Should You Swim With The Whale Sharks in Oslob, Philippines?

oslob whale sharks
It’s not an easy question to answer. In recent years there have been quite a few articles and advocates who have encouraged people not to visit the Oslob whale sharks. In order to have the whale sharks returning to the area daily so that visitors can swim with them, feeders give the sharks fish. This has resulted in the whales having an unnatural amount of contact with humans. The artificial feeding behavior has taught the whales to associate people with food. They will now sometimes approach boats rather than staying away from them which can lead to injuries. Injuries can also occur if tourists in the water accidentally kick a shark. 

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The feeding has also resulted in the sharks having less variety in their diet as they spend more time eating the fish that are given to them rather than plankton and such. Some of the Oslob whale sharks spend up to 6 hours a day feeding instead of foraging naturally. In the future, this could end up causing nutritional problems. Additionally, the migratory patterns of the sharks have also changed. The breeding pool of the sharks or the spread of this vulnerable and declining species may be influenced by this. It is hard to say though as the whale sharks are difficult to study and concrete answers hard to come by. Obviously, the best thing for these Oslob whale sharks is to be freely swimming and living the way nature intended.
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Whale shark very closely approaching one of the feeding boats in Oslob

Having tourists visit the Oslob whale sharks is a relatively new practice. Back in 2011 photos of fishermen interacting with Oslob whale sharks were featured in Mail Online. The article was largely positive with conservationist Shawn Heinrich praising the bond that had formed between the sharks and fishermen in Oslob. In other places in the region the same whale sharks were being slaughtered by fishermen. It seems strange that a conservationist would applaud fishermen touching, riding and playing with the sharks until you consider just how bad the slaughter of the whale shakes in the region is.

In 1997 alone around 20 whale sharks were killed in the Philippines to be traded on the Asian market. Others were also killed or harmed by fishermen trying to protect their catch. Around this same time the 1998 the documentary “Whale Shark Hunters” hosted by William Shatner was created for National Geographic. The documentary aimed to highlight the issues surrounding the hunting of whale sharks in the Philippines and to help find alternative livelihoods for the whale shark hunters. This film lead President Ramos to ban the killing of whale sharks and manta rays in the Philippines. The Philippines became one of the first countries in the world to ban the killing of whale sharks.

The ban was a great first step but not all in the Philippines have welcomed it. The sharks can interfere with the catch of the fishermen who already struggle to make a living. Even as recent as 2015 in response to whale sharks and dolphins eating the fish in the major fishing grounds of Tañon Strait, Nelson Garcia, mayor of Dumanjug town in Cebu stated: “I want to kill those whale sharks…Man should be the first to survive, not the whales, not the fish, because we will be violating the Bible. God said, man have dominion over the ocean, the fishes, the birds, the animals, and subdue it. That is the order of God.” Tañon Strait is a rich fishing ground but is also part of the natural migratory path of large marine animals.

Whale sharks also still continue to fetch a lot of money in the Asian market. In China a single whale shark at market can bring in $30,000 USD or more, though the fishermen usually get considerably less than that. About 600 whale sharks a year were killed in just one slaughterhouse in Southern China it was found in an investigation between 2010 and 2013. Then in August 2015 the world was shocked by videos of a whale shark in China (WARNING: Graphic!) being butchered at market while still alive. While the sharks are a protected species in Philippines, China and other countries which do not protect the sharks, share many of these fishing waters as well as the migratory paths of the whale sharks with the Philippines.
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Getting the fishermen and local people to see more value in having the whale sharks alive then dead has been key to protecting them. It is easy to say “It is important for our environment to protect the whale sharks!” but when it interferes with your lively hood and ability to provide for your family the choice is not so easy. Groups have instead been working to educate locals and to set up profitable eco-tourism projects in popular whale shark areas.

