How to get there (from Panglao):
If you are doing a Bohol-Cebu trip in one go like I was, I’m sure you’ve wondered: is there any way to traverse the Cebu Strait directly from Panglao to Oslob? The answer is yes.
While information on the internet regarding this route is virtually non-existent, I decided to take a leap of faith and do my visit of Bohol-Panglao first to try my luck with finding a direct route to the famed whalesharks of Oslob, to save me the hassle of having to go back to Tagbilaran/Tubigon port, a boat to Cebu city, and then a 3-and-a-half-hour bus ride back south to end up in Oslob, which is just across the sea from Panglao to begin with, anyway.
To give you an idea, here is a map of the area:
It is a great time-saver. Although not exactly the cheapest, we managed to bargain the one-way boat ride from Alona Beach to Oslob down to Php700 per person (there were four of us, and 6 other foreigners whom I greatly suspect they charged more). Compare that to going through the hassle of commuting back to Tagbilaran/Tubigon pier, a 2hr-600-peso fastcraft ride, and a 3 1/2 hr bus drive down to Oslob, then we did get a great deal. We took all our luggage with us in the boat to Oslob, and explored Cebu from there on.
My tip is: Talk directly with a boatman who owns a boat, for better prices (you may contact our soft-spoken boat man, Toto, at +63920 630 1111). Off-peak season gives you cheaper rates, but it doesn’t hurt to try your charm on other days of the year. Official price was at Php1,500 per head just for the boat ride. Got it for Php 700.
From Cebu City:
Go to the South Bus Terminal Station along N. Bacalso Ave. Take a Ceres bus (nice, modern, clean, spacious airconditioned buses) and tell them you are headed to Tan-awan, Oslob. Fare is Php 155. All drivers and conductors know this as it is a very famous stop. Ask to be dropped off at BCD’s place, in front of the Sutukil Restaurant in order to avoid additional resort fees from other resorts which will take you back here anyway (main hall for registration). Look for this to the left of the road:
Now, for the whaleshark watching experience:
When you dock, go straight to the hall-looking-thing where they hold the orientation on whaleshark-watching etiquette. Pay Php 500 per head for Filipino tourists including the use of snorkel masks, Php 300 if just watching from the boat, and Php 1000 per head for foreigners. You may also rent an underwater camera for Php500–just bring your own memory card to get the pictures after, or get a CD burned for Php50 more. Your boatman will direct your photoshoot. Be careful not to waste your limited time on trying to get a great picture, though, or you might miss out on the main point of actually watching the whalesharks. But it is nice to immortalize this moment with at least one picture! :)
After paying, off you go to small paddleboats that take you a mere 50 or so meters from the shore, where you, along with a dozen other boats, start your 30-minute artificial whaleshark-watching experience.
These are the biggest fish in the sea, growing up to 35 meters–the ones that come to Oslob to be handfed by boatmen are on the small side, though, the biggest being about 15 meters long. But compared to me, who is a mere 1.7 meters tall, it was huge! It’s an amazing experience to be able to swim right past, above, beside, or under such a creature! Though the rules expressly say not to touch or get too near them, in the water, with the limited space from the boats and the people and the whalesharks (about 6? 7? 8? of them come regularly), it is a tight space to maneuver. Many times I’ve had to watch my arms and legs and back just swimming from one short point to another, because the next thing you know a whaleshark’s open mouth is right there, or another one’s tail is gently swishing about behind you. It is a literal close encounter. As close as any common person could possibly get to such huge, magnificent creatures. Though they are incredibly gentle, being filter-feeders, a certain awe will make you think twice about coming too close (besides the Php 2,500 fine for touching them).
Is it worth the dive?
Diving rates are at a standard Php 3,500. And frankly, though I didn’t try, I don’t think it’s worth it. The whalesharks feed from the top where boatmen feed them, so they are 100% visible even if you don’t get down from the boat. They tend to stay up there. Snorkelers often get the best views and pictures. Divers might mostly only be able to see whaleshark underbellies or a few whole when they go down and away from the boats. A Belgian diver who took the boat with us from Panglao originally wanted to dive, but when he saw the situation and location, changed his mind and decided that snorkeling would be enough.
Overall, it felt very… fabricated. It left a bitter, rip-offy, disappointing taste in my mouth after the incredibly-fast 30 minutes of it. While it’s good that the municipality has standardized the rates, put up a seamless system for fishermen and tourists to follow, spelled a boom in tourism for the locals, I can’t help the feeling that this was on the abuse-y side. First of all, the whalesharks are in no way in their natural state, being handfed by boatmen to ensure that they keep coming back and stay. Second, the fee seems unreasonable to me, being that their only capital is a 30-second no-engine paddle-boat ride (a distance which people can actually swim from shore), snorkel masks, and life vests, and some krill for the whaleshark.
Other than that, there are too many employees, too many boatmen crowding the area, offering rooms to stay in, and habal-habal trips to the nearby falls. Something about it feels like a fast, standardized, legal robbery of my money. Why are snorkelers only allowed 30 minutes? That time zips by in a flash when you’re having fun out there, you know. You’re only starting to be amazed and poof! suddenly you’re done.
Everything aside, though, the mere fact of being able to swim with the oceans’ biggest fish is a wonderful, soul-feeding experience. Is the price fair? Maybe not. But the experience is an inspiring one, allowing normal people to experience nature in a different, memorable, and accessible way. You must not miss it, when in Cebu. Or Bohol. (Or Dumaguete, which is a quick boat ride away from Oslob).
Next up, when in Oslob, you should definitely not miss a Tumalog Falls sidetrip!
Would that whalesharks were more common to come by in island-hopping trips, eh?