“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
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.
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
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