Donsol Bay and Oslob Whale Sharks

Both Donsol Bay in the Bicol Region of Luzon and Oslob, Cebu are well known for whale sharks. They have both created tourism industries for their small towns around them. As a result the fishermen who once killed them in these areas now protect the whale sharks as tourist dollars bring in more money for them and the entire community.

The major difference between the two sites though is that the whale sharks are not fed in Donsol Bay. This way there is no unnatural feeding, no increased contact with boats, and migratory patterns are not affected. But it also means that there is no guarantee that you will see a whale shark when you go out in your boat even during the peak viewing season. In the past couple of years reports from tourists started to come out that the whale sharks of Donsol Bay were gone. People were sighting one or no sharks for extended periods of time. This continued for a few years and tourism in the area dropped considerably. Though it seems that the whale sharks have been returning to the area, it is hard to lure people back.

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By feeding the Oslob whale sharks, Oslob is able to guarantee a sighting of a whale shark to its visitors. Seeing a whale shark in a completely natural environment is much more thrilling but when you’ve traveled from far and wide and paid for the experience, patience is hard to come by. As mentioned before though, there are all sorts of problems with this unnatural feeding behavior. The sheer number of visitors to Oslob has also created issues.  In 2014 over 110,000 tourists came to Oslob primarily to see the sharks. Conservation groups have stepped in and regulations have been applied. Tourists are only taken out to the sharks from 6 am – noon each day. Time in the water or boat is limited to 30 minutes. If you plan on going in the water you need to be free from sunscreen to help keep pollutants out of the water etc. Anyone who touches a shark will receive a fine or even jail time.

This does not seem to be enough and suggestions of limiting the number of tourists or stopping the feeding practice have been made repeatedly. They are hard things to put in place though when a guaranteed whale shark sighting means tourists and tourists mean more money for the entire community which doesn’t have many other employment options. The Large Marine Vertebraes Project Philippines (LAMAVE)  is a great organization to check out if you would like to know more. They are working in the Philippines to research and educate, while striving to find a balance between marine conservation, and local community development.

Our Experience
We visited Dumaguete City in Negros Oriental which is just a short boat ride from Oslob so we decided to go and check out the whale shark situation ourselves. We fully prepared to leave if it looked like the whales were being harmed in any way. We stayed in a guesthouse just outside of the town away from the sharks and wished we hadn’t. In there weren’t many restaurants and our guesthouse didn’t offer meals beyond breakfast. Nearly all of the businesses catering to travelers seemed to be around the whale shark viewing area.

s0343844Before we visited the sharks we spoke with some of the boatmen, restaurant owners and other locals. They told us the stories of how in the past many fishermen in the area (or even themselves!) would attack or kill the sharks to keep them away from their catch. Now though they loved the sharks and wanted to keep them healthy and safe. Following the rules and restrictions that had been recommended by outside organizations meant to them that tourist dollars would keep coming into the area. If there are no sharks or the area gets a bad reputation the tourists will go and so will their jobs.

The people we spoke to at the feeding site took their jobs and the safety of the sharks very seriously. It seemed like a well-respected job in the community that many were competing for. Around 300 people work at the feeding site not to mention all the other jobs in the community created to care for tourists. Some mentioned though that they felt that some of the money generated from the whale sharks which was supposed to go into developing the town was being used by other areas in the region instead. I really don’t know about the financial allocations though.

dscf3571-2We decided to go out in a boat to see the sharks based on the positive stories we had been told. We traveled in August and arrived around 7:30 am. There were not many people and so the three of us were sent out in our own boat with 2 staff after the safety briefing. One staff member would keep our boat in place while the other took photos for us (for an additional fee). If you are a strong swimmer you can get into the water to view the sharks underwater though most people stayed in the boats. If traveling with a small child it is best to bring your own lifejacket since they may not have the correct size for little ones. 

s0173699We did not see anyone touch or harass the sharks. The whale sharks did at times though get very close to the boats of the feeders. They may have touched the sides of them. If feeding the sharks is truly necessary (I don’t think it is) it would seem that some sort of alternative could be arranged so that the feeders had no contact with them at all!

