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Philippines Adventures Part 4: Swimming with Whale Sharks on Leyte

“Don’t touch the whale sharks. Don’t go too close to the whale sharks.” We were lectured by the local official in charge of tourism.

“They are gentle creatures.” He informed us. “We have had years where fewer whale sharks returned. We don’t want to scare them away.”

Once the lecture was finished, the hunt was on. The three filipino spotters climbed into their traditional outrigger canoes and fanned out across the bay, pausing every few moments to hold a snorkelling mask to their face and dip their head in the water.

The Leyte Whale Shark Swimming Experience

The shark and I

On the dive boat I and half-dozen others sipped instant coffee, chatted idly, and gazed out across the broad empty bay. We were on the island of Leyte in the southern Philippines with Peter’s Dive Resort, one very few (I know of only two) operations on the island that offer whale shark tours.

After about 45 minutes a shout rang out across the bay and one of the spotters waved his hand in the air. Everyone began scrambling to put on their fins, snorkels, and masks (snorkelling is preferable to scuba diving with whale sharks because they don’t like the sound of scuba regulators).

I put on my mask and strapped my waterproof GoPro video camera to my head. I prefer swimming without fins and a snorkel. This turned out to be a mistake, though, because, although I’m a fast swimmer, the whale sharks are faster, and because making a video with a camera on your head while bobbing your head in and out of the water to look for whale sharks in between breaths doesn’t make for a very enjoyable video.

We all jumped in the water and started swimming toward the spotter who was pointing at the water. The whale shark began to swim away from the group. I stopped to fiddle with my camera’s settings and fell behind. Fortunately, one of the spotters allowed me to grab on to the back of his boat and towed me to the front of the group where I caught my first glimpse of the enormous shark. Here is a video of the chase.

Why Leyte?

Our filipino spotters

There are several places in the Philippines where you can swim with whale sharks, many of which are better known than Leyte, but Leyte is my favourite. There are three reasons for this.

Reason 1: Seclusion

Leyte is an island in the southern Philippines seldom visited by tourists other than the divers who visit the few shops there. So, although there are few amenities that cater to tourists other than a few dive shops and nearby restaurants, you also avoid the crowds of tourists.

I’ve swum with whale sharks twice on Leyte, and both times the only people there were about eight people on one boat. This is in contrast to other better-known destinations, such as Donsol (which is much busier because of its proximity to Manila) where dozens of boats can be out on the water at the same time.

Reason 2: Visibility

The water in Donsol are said to often be cloudy, whereas the waters in Leyte were crystal clear both times I was there.

Reason 3: Sustainability

The town of Oslob on Cebu is another popular destination for swimming with whale sharks. There, fishermen will feed the whale sharks shrimp to draw them near the boat for the tourists. This practice is frowned upon by environmentalists who say this practice may cause sharks to stop looking for their own food and become dependant on humans, which would make them less able to fend for themselves and more vulnerable to poachers.

Although the first time I swam with the sharks on Leyte several years ago a young filipino boy surfed underwater on a shark’s back, the second time things had changed. We were lectured by a local official about how to behave near the sharks. Contact was discouraged, no feeding occurred, and few people entered the water to disturb the whales.

How to Get There

Heading home

Leyte’s capital, Tacloban (about a 3.5 hour drive to the resort) can be reached from Manila or Cebu by plane. Massin (35 minute drive from the resort) can be reached by ferry from ferry from Cebu City or by banca boat from Ubay on Bohol.

I stayed at Peter’s Dive Resort, which was as clean and well-maintained as any dive shop I’ve been in with reasonable rates. They can arrange to pick you up from the airport or ferry terminal

The staff were also very friendly. One great bonus of getting of the beaten path is this: when you visit touristy places, you meet employees who deal with large numbers of strangers, many of whom can be rude. When you venture a bit farther from the crowd, you meet employees who aren’t as burnt out and bitter towards tourists. The experience is almost always better.

I’d like to thank Peter’s Dive Resort for hosting my stay. Although my stay was sponsored by the resort, the opinions expressed here are my own and accurate.

Lead image by spettacolopuro

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31 Responses to Philippines Adventures Part 4: Swimming with Whale Sharks on Leyte

  1. Kathy Mendes July 5, 2012 at 1:31 pm #

    How cool! I’ve never seen a whale shark, on SCUBA or snorkeling but the experience is on my list. 🙂

    • Matt Gibson July 9, 2012 at 8:09 pm #

      Thanks Kathy. You won’t be disappointed when you do get to try.

  2. Cristina July 5, 2012 at 12:36 pm #

    What a great post Matt,
    I am off to Mexico next month to swim with whale sharks for the first time. After reading this, I wish i was in the Philippines (for the seclusion). We are also taking our GoPro, I love it.

    • Matt Gibson July 9, 2012 at 8:08 pm #

      Thanks Cristina! You’re going to love it. I can’t wait to see the video! I hope it turns out better than mine.

  3. Alexandra July 5, 2012 at 4:46 pm #

    I swam, well attempted, with the Whale Sharks in Oslob. I’m scared of sea life so basically I jumped in the water looked to my right saw the fish that scrambled back into the boat as fast as possible. I failed that round of fear factor.

    It is true that the fisherman are hand feeding the sharks there. But they are also very adamant that you do not touch the creatures.

    • Matt Gibson July 9, 2012 at 8:11 pm #

      Ah ha ha ha.

      It’s good that they don’t allow people to touch them. I don’t know how much the feeding affects them. I only know the results when garbage is not stored safely away from bears around my home town in BC. They do become somewhat dependant and, even worse, accustomed to humans who are their biggest predator.

