean species said to be older than time. That, however, we failed to do as the frothy swells warned us to hold on to dear life.

Starting on the trip early in the morning helped, because we were already on the last seconds of our 30-minute interaction with the “butanding” when the siren wailed, signaling the end of the activity. Had we left Cebu City later, we would have to rent a cottage overnight or booked at a beachfront hostel, to be able catch the pod of “tuki” (Cebuano for butanding) the following day, and that would have cost some more pesos.

The rates are quite expensive for a traveler on a shoestring budget; the same rates go for both foreigners and locals. If you are to get on a boat, it costs P300. If you swim (comes with a snorkel mask), P500. An underwater camera may be rented at P550 for 30 minutes. Our group has around 300 photos saved in a CD, which can also be downloaded to a memory card.

But we found an affordable place in Barangay Tan-awan, the Aaron’s Beach Resort. Since we had to leave all our belongings behind for the “butanding” watching and interaction, we booked a locker there. For P100 each, we also had access to shower rooms, good toilet facilities, and of course the comfy nipa huts on the beachfront. Fair enough.

Their food was a different story. The chicken tinola, for example, priced at P140 good for three or four, tasted rather bland, and the frozen chicken pieces had not been thoroughly thawed. It tasted like rubber, pardon me. But that was offset by the staff’s friendly and accommodating demeanor; everyone was willing to answer questions, and did not tire of giving sound answers to more questions.

It was reassuring that the tourism crew had all undergone first-aid training and were prepared to assist in any emergency. But, in the first place, they were also trained to avert any such cases. I was particularly impressed to be told to wash off the sunscreen or sunblock lotion I had applied on earlier, for the reason that its chemical components may affect the wellness of marine creatures. To me, it was a good indication that expert advice is now being heeded in the area.

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