We had an incredible experience and feel really lucky to have been able to interact with these beautiful and peaceful sharks. We left with more questions than when we first arrived though. There seems to be no straight cut answer as to how to best protect the sharks. Though Donsol Bay seems to be the clear choice for responsible eco-tourism, I don’t think I would say that you shouldn’t go to see the Oslob whale sharks. The community genuinely appears to want to find a solution that is both beneficial to the sharks but also supports their livelihood. The whales may also have arguably been more at risk when these same boatmen sought to kill them just a few years ago. Rather, supporting groups which actively work to find a balance, and reporting mistreatment or violations when spotted so that practices can be improved may be the way to go. It is clear though, that more can and needs to be done to help protect these gentle giants.

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Hue Vietnam Travel Guide: Tombs, Towers and Tanks

hue vietnam travel guide

Things To Do In Hue Vietnam

Once the national capital from 1802-1945, Hue Vietnam is home to the ancient Imperial City (Citadel) and the tombs of several emperors. The ancient sites around Hue Vietnam are spectacularly beautiful and it was well worth the visit. Learn more in this Hue Vietnam travel guide!

Hue Imperial City (The Citadel)

Emperors of Vietnam once lived in this walled fortress and palace. Much of the structure was damaged or destroyed by battles with the French in 1947 and American forces in 1969 with only 20 out of 148 structures surviving but it still remains an impressive complex with ongoing restoration.

Hours: 8am – 6pm

hue imperial city citadel
hue imperial city citadel

Hue Vietnam Provincial Museum (War Museum)

This small museum doesn’t appear to even get a mention in the guidebooks but if you are visiting the Imperial City next door and are interested in military exhibits it may be worth a quick visit. The museum is in bad repair. The grass hasn’t been cut in ages and there are large holes in the pavement leading down to the drains below. Staff scurried to turn on fans and lights when we walked in like they weren’t expecting visitors. Inside the museum some photos, small weapons and other wartime paraphernalia can be found.

The only reason we visited (twice!) is that out in front of the museum there is a collection of tanks, a helicopter, a plane and other military vehicles from the Vietnam War.  Each vehicle has a plaque with the name of the vehicle as well as the year and place it was captured from. Our son was THRILLED to see a helicopter so close for the first time and excitedly ran back and forth between each vehicle.

Hours:  8:00-11:00 am, 2:00pm – 5:00pm (closed Sundays)

Hue provincial war museum

Hue provincial war museum

Thien Mu Pagoda

Built in 1601, Thien Mu Pagoda is the tallest religious building in Vietnam. This seven story tower is part of the temple complex on Ha Khe Hill just outside of Hue overlooking the Perfume River.

thien mu pagoda

Not only beautiful, the pagoda has strong historical, political and religious significance in the region. In 1963 the Buddhist Crisis in Vietnam saw the Catholic government cracking down on the Buddhists majority (70-90%) in the country and Buddhism. The crisis began when 9 unarmed Buddhist were shot by the army in Hue. Thein Mu Pagoda became a major organizing point for the movement.  In protest of this crackdown and the government’s refusal to meet calls for religious equality, Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc drove to Saigon on June 10th, 1963. There in front of onlookers, reporters and supporters he conducted self-immolation by setting himself on fire.

]Self-immolation of Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức. Photo by Malcom Browne 1963

Self-immolation of Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức. Photo by Malcom Browne 1963

In the background of this world famous image by Malcom Browne the car he drove can be seen. It is presently on display at Thien Mu Pagoda.