  4. Ava Apollo July 6, 2012 at 2:43 pm #

    Yesss love diving! Looks like there’s yet another spot I need to visit

    • Matt Gibson July 9, 2012 at 8:12 pm #

      If you liked that, you’re going to love my upcoming Malapascua post. I learned to dive there and dove with thresher and reef sharks on two of my first dives ;). Unfortunately, I didn’t get any good pictures or video of them.

  5. Erica Hargreave @ Roamancing July 7, 2012 at 3:46 pm #

    What an amazing experience!

    Have always wanted to swim with whale sharks.

    The particular whale shark we have in Canada is called the basking shark, and is absolutely enormous.

    • Matt Gibson July 9, 2012 at 8:13 pm #

      Where does one find these basking sharks of which you speak? Does one swim with them? Do tell.

    • Malcolm April 24, 2016 at 10:20 pm #

      Where is this basking shark. Please post link Facts?

  6. AmberRoseTV July 9, 2012 at 2:58 pm #

    LOVE that last pic of you ‘Headed Home’. Sooooo beautiful! Keep in touch, @XpatMatt. 🙂

  7. Violeta Matei July 12, 2012 at 6:47 pm #

    This looks like an unforgettable experience. I hope to get there some day and see how it is to swim with the sharks. Thank you for giving so many details about your stay.

  8. Jaqu August 15, 2012 at 5:50 pm #

    Hi Matt,

    very nice read about the Whale Shark experience. That is the way it has to be done. Southern Leyte is no guarantee to see them, but it is simply great there by itself.

    In Southern Cebu is still that Hype going on and the local population just sees it as a money-printing machine, where officially strict rules are in place but they can be ignored for a few peso.

    Great report about a great country

  9. Kristin November 2, 2012 at 2:15 pm #

    Hey Matt!
    Thanks for sharing your whale shark sighting information. It’m getting excited just reading your blog! My bf and I are planning to do the same in January. Just a few questions: Is this a good time to go? We’d like to not be disappointed with a no-show as we don;t have enough time to spend. Also, can you give me more instructions/recommendations on how to get to the diving site from the airport and cheap accomodations?
    Thanks a bunch!

    • Matt Gibson November 5, 2012 at 2:44 pm #

      Hi Kristin. I’m glad you enjoyed the blog!

      January is a pretty good time to go. It’s not the best (migrating whale sharks are still arriving at that time) but should be quite good.

      You can fly from Manila to Tacloban fairly easily. There are several daily flights. At the airport you’ll want to either get on a bus (or find your way to the bus station) catch a bus to Masin.

      It’s easiest to stay at the resort that’s taking you to look for whale sharks because you’ll leave very early, and the resorts are a ways out of town.

      If you’re trying to save money though, I stayed at a super cheap hotel in Masin. If you find the intersection where street that leads to the ferry downtown (it’s easy to find) meets the main road, and then walk about 1/2 block south from the intersection, on your left hand side you’ll see a sign for a hotel that’s just a few steps down an alley. The rooms were basic, but clean enough and cheap.

      Good luck on your trip!

      Matt

  10. Shelley June 12, 2013 at 7:39 pm #

    Hello Matt,

    We are just investigating a holiday aimed at swimming with whale sharks. We have had the extraordinary pleasure once before in Western Australia. We were looking for another area and came across your blog. I just couldn’t see which month you were there. I know they say november until May but can you narrow that down a bit?

    Thanks for any further advice.

  11. Matt Gibson July 9, 2013 at 6:23 pm #

    Hi Shelly, sorry for the delayed reply. I’m afraid I don’t know enough to tell you when the exact best time is for swimming with the whale sharks, but I, since they are migrating, I suspect the most sharks will have arrived by January and February.

    Hope this helps!

  12. John Lundy July 19, 2013 at 2:26 pm #

    Hi. a great blog on the whale sharks. Wonder if any reading this blog have ever visited Lundy Island off N Devons Uk coastline. We have been having a great season for divers and snorkelers alike with the basking sharks this season. In fact ealier in July I dropped a group of divers into the water and on a single dive they encountered a large basking shark accompanied with a large pod of Dolphins.
    Good luck with your diving and keep up the great blog

  13. Jennifer August 21, 2013 at 12:37 pm #

    I would love to swim with whale sharks! We were in the Maldives last year and had just missed them by about a month.

  14. Lundy Castaway January 5, 2014 at 11:55 am #

    Interesting reading about snorkelling and diving with the whale sharts. In our uk waters snorkelling and diving with the seals on Lundy Island has become very popular. The seals on Lundy seem to love being interactive with human beings and literally mimic the movements that we make in the water. Snorkelling with the seals gives ours of natures entertainment with these wild animals. Experiences like these make us realise what a wonderfull world we live in

  15. Who Needs Maps September 2, 2014 at 7:02 am #

    Wow, you have written a killer article mate, very interesting with some fantastic pictures and videos!

    We also went swimming with whale sharks but is Oslob as you mentioned earlier. We wrote up a smiler article about our experience. It has some handy tips for people are looking to swim with the friendly giants in Cebu!

    http://www.whoneedsmaps.com/whale-sharks/

    Cheers,
    Jack

  16. Campbell June 15, 2016 at 9:22 am #

    Hi Matt Leyte sounds like the place to go! we traveled around the Philippines and compared snorkeling with whale sharks at different spots. Oslob was horrible, I did not enjoy this ecological nightmare. The thirty seconds with the sharks in Donsol was great, even though it took us three days to find a whale shark. The water at Ligazby was very dirty, basically mud with horrible polution. You can see a comparison and photos and videos at our blog post http://stingynomads.com/whale-sharks-philippines/

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