Here it was, our final day in paradise. How on earth did that happen?? The Philippines had truly blown me away with its beauty and friendliness and we had one final day to experience the best of what Cebu had to offer. Before coming on the trip I had of course done a lot of research in this regard and knowing how much Carolyn, my travel buddy, wanted to see whale sharks had looked into snorkelling with them at Oslob. However, after reading a lot of internet articles about the practice there, albeit mainly from a few years back, we took the tough decisions, particularly for Carolyn that we didn’t want to take part in any practice which could be damaging to the sharks and so instead opted to spend the day canyoning at Kawasan Falls, or so we thought.
During our second stop of the trip, we were staying at the sister resort of that in Moalboal Magic Oceans and met with a couple doing the opposite route to us. They had just come from Moalboal and mentioned that the whale shark trip had been a highlight. Not wanting to cause offence I mentioned we weren’t planning to partake in that for conservation reasons and the women seemed really taken aback. She works for the diving company who organises the tours and thought that the whole trip had been run very well with minimal impact on the sharks. I was curious, and keen to understand whether she had been sold a story to make more money and so questioned the head of the dive school at dinner that night. She had been living in the area for over 15 years and walked me through the whole story so that we could make an informed choice.
Whale sharks have been visiting Oslob for a very long time and initially before the tourist boom there was a lot of issues with shark/fisherman interactions. The whale sharks would watch for the fishermen’s nets and then eat all of their catch leaving the fishermen with no livelihood. As a result thieving sharks often met a grisly end. Eventually the fishermen realised that by feeding the sharks a small amount of fish away from the main nets it would distract them long enough to save the fishermen’s catch. Unfortunately, there were still a few clever sharks who worked out there was rich pickings next to the nets and the human/shark conflict continued in the loss of a lot of sharks.
Then tourism happened. It transformed the tiny fishing village of Oslob into the place to have guaranteed sights of whale sharks and of course the people came for a chance to see these majestic creatures. To begin with the regime consisted of tiny boats rowing tourists out who were allowed to jump in and do as they wished with the sharks including riding them etc. However, LAMAVE soon realised that this was having a negative impact on the sharks and have implemented a host of regulations to ensure that the sharks are protected – as much as possible. All tourists must now listen to the introductory briefing on shark conservation – a hugely important aspect given that the majority of tourism in the area comes from the Chinese market where shark fin soup and traditional medicines are causing the greatest impact to the global shark population. They then follow this by giving a strict safety briefing. Each of the boats are banca style and so you must stay within touching distance of the wooden hanging sides preventing people from chasing the sharks. There is a strict no sun-cream rule to prevent any cross-contamination and of course no touching. You have a maximum of 30 minutes in the water swimming around and observing as the sharks swim past to get fed from the tiny wooden bancas. All of the boats have oars and there is a complete ban on motorised boats which can cause nasty injuries.
Many will still argue that despite all of these protections and positivity that this is invasive and so should be avoided as it disrupts the sharks’ natural behaviour. There is no doubt that feeding has some impact, but is that so different from taking part in a baited shark dive in Fiji or South Africa? Probably not. The sharks are not netted and so swim along for as long as they want to before heading off back out to sea. LAMAVE have been carrying out studies on the sharks to assess the impact it has on their migratory pattern and so far the answer is clear – none. The same sharks do not stick around for prolonged periods of time and they do still all eventually move on and migrate. That isn’t to say they don’t stop on the way for slightly longer here but given they were fed before any tourists were involved by local fishermen it is difficult to see if this is therefore a difference or just a behaviour change through time. Many people also take issue with them feeding head up/tail down but in fact there is drone footage of them feeding this way in open ocean and so this can’t be associated with non-natural behaviour.
We wanted to be sure before we made our decision and so checked what Angus at TSD had to say. Given that he a diver and teaches the shark conservation course there the fact he had no issue with it was great news. While he again accepted that of course there is some impact his view was that all of the good – shark conservation, changing perceptions of sharks, educating those that might otherwise chose to eat them and of course the surge in the local economy definitely outweighed the negative impacts. It is interesting as a lot of people suggest that Donsol is a better option for swimming with them than Oslob because they don’t feed them there. However, another dive instructor said he had done it there and in fact he had actually witnessed a frenzy of boats clambering around one shark (all of which had motors that often cut the sharks) because they didn’t want to disappoint the tourists on board who had waited hours for a glimpse. Taking all that into account we chose to go to Oslob early morning before then heading to Kawasan falls for canyoning.