Tombs in Hue Vietnam

There are 7 imperial tombs just outside of Hue but the most commonly visited are the Tombs of Emperor Minh Mang, Emperor Tu Duc and Emperor Khai Dinh. We did not have a chance to go to Emperor Tu Duc’s tomb but made it to the other two. When visiting the popular tombs it is best to get there early in the morning before the tour groups arrive or later in the afternoon when they have gone. It can get crowded! We visited Khai Dinh tomb before 9am because there are a lot of steps and we wanted to avoid climbing them in the heat. By 9:30 the tomb was packed with tourists arriving in tour buses. We then went to Minh Mang tomb and even around 10:30 the tour groups were just starting to arrive. Any driver you hire should be able to advise you on what times to go to beat the crowds.  The tour groups seem to have very set roots.

Khai Dinh Tomb

Khai Dinh Tomb took 11 years to build and was completed in 1931. Before his death he visited France resulting in the tomb being a combination of both Western and Eastern styles. Khai Dinh’s tomb is the last of the large imperial tombs in Vietnam.  The dragon sculptures along the sides of this temple were the largest dragons in Vietnam though the Dragon Bridge in Da Nang likely now holds this distinction.

khai dinh tomb hue vietnam

khai dinh tomb hue vietnam

Minh Mang Tomb

The construction of this tomb began in September 1840 but by January 1841, Emperor Minh Mang had passed away. The tomb was fully completed by 1843 under the watchful eye of Emperor Thieu Tri.  The burial grounds include landscaped lakes, and canals as well as beautiful architecture.

minh mang tomb hue vietnam

minh mang tomb hue vietnam

Is Hue Kid Friendly?

hue vietnam

We went to Hue when our son was 3.5 years old. In Da Nang, Hoi An and Hanoi we saw a lot of kids his age and some even younger but in Hue he seemed to be one of the youngest. There aren’t a lot of activities aimed at children in Hue and there are no beach resorts so it’s less appealing to parents traveling with really little ones. It seemed to be more popular with families that had kids 8 years old and up.

That being said, Hue is not unfriendly to kids! Many of the sites are free for younger kids. The Imperial City and Tombs offer a lot of space for kids to stretch their legs and to explore and as a vehicle lover our son really enjoyed the small war museum. We would go out early in the morning and then spend our afternoons in our hotel’s pool or playing indoors in our room. There’s a lot of walking so a good baby carrier that allows you to carry little ones on your back like the Manduca baby carrier can be a life saver if your infant to preschooler is too tired to walk. But short early morning trips, ice cream and swimming pools made Hue a great place to visit with a little one.  If I were to go back through it would definitely be in the winter months! It was 38 degrees the entire time we were there in July!

Getting In And Out

Private Car

We traveled to Hue by car from Hoi An through Da NangHoi An to Hue it is about a 3 hour drive and Da Nang to Hue around 2. The driver can take the route either along Hai Van Pass or through Hai Van Tunnel. At a length of 6.28 km, Hai Van Tunnel is the longest tunnel in Southeast Asia and it can save you between 30 minutes to an hour on your trip between Da Nang and Hue. Hai Van Pass though is much more scenic winding up the mountain and along the coast.  Most drivers and tour buses choose to dive the route along the coast and stop at the top for a break and to enjoy the views. There are shops and restaurants at the top as well.

Cost for a private car:

Around $60-$75 USD

Plane

There are direct flights to Hue Vietnam from Ho Chi Minh City, Dalat and Hanoi. The flights from Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi arrive daily but Dalat only has flights every other day. We decided to drive into Hue and then flew to Hanoi.

It is also possible to book a local bus, train or a tour bus between the two cities. Tour buses seem to be most popular with group tours that are only going to Hue for the day but your hotel should be able to help you make arrangements.

Getting Around

Walking

We were in Hue in July and it was HOT. Even in the evening it was hot so we didn’t walk around too much. They do though have a nice park and walkway area along the perfume river. In the evening little shops and restaurants open up and it’s a lovely place to take a stroll.

walkway along river hue vietnam

bridge across perfume river hue vietnam

Taxi

Taxis in Hue are cheap and your hotel can easily arrange for them to pick you up. When visiting the sites it is quite common to arrange a set price and have the taxi driver wait for you while you visit. This means that many of the taxis you see waiting may not be available.  A couple of times we did not make these arrangements and were unable to find another available taxi despite being in the city. We did not run into any large problems with taxis in Hue but twice we were brought to the wrong end of a site even though our hotel had arranged the pickup.

