They are gigantic and enormously massive! They could weigh hundreds of kilos, grow three times the size of an elephant, yet they feed themselves on some of the tiniest creatures in the sea: plankton, krill and small fishes. The way they behave is the exact opposite of their monstrosity, very imposing yet also very gentle. And when they open their huge mouths to gulp gallons and gallons of water where their prey swims, it is a bit frightening to see for the first time, but there is an assurance that they won’t really swallow you whole. Their physiological makeup doesn’t allow them to do that so there’s no worry diving into the water with them. Whale sharks (locally known as butanding in Tagalog, tuki in Cebuano and balyena in Hiligaynon and also in Tagalog) have made the Philippine waters one of their usual feeding grounds, thanks to its warm temperatures where their foods thrive.
Seeing them and swimming with these giants is absolutely a one of a kind and rare experience obviously because they are not everywhere. Unfortunately, their numbers are threatened. There are currently only two known areas in the country where they are spotted regularly. The popularity of whale watching began in Donsol, Sorsogon but, hey, there’s one in Cebu too!
The adventure began at 3AM. It is a must to start this early to catch a good boat ride, serene water and a good number of butanding as they feed early in the morning, and of course to be ahead of the long lines. I took a bus ride to Oslob, 3 hours away south of Cebu City. The ride can be bumpy along the dwindling highway to the southern tip of the island, but then I was able to dose off due to lack of sleep while enjoying Cebu City’s night life.
Around 6AM, signages offering boat rides for whale watching started to show along the highway. But I wanted to go “legal” so to speak. Tell the conductor beforehand to drop you off at the whale watching station so you would be able to reach the right place. I reached my destination just in time with a good enough weather to enjoy this escapade.
To begin, there would be a short orientation about the do’s and don’ts for whale watching. It was encouraged to keep a certain distance, bright colored swimming attire is not allowed, etc. I paid the registration fee (Php500.00) and, voila, off to the sea!
A small boat took me to the water around 300 meters away from the shore. I plunged into the water and there were three butanding right away! Two were of an average size (though they are still really big) and the third one being the largest among them. About 21 butanding were feeding in the area at that time as mentioned to me by the boatman.
With my self-taught swimming prowess, I did not wear a life vest so I could easily control my motion in the water, keeping appropriate distance from these creatures. I always felt that I could easily bump into them anytime. I ended up holding onto the outrigger and watching the spectacle from a distance. From time to time, I dove to see them underwater. And I saw some scuba divers underneath too. Unfortunately, I did not have an underwater camera with me. There were waterproof casings for rent but not one fitted mine.
Whale watching lasted for 30-45 minutes but the memories and the experience itself will last a lifetime. Before lunch time, the butanding will swim back to the deeper part of the sea and come again early morning the following day. The boats will come back to the dock one by one. This signals the end of the butanding encounter for the day. From ashore, you will see the waves spray once in a while as a mighty fin breaks the surface and slowly makes its way back into the great azure.