It meant an early journey, why do we do this to ourselves, so we were up at 4.30 to leave at 5. It was a 2 hour drive down to Oslob which we took advantage of to catch up on some sleep. We had enough time for a quick packed breakfast before heading off on a truck with some other snorkelers for our briefing and then into our boat. We were in a boat just the 2 of us along-with 2 rowers and a spotter who came into the water with us. It seemed a safety concern too far making us wear lifejackets for the boat ride out when we then proceeded to take them off and jump into the water. I am not generally a fan of snorkelling, always getting water into my snorkel and being a bit of a rubbish swimmer so I mostly hung onto the boat while Carolyn dived down to see the sharks swimming past. They did come pretty close but never within touching distance of us. Seeing them swimming along with their mouths wide open to such in all of the fish definitely wasn’t a natural behaviour and I have to say the experience was nothing compared to my encounter with a juvenile in Thailand. However, Carolyn loved the experience and it was the only time she had ever seen a whale shark, and potentially maybe ever will. If you are not a diver then I can completely understand why getting up close with these animals in the wild would be high on the bucket list. All I can say is that for me it was a let-down compared to seeing them in the wild, not being fed and being their huge majestic selves.
We headed back to shore and then took the open truck back to our parking area to meet Deloy who had driven us down. There is an opportunity for those doing the official Magic Island trip to dive in the area with the sharks but we didn’t have time and we were within our 24 hour dive limit so headed straight for Kawasan Falls, our second stop of the day. We had chosen the canyoning option for here and so we were driven around past the main falls entrance to a local man’s house who ran the canyoneering adventures. Once we were suited and booted in lifejackets and helmets we met the other members of our group, a trio of guys from Czech Republic. Only one of them spoke English, so introductions were limited before we jumped onto some motorbikes (after some coaxing) and headed off to the top of the falls. It was a bumpy ride with both me and Carolyn on the back of a scooter but the views were phenomenal. We were dropped off at the sign-in point and then had a short trek to the first waterfall.
It all started fairly easily, with us playing around in the bright blue water, sitting under small waterfalls and doing some tiny jumps. The canyon we were making our way through was absolutely stunning, a bit like paradise really. As we went along the jumps however became more and more challenging. Our first bigger one had us going back inside a cave after it effectively being inside the waterfall, which was pretty cool. We floated down together as a group and took on a sort of natural water slide where you lay down and the force of the water flew you backwards. This section of the falls can only be accessed via a canyoning trip and so it really is worth it to see the natural beauty of the area rather than the tourist section at the bottom they have made accessible easily.
As we continued on the jumps became larger and larger and into more confined areas. There was a really cool one that you jumped into and were then swept inside a cave by the current. Despite all the jumping there was also a lot of walking to get between each of the sections. From what our guide explained to us, it seems like before the 2013 earthquake hit, which completely destroyed islands like Malapascua and areas of Bohol that you could float right down from start to finish. Now a lot of sections are blocked by huge rocks that fell down from the canyon walls during the earthquake and so you have to hike around these. It started to rain about half way through our tour but frankly this made absolutely no difference to us, we were wet anyway from jumping into the falls and it was still very hot so we continued as normal having the heavy rain bouncing off us. It was actually pretty peaceful.
We finished off with a few massive jumps, before heading down to the tourist section of the falls. This area was split into 3 sections with them all having restaurants and bars as well as large swimming areas and some rides on wooden boats underneath the large falls. It was definitely a tamer version of what we had done but for those with young children or a fear of jumping into water it is a nice option all the same. We sat with our new found Czech friends and enjoyed a feast of chicken, rice, fish and vegetables. The food was fine, nothing spectacular and to be brutally honest this had pretty much been our experience for our whole trip. The flavourings were salty rather than spicy like the rest of South East Asia and so for my taste it was a bit bland and unexciting. Anyway, the meal was nice to just chill out and chat and then we headed down the final tourist section and along the busy road back to the centre where our driver Deloy was waiting for us with towels. It had been a fantastic day out and we were absolutely shattered so definitely took advantage of a nap on the way back and before dinner.
Given it was our final night we had decided to head out and explore a bit of Moalboal. We didn’t want to leave before hanging out with Russell and Bell though and so we sat in the bar filling them in on our adventures with some gnts and then headed for an earlier dinner. For our final night I opted for the chicken curry and a mango pancake. It was nice and it was lovely to spend our last dinner with them before we headed off. However, the one place we really wanted to check out was Chilli Bar. One of the downsides to staying in these type of resorts is that they are almost always out of town in the middle of nowhere. Therefore, you can’t just nip out to a bar or try another restaurant. This was probably why we preferred Amorita and Malapascua given that you could wander freely. Deloy, our divemaster and driver had kindly agreed to take us out for the night on bikes and so we headed out through the town of Moalboal checking out all of the cockerels and little houses on the way. The bar was fairly busy for a Tuesday night but we got a table right next to the ocean and enjoyed a night of margaritas and beers. It was a fab way to end our trip in paradise, but fortunately for us it wasn’t quite over yet, next stop Singapore!!