Cebu in The Philippines, is likely one of the best places in the world to spot whale sharks! I have been to various places in the world all claiming to be whale shark hot spots. Some eco-friendly, like Donsol in The Philippines, with unclear water, to many boats. In Djibouti and Zanzibar, where your chances highly depend on the season. Long story short; no luck in any of the other places!… Cebu, due to some ‘clever’ fishermen provide a 99% chance of spotting!… Let’s (literally) dive into Cebu’s azure blue waters…
Before planning to travel to the Philippines, do read my post of why I am not a big fan of the Philippines, where I explain why your holiday money is likely better spent elsewhere (in South East Asia). However, there are some highlights that are unique to The Philippines, and this whale shark experience is definitely one of them!…
Travelling to Cebu
As I explain in my ‘less favourable’ Philippines post, we needed some convincing to ever go back. However, good friends of us in Singapore were planning to go to Cebu, and we still wanted to see those whale sharks once. Hence, we decided to take learning from our previous experience and flew directly to Cebu (omitting Manilla Airport and domestic flights). This worked much better, and we could directly start enjoying our holiday upon arrival! This instead of dealing with all kinds of logistics and delays, like our previous trip.
Top Tip: Avoid Manilla City and Manilla airport where possible. Instead, fly directly to your destination (or island) of choice. This way you avoid most of the possible logistic nightmares and you can focus on having a nice tropical beach holiday!
When travelling to Cebu, or The Philippines in general, avoid the big cities like Cebu City. These are very congested and not as picturesque as some other South East Asian are. Hence, we stayed in Moalboal on the South West side of Cebu Island, with clear and unpolluted water to enjoy some snorkelling, diving or other water activities.
Top Tip: likely obvious, but book a beach side accommodation! We could just walk right into the sea with our snorkelling gear and organize our own snorkelling tours.
As with most things in The Philippines, do not expect the best value for money for your accommodation, like in Thailand, Bali, or Vietnam where you can stay in great hotels for pennies. In the Philippines you pay relatively quite a bit for a basic hotel. Also, you should subtract at least 1 star from the star rating you will see online.
Coming eye to eye with Whale shark
Apart from enjoying a nice tropical beach holiday, we were on Cebu with a mission: come eye to eye with the largest fish in the world, the whale shark!… These fish can easily get over 18 meters long, but no reason to panic, although part of the shark family, they only eat small fish via their filter-feed mouth… So no sharp teeth to be aware of!…
As mentioned the whale sharks usually move in seasonal patterns and often dive into deep waters as well. This makes it quite hard to spot or swim with them for extended periods of time. However in Oslob, in South East Cebu, some local fishermen have slowly fed these fish over the years. This meant the Whale sharks stayed longer and longer in the clear shallow water of a bay.
Obviously over time this turned into a lucrative tourist attraction. With sighting probability of 99% (year round if not mistaken) and the clear water of the bay it is very easy to come up close to these magnificent sea creatures!…
Book your whale shark tour in advance
Unsure if you are really required to book (far) in advance, but given its popularity and conservation efforts timings and slots to see the whale sharks are limited. Still, there is quite a large number of tourists showing up at the beach every morning to come up close to the whale sharks. If not booked prior to arrival, do check upon check-in with your hotel or with a local tour operator what the first possible timing would be.
Top Tip: Do some online checking on tour operators and pick the cheapest! There is not much difference, everyone is just being picked up from the hotel and driven to small bay in Oslob. Here you get your snorkelling or diving gear and everyone get mixed together and ‘handed over’ to the local fishermen & guides.
Diving or Snorkelling with Whale sharks?
The experience is different, so make up your mind!…
In case you dive with whale sharks you walk into the water from the beach and you will ultimately see the whale sharks from below (and at a distance). Our friends did this, and had a different experience and different vantage point.
When snorkelling with whale sharks you go onto the water with small boats. The boats form a line from which the whale sharks are being fed. In essence forming a line of boats and a line of whale sharks swimming next to them… You plunge into the water next to the boat and very close to the ‘grazing’ whale sharks…
In my opinion, I would opt for snorkelling which dramatically increases your chances of being really up close to the whale sharks. In addition, it is likely also cheaper, given the gear rental (unable to really recall, as we booked a combined 4 person group tour).
The whale shark experience
I didn’t track the time exactly, but the whole experience of being actual in the water is likely not more than 30 minutes. Although short, it definitely is a nice experience and depending on your swimming skills you may be start to be slightly tired, as you constantly have to adjust yourself between the boat, the massive whale sharks and fellow swimmers. It is not your typical relaxing snorkelling tour with limited movement, but still great to be so up close!…
Enjoying Cebu and surroundings
Cebu has more on offer than only whale sharks and water activities! It has its fair share of nature to enjoy like volcanos, waterfalls. We did not explore too much from the rest of the island. Instead, we enjoyed massages and had nice sunset dinners (although, to manage expectations, food options in The Philippines are often limited and of poorer quality).
Top Tip: Originally we were thinking of combining Cebu with Bohol Island (e.g. as a day tour), famous for its chocolate mountains. In the end we decided not to do it, due to limited time and quite some time would be wasted on travelling back and forth (between the west side Cebu). If more time, or as part of a larger Philippines itinerary do look into it!…
So, that scratches swimming with whale sharks off the bucket list! I definitely recommend this Ghost around the Globe adventure to you all!… Interested in other wildlife and animal experiences? What about my Komodo Dragon encounter in Indonesia, Husky sledging in Lapland, Piranha fishing in Brazil or Gorilla encounter in Uganda?