Whale Shark Experiences in Baja and the Philippines

by Nov 30, 20180 comments

Photograph ©2018 Franz Fischer

… you are so excited that you just see big picture stuff …

Two very different whale shark experiences — Baja and Philippines

Both were amazing!

Whale sharks have been on my list of things to see for a long time. They are not whales, but are sharks, and the largest fish in the world. Juvenile whale sharks are about  15 feet long, while adults can reach 40 feet (most average about 33 feet in length). I knew that they ate plankton, but was surprised to discover that they also eat shrimp, squid and tuna.

La Paz and our first whale shark encounter!

The first encounter was in La Paz as part of a trip to Baja, Mexico with Scripps Birch Aquarium. There are no guarantees you will see one, but whale sharks have become regular winter visitors near La Paz.

Mexico strictly controls access to the whale sharks. They limit the number of boats allowed in the area where the sharks feed. They also monitor and limit the number of people in the water from each boat.

We gathered at the marina early to get our time slot. Then we rode out to a location outside of the viewing area and waited on the boat for our turn to enter the area. We dove off the boat and swam while we waited.

Once we got the go-ahead we rode over to where the whale sharks were feeding. There were several sharks in the water. These gentle giants were busy eating krill and didn’t even seem to care that we were there. We entered the water five people at a time with the guide, and rotated through our group a few times.

Our group visiting with a whale shark in La Paz
Photograph ©2018 Harry Helling

I was thrilled that we got to get in the water a few times because the first time feels way too fast — you are so excited that you just see big picture stuff — they are big, really BIG! These are juveniles and are just 15 feet long. They seem huge and are moving fairly fast in the water as they feed. On the second pass you notice the details, the gills, light spots, and it doesn’t look like they have teeth! The whale sharks float with their tails down and their mouths near the surface, and just suck the food in — it really looks like a large toilet bowl flushing!

Photograph ©2018 Karin H Wilson

Oslob has a really different whale shark encounter!

The second whale shark encounter was in Oslob, Philippines. Again, no guarantees, but since they feed the sharks there we were told that we would see them that day.

It was a little more involved to see the whale sharks in Oslob. We were diving in Dumaguete so we took a van from the resort to the Tampi-Bato ferry. We rode up top where there was a view and watched them load our van and other cars and trucks onto the ferry. Then we enjoyed a fairly smooth ride over to the next island, got back in the van and drove to Oslob for the whale watching.

We had been at a remote diving resort, so coming into the Oslob Whale Shark Watching Center was a shock. It was packed with people! There was a process but it was unclear to us exactly what that process was (so glad that we had a guide taking care of tickets and knowing where to wait).

Photograph ©2018 Karin H Wilson

Photography Tip

Protect your camera from splashes with the shower cap from your hotel. These cheap plastic covers can be stuffed in a pocket or bag and take up almost no space. The elastic in the cap helps to keep it snug around your hand and camera.

In Oslob the sharks feed in close to shore so you wait on land for them to show up. The sharks in Oslob are fed to encourage their participation. Turns out there was only one whale shark in the water when we arrived, and ticket sales had stopped because of the long line waiting to get on the water. From the shore we couldn’t really see too much. After waiting for a couple hours we were beginning to despair over our chances of seeing a whale shark (we did not have tickets yet) and wondering if we should just go back to the resort when it was suddenly time to get on a canoe.

The guides in Oslob use outrigger canoes and paddle you out to the whale sharks. Then everyone gets in the water at once. You hang onto the outrigger to stay near the boat. There’s a guy on a smaller canoe feeding the whale shark shrimp — which he throws right near us so that the whale shark comes in really close — it was awesome!  Using this method the shark is guided back and forth in front of a lineup of large wooden canoes.

Photographs ©2018 Franz Fischer

Wanting to go back to the resort was suddenly a distant memory. We got to see four different whale sharks that day. And they were HUGE! These were adults about 30 feet long. Just as amazing to see as the first time. The first pass you just register how large this fish is. The second pass you see the gills ripple in the water; his tail runs under our feet as he turns, and the dot pattern on his back sparkles in the sunlight!

Photograph ©2018 Karin H Wilson

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Both whale shark experiences had great outcomes

Two very different experiences with the same joyous outcome — a close encounter with an amazing creature from the sea. I’m not crazy about feeding wildlife to create an encounter with humans. The people at Oslob feel good about it because the whale sharks can come and go as they please — and as we saw that day they don’t always show up.

The whale sharks are protected in both places and there are high fines and penalties for touching or hurting the animals. In Oslob they say “If you touch the whale shark you will get an extended vacation in the Philippines — six months in our jail.” The vendors in both locations seem highly motivated to keep these gentle giants safe so that they can keep bringing tourists out to swim with whale sharks.

Get the scoop to create your own adventure!

I highly recommend getting out there and getting to know your natural world. It is beautiful, amazing and rarely disappoints when you take some time to get acquainted!

Below are links to more information and some of the organizations that were part of the trip: Whale sharks are endangered — you can learn more about them, and conservation efforts to save them, on the World Wildlife Fund page. This trip was through Birch Aquarium. They occasionally have trips that are open to the public. In La Paz we used Fun Baja to visit the whale sharks. In the Philippines we stayed at the Atlantis Dumaguete for some great diving. The resort organized the trip to the Oslob Whale Sharks encounter. Enjoy the journey! Karin

Karin H Wilson

Karin H Wilson

Artist | Designer | Photographer | Traveler | Storyteller

I am Karin and I just love to share a good story — preferably with snacks! I’m particularly interested in capturing the world’s beauty and wonder in photographs.

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