Be brave. Take risks. Nothing can substitute experience. Said Paolo Coelho on a poster hanging on the wall of The Biggies Inn, the hotel where we stayed at in Oslob, Cebu.
Consider that as the last push I needed before I swam with the whalesharks in that small fishing town. I was afraid. I was afraid until those moments I was already submerged in water, breathing through my mouth with the snorkeling gear over half of my face covering my eyes and nose.
“Don’t think! Just don’t think.” I kept on telling myself. My heart wanted this for so long, way back when the Department of Tourism through its “More Fun in the Philippines” campaign had a billboard of this eco-tourism in EDSA. It’s the brain that signals the fear so that’s what I kept on humming to myself. Don’t think. So I didn’t. Then a dream just came true!
Praying the rosary before this third trip to Cebu, I asked God, “Lord, please don’t let the whalesharks eat me.” The butandings are gentle giants but they’re still sharks and are wild animals! I know for a fact that they won’t eat me but I know God understands what I was afraid of. I don’t even like fish spa, with small fish eating the dead skin cells off one’s feet (one thing you can absolutely do for free in Tumalog Falls, also in Oslob). That phobia must have come from the story of Jonah in the bible and from me being, well, “Jona”.
Touching the whalesharks are absolutely prohibited. But guess what happened? The biggest of the three whalesharks present during our encounter was the one who touched me and open-mouthedly “kissed” my back. I was facing the boat when this happened. Ate Guia, my companion, was on the boat shouting, “Ayan na! Ayan na!” and I was just either too cool with it or was just too frozen to even think nor act. I just didn’t move because hello, what else can I do? Outswim the shark? I felt who they called Whaleshark No. 4 sort of caressed my back when it passed by and I let out the loudest and maybe the first-in-so-many-years “tili” I did in life.
Two of our bangkeros asked me if I was hurt. I said I wasn’t because I really wasn’t. After the 30-minute encounter, when Ate Guia and I were like two friends who watched the same movie talked about the movie, did I realize that hey, it was actually a possibility that I could have been hurt. She described to me what really happened because remember when it happened I was facing the boat. God must have saved me from the horror so thank you, Lord. Thank you, my guardian angel. Thank you, Mama Mary. Thank you, St. Michael the Archangel. <Insert a litany here.>
She said too bad she wasn’t able to capture that moment as she left her mobile phone at the shore, inside my bag left to the care of our tour agent. I said that was totally fine. I know that the best moments of any travel are the ones not captured by cameras.
The best shot was captured by my eyes, though, and hope it will get stuck in my mind forever. God’s majesty is infinite! It’s in the countless stars, the highest of mountains and the depths of the sea! That magnificent sight of a whaleshark that glistens underwater as sunlight touches it while it gently yet powerfully moves, that whaleshark so big it made the two scuba divers beside it to be the ones to look like “dilis” will forever be etched in my memory.
That sight took just a few seconds then it swam away from me. I raised myself out of water to gasp for breath and still out of fear I blurted out, “Ang laki!” My photographer shouted back, “H’wag kang matakot!” and through him I heard one of my favorite bible quotes: “Be not afraid.”
So then it’s true. When you see something so wonderful such as seeing God through his magnificent creations, the first raw reactions are that of awe and fear.
Arranging the whaleshark encounter was hassle free. I dropped some tips below. Cost of that priceless experience was Php1100 (Php300 whale shark watching where one stays on the boat; +Php200 if you would swim with the whaleshark regardless if you will use the snorkeling gear they provide or not; Php500 – underwater camera rental; Php50 – service fee of the photographer; Php50-service fee of the tour agency).
JOURALYN TRAVEL TIPS
1. If your hotel/inn/beach resort offers whaleshark adventure or is tied up to one, avail of it. Php50 service fee was worth it. We did not fall into long lines, our tour agent did it for us. Crowd can get really piled up as early as 6:30 in the morning and the whalesharks are just in Oslob until 12noon.
2. Go there early – as early as 5:30am if you can. Lines would pile up, mostly from foreigners who are also waiting for their turn.
What we did so as to make things easier, we stayed the night before in an inn just five minutes away from the whaleshark watching spot and did not even take our breakfast before the activity. For those coming from Cebu City, you may leave at 3AM or even earlier as Cebu City to Oslob takes 3-4 hours.
3. There are underwater cameras for rent on site though if you have your own you may freely use it. I’m just thankful that because I availed of the Php550 rental plus tip to the photographer, I was able to get satisfying shots. Kuya bangkero knows the right timing of when to go down to capture the moments, something I know I couldn’t do had I taken selfies of myself. He also instructed other tourists to stay at least a meter away from me so I can appear solo with the butanding in pictures.
4. Some tips from the compulsory orientation itself: No applying of any type of sunscreen. No flash photography. Do not touch the whalesharks. Stay at least 4meters away from the head and the tail. Do not chase the whalesharks less you want to awaken the animal instinct of these wild animals, gentle giants though they are dubbed.
5. Beware of jellyfish stings. I got stung on my two knees and right leg because I wore shorts. I was just slightly harmed – sting didn’t bother me at all the day after. You can wear anything you like but rashguard all over your body is what I recommend.
Lastly, there are lots of “concerned” people who are against this kind of eco-tourism. They are against caging animals and feeding wild animals in general. I respect their views but here’s my take: I better not see those people inside any zoo, safari, water amusement parks whatsoever. I started with a Paolo Coelho quote, let me end with another favorite author of mine, Yann Martel of “Life of Pi”:
I don’t mean to defend zoos. Close them all down if you want (and let us hope that what wildlife remains can survive in what is left of the natural world). I know zoos are no longer in people’s good graces. Religion faces the same problem. Certain illusions about freedom plague them both.’