Private car

We arranged a private car to visit the tombs outside of the city and to take us to the airport. I wish we had used them our entire time in Hue! They were absolutely fantastic and reasonably priced. There are several companies in the area but here are two we had contact with.

We used this company both times. We were picked up on time (actually the driver was early) in a fantastically clean SUV. Our son was thrilled since he had never driven in a large SUV like this before. All 3 seatbelts in the back were working. Our driver was safe, friendly and knowledgeable.  We decided to use the same company when we went to the airport and had the same experience the second time as well.

Website: http://www.stopandgo-hue.com/
Email: stopandgocafetours@gmail.com

We did not use this company but I was very impressed with their customer service. Their reviews on TripAdvisor are also high. We needed to make a last minute reservation and they were very quick to respond. They also have baby car seats available for small children. Unfortunately I was not able to connect to the internet at our hotel in the evening and when I finally got through to them they were fully booked for the time we wanted to visit the tombs. They offered us a discount if we would go later in the day or offered to take us the next day instead. We were short on time though and wanted a very early start to beat the heat so we went with a different company.

Website: http://www.tourfromhue.com/
Email: tourfromhue@gmail.com

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Hampyeong’s Herptile Eco Park

hampyeong herptile eco park

Hampyeong which is about an hour away from Gwangju, Jeollanamdo, is well known across Korea for its annual Butterfly Festival. Few people, even locally it appears, know about Hampyeong Herptile Eco Park (함평파충류생태공원 ). It’s hard to miss though once you arrive into the area of the Eco Park as the building is shaped like a giant albino Burmese python (they have a live one inside!).

I have not been able to confirm this, but I believe the Herptile Park opened only a few years ago in 2013. The facilities are new, well maintained and clean. The temperature is closely monitored and so on a hot summer day it was lovely and cool inside! There is a collection of more than 600 local and foreign snakes, frogs, toads, turtles, tortoise, and lizards primarily housed on 2 floors of the main building. Inside the main building there is also a theater area but there was no information about shows when we went. There is a separate building outside for some anaconda as well and a nice petting zoo and park area in the back as well.

hampyeong herptile eco park

I am not a big fan of zoos but the animals in these habitats seemed to be well cared for and the workers professional. We arrived at Hampyeong Herptile Eco Park at 9:30am on a holiday Monday and were the only visitors there at the time. They were still setting up for the day and it happened to be feeding time for the pythons. Upon seeing our 3 year old son heading their way the workers discretely put away the bucket of dead mice until he had moved past. Had he been older I’m sure he might have been really interested but I appreciated that they were sensitive to his age.

hampyeong herptile eco park

hampyeong herptile eco park

In the downstairs area there is a small climbing wall, and play and activity area for children. There are also some animals for them to interact with:  couple of birds out on a tree, a horned lizard, some iguanas and a tub of frogs. The frogs were upsetting. I’m sure they were very stressed with the kids reaching in. There was also an area where children can use nets to catch goldfish in two tanks and then rerelease them. Poor fish! Several times a day the Burmese python is also brought out for people to take photos with and interact with. It’s a lovely snake and the handler is good but a lot of people coming to see the snake were acting like idiots, screaming and yelling. The caretakers really need to inforce more calm behavior so as not to stress the snake out! But other than those things, everything and everyone at the place seemed to be working towards making sure the animals were well cared for.

hampyeong herptile eco park

In the back of the building is a small petting zoo with sheep, goats, chickens, and rabbits. It was the cleanest petting zoo I have ever seen! It’s free to enter and for 1,000 won you can buy food to feed the animals. The rabbits seem to have figured out that parents tend to give the food to the children and so one rabbit in particular kept chasing after our son. He was completely thrilled about this rabbit who wanted to run races with him. On your mark, get set bunny. Go!

