Swimming with the Sharks

A butanding up close (Photo courtesy of Aurora Almendral)

A hundred yards off the coast of Oslob, near the Southeastern tip of the island of Cebu, a circle of about a dozen bancas (dugout canoes) bob in the dark turquoise sea. It’s seven in the morning, and from one of the boats, a man throws handfuls of dried fish in the water. It is feeding time for the butanding, the largest fish species in the world.

These whale sharks are so breathtakingly huge–each at least a few dozen feet long–time slows down as they drift by towards the man with the food, opening their mouths wide and creating a swirling whirlpool to suck in the cloud of flaked fish. My sister and I are floating in the water with snorkeling gear and goggles. We’ve never been so close to an animal this big. 

As we jumped into the water, a whale shark swam close beneath us. (Photo courtesy of Aurora Almendral)

In the small town of Oslob, we rented a banca at the municipal beach. With two guides, we paddle to where the butanding are feeding. The ride costs 500 pesos each for Filipino citizens and 1,000 pesos each for foreigners. The price includes snorkeling gear and a life vest to wear while on the boat (you can take it off in the water; much better for swimming with the sharks). For another 500 pesos they’ll rent you a good underwater camera, and for an extra 50 pesos, they’ll burn the photos onto a CD for you.

The whale shark or butanding is the biggest fish in the sea, growing to as long as 40 feet or more. (Photo courtesy of Aurora Almendral)

Oslob looks like a tropical heaven. The white coral beach is hugged by hills covered with swaying coconut trees. The water is clean and sparkles in deep jewel tones. But that’s not why anyone is here. The guide takes you out for half an hour, and once you’ve slipped off the boat into the water with giant, spotted whale sharks everywhere you turn, the minutes just fly by. 

These whale sharks are so breathtakingly huge–each at least a few dozen feet long–time slows down as they drift by.

Every tourist in the water is there to see the butanding, but the fish could not care less about us. A short orientation instructed us not to get too close to the giant fish, but they did not get the same instructions about us. They barely seem to notice we are there. They swim past us nonchalantly, coming so close that Noel, our good-natured guide and undersea photographer, has to grab us by the wrist more than once to pluck us off a whale shark’s path. It is not uncommon to turn around and find that a butanding has snuck up behind you, its broad grin and sweet round eyes seemingly inches away. 

Noel says the whale sharks hang out near Oslob all year round (it’s a great rainy season activity). The best time of the day to go is early in the morning. Feeding is at 7 a.m., and they come hurrying. By noon, when the sun is high, the butanding drift off to deeper waters, and the guides clock out for the day. 

Swimming with the sharks in the waters of Oslob, in Cebu (Photo courtesy of Aurora Almendral)

Getting There

To get to Oslob, you can fly to Cebu City and take a Ceres Liner bus or drive for three to four hours to Oslob. Alternatively, you can fly to Dumaguete in Negros Oriental. From Dumaguete take a tricycle or bus to the Sibulan ferry terminal about 20 minutes north of the city. Take the half-hour ferry ride to Lilo-An on the southernmost tip of Cebu island, and hire one of the many tricycles loitering at the port for the 20-minute ride to Oslob. Altogether, the Dumaguete option takes about two hours, depending on how long you wait for the Sibulan–Lilo-An ferry, which departs once an hour. 

To make sure we were in Oslob for the early morning feeding, my sister and I stayed the night at Eden Resort in Lilo-An, Santander (not to be confused with the town of Liloan, north of Cebu City). It's a mid-range hotel with full amenities, including WiFi, a bar and a crystal-clear saltwater pool looking out over the sea to Negros’ Mount Talinis. The rooms are air-conditioned, with comfortable fluffy beds, marble floors and wide balconies. 

For 600 pesos, the concierge at Eden arranged for our early morning, 20-minute ride to Oslob. She told us some of their guests stay for days and make the trip to Oslob every morning. After our outing, my sister and I were back at the hotel by breakfast, excited and happy. A swim with the butanding may be the best way to start your day. 

Aurora Almendral

Aurora Almendral

Aurora Almendral is a reporter and radio producer. Usually from New York, she is currently based in Manila.

Aurora Almendral

Aurora Almendral is a Philippine-born freelance writer based in New York City. As a Fulbright Scholar to Morocco and Spain, she researched and filmed a documentary on entrepreneurship and illegal immigration in Madrid. She previously worked as a research assistant at the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, and has written for Filipinas Magazine and New America Media.