hampyeong herptile eco park

hampyeong herptile eco park


Hours

0:900 to 18:00 (Regular)

09:00 to 17:00 (November to February)

Closed

Every Monday, New Year Day, Seollal and Chuseok

* If a public holiday is on a Monday the park will be open but the next day (Tuesday) it will be closed


Price (Discounts for groups)  
Adults 3,000
Children 1,000
Kindergarten 1,000
Under Korean Age 4 Free

Website: http://ecopark.or.kr/hp_snake/ (Korean)

Address: 전라남도 함평군 신광면 가덕리 306-1번지


Bus Schedule

* This schedule is subject to change. Call the Hampyeong Bus Terminal at 061) 322-0660 to confirm.

Hampyeong Bus Terminal → Herptile Park Herptile Park →Hampyeong Bus Terminal
6:50 7:35
7:50 8:35
9:05 9:30
10:20 10:45
11:10 11:50
11:30 12:30
12:00 13:35
12:55 14:45
14:05 15:35
14:30 17:05
16:20 18:05
17:25 19:40
19:00  

 

Dolmeori Beach in Hampyeong South Korea

Only about an hour drive away from Gwangju, Dolmeori Beach in Hampyeong is one of the closest beaches to the city. We usually make it out to the beach a couple of times a year but like many beaches along Korea’s west coast extremes in the difference between high and low tide can make it difficult to catch a good day for swimming. When the tide goes out at Dolmeori beach it goes waaaaaaaaay out! You were left having to consult tide times and charts if you wanted to dip your toes in the ocean.

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I think I can maybe see the ocean out there somewhere…

Earlier this spring we went to the beach for a picnic and found that the beach was gone! There were heavy construction vehicles digging up the beach and a giant hole was in its place.  To the left side of the lookout tower is a rocky beach with a little sand and it was great for our picnic but we were left wondering what had happened to the main beach! This month we were told that they had built two pools and we headed out this past weekend to check it out.

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They have built 3 new pools along the beach area and they are free to use. There is a very small splash pool less than half a foot deep. When we went there was no water in it. Beside it they have built a larger children’s pool that is about a foot to two feet deep. There is a shade covering for parents watching close by. This pool is chlorinated fresh water. 20160807_092845

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In the past Dolmeori beach did have a bit of an enclosure that helped to keep some of the water close to the beach when the tides were going in and out but it only made a small difference. When we visited on Sunday the tide was completely out but this new ocean pool was still full of water! It is enclosed only on 3 sides with the 4th side being the actual beach. They have also made the far end of the pool quite deep so more experiences swimmers can go for a proper swim.
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The water isn’t clear. It’s a bit murky with kicked up sand but despite this, I’ve been told that the water at Dolmeori may actually be cleaner than some of the beaches in the area with more clear water. I’m not sure at this point how they are filling the pool but even when the tide was out we could feel cold water temperature changes in some areas so the water was moving and not just sitting still there in the tank.

20160807_095527It is possible to go camping at the beach and there is a small area with trees with limited space as well as additional spaces along the sand. To rent an elevated platform area for the day or night it is 20,000 won – 30,000 won. Small tents are currently free but you are required to purchase a garbage bag for 3,000 won from them which they will dispose of when you leave. Larger tents may be required to pay a fee but they didn’t tell us the exact price. I would guess it possibly depends on just how big your monster tent is!

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How to Get There: There is a bus at the Hampyeong Bus Terminal that heads to Dolmeori beach. It runs from 06:40-19:30 every 80 minuets. It takes about 20 min to get to the beach from the terminal.

Address: 616-10, Dolmeori-gil, Hampyeong-eup, Hampyeong-gun, Jeollanam-do 
전라남도 함평군 함평읍 주포로 614 (함평읍)

Phone Number: +82-61-322-0011