Philippines Snorkel+Dive

Snorkelling with wild Whale Sharks in Sogod Bay

One of our lifelong dreams was to go snorkelling with wild Whale Sharks, and we were hopeful that on our epic tour of South East Asia we would cross paths with one. In November 2017, we travelled to the Philippines in search of these beautiful gentle giants.

We had no real itinerary set for our trip to the Philippines, only a 60 day visa, a flight to Coron and a desire to go snorkelling with wild Whale Sharks! Unfortunately Coron did not quite live up to our expectations and after spending a week there, we made the decision to bail out, in exchange for somewhere more off the tourist trail.

Why we chose NOT to snorkel with Whale Sharks in Cebu

We knew that it was possible to see the sharks in Cebu, specifically Bohol and Oslob. But after some quick research online, we were horrified to read about this controversial area which has essentially become a Whale Shark zoo.

cebu oslob bad for whale sharks
Seeing this on Trip Advisor: Another reason not to go to Oslob for Whale Sharks

The sharks here are intentionally fed by the locals, attracting them to the area. Speedboats chase them around the bay, as snorkelling tourists jump in en-mass, supporting this unethical operation. This forced feeding disrupts their migration pattern, causing malnutrition. The Whale Shark is now closer to extinction than ever, and has had its conservation status updated from vulnerable to endangered. A recent assessment revealed significant population decline from ongoing human impacts, including fishing and boat strikes.

The last thing we wanted was to end up in a tourist trap. But above all, we do not condone this kind of ‘animal tourism’ and only wish to experience wildlife in its most natural state.

Sogod Bay vs Bohol and Oslob

During our research, we discovered another place in the Philippines where it would be possible to see Whale Sharks, but in their natural environment. It was well off the beaten track, a bit of a mission, and there was absolutely no guarantee of seeing them. It sounded perfect! Sogod Bay was calling.

Sogod Bay is in the Southern Leyte province of the Philippines. It happens to be a stopping point for migrating Whale Sharks, who enjoy the feeding on the rich plankton and krill filled waters between November – May.

Padre Burgos

We headed to the small town of Padre Burgos in Sogod bay, which is a relatively unknown dive haven. Only the most savvy scubas will have heard of this place. It certainly wasn’t on our radar until our research into alternatives to Oslob. For more information on Padre Burgos, read our Travel Guide here!

Padre Burgos Peters Dive Resort
Peters traditional outrigger boat: The ‘Whale Shark 2’

There are just a handful of resorts / dive centres dotted along the coast in Padre Burgos. We chose Peters Dive Resort. Peters schedule their Whale Shark excursion infrequently, and only go out if there has been a recent sighting in the bay.

It is only possible to snorkel with the Whale Sharks here, and resorts in Padre Burgos refrain from diving with them as bubbles and clinking tanks can scare them – snorkelling is far less intrusive to their personal space.

You can read more about diving in Padre Burgos here!

Setting off in search of wild Whale Sharks in Sogod Bay

Before we set off on our excursion with Peters, we had a briefing from the team who made it very clear that there was absolutely no guarantee of finding the sharks.

Our boat took us to the outskirts of a very small village on the opposite side of Sogod Bay. Here we were met by six local ‘spotters’ who work closely with the Marine Conservationists in the area to protect the sharks, and to monitor their behaviour.

sogod bay whale shark spotter boat
A Sogod Bay Whale Shark ‘spotter’ on the lookout in his wooden paddle boat

The spotters used small wooden paddle boats to scan the area in search of the sharks. We watched them dip their heads in the water every few minutes to just check, some of them didn’t even have goggles.

Our crew jumped on the top deck of our boat to look into the water from above.

A local marine biologist also joined us, as she was monitoring Whale Sharks in the area. She explained more about Oslob and Bohol, which further confirmed our fears. Coming to Padre Burgos was a good decision.

Two hours searching and about to give up

The spotters were out in the bay for some time. You could cut the atmosphere on the boat with a knife as we waited, hoping and praying one might turn up. We were about to give up and turn back, when suddenly the guys on the deck started pointing and shouting ‘shark shark!’

wild whale shark in sogod bay
The Whale Shark is known for their unique pattern and spots

I looked down into the water next to me and what I was seeing did not look real. A huge Whale Shark, about 8-9 metres long, and absolutely beautiful.

Snorkelling with wild Whale Sharks is hard work!

We scrambled to grab our snorkels and jump in. My heart was pounding! The sea was super deep, and soupy thick with plankton. By the time we were all in the water, the shark was about 30 meters away from our boat, and we had to swim quickly to catch up.

Although they look slow in the water, Whale Sharks move fast compared to humans, and we found it hard to keep up.

free diving with wild whale shark
Diving down to get a closer look

Once we reached him I was out of breath, and couldn’t figure out whether this was adrenaline kicking in, or the sudden burst of exercise. It was difficult to get in front of the sharks path and still have the breath left to make a freedive. But the strong desire to see him more closely took over my need to breathe!

We found more than one!

After about 30 minutes, one of the spotters started waving his arms around – There was another shark in the bay! Kicking as quick as I could, I began swimming towards the next one, about 200m away.

Wild whale shark in Sogod Bay
In real life, Whale Sharks really do look just as cute as Destiny from Finding Dory

On the other side of the bay we heard even more screams of excitement. One of the spotters offered to drag me along to get me closer to our third Whale Shark. I grabbed onto the back of the boat with both hands and was pulled along, slowly, but I wasn’t complaining!

freediving with wild whale sharks
I felt like Pinnochio and the whale!

I suddenly found myself face to face with two sharks, skimming the top of the water and feeding on plankton. As they opened their mouths to feed I felt like Pinnochio and the whale, so I kept my distance for fear of being swallowed!

We felt so unbelievably lucky to have encountered so many sharks in one place. The experience was unreal and in total we ended snorkelling with six amazing creatures for almost three hours . Heading back to Padre Burgos, we were exhausted, but had huge smiles on our faces.

Why were there so many Whale Sharks here?

Back on the boat, the marine biologist was overwhelmed – Aside from the ‘zoo’ in Oslob, she had never seen this many Whale Sharks in one area.

What we’d just encountered was extremely rare, and quite unusual behavior. She couldn’t explain why they were all there. Perhaps they had come to Sogod Bay to mate? But neither mating nor pups have ever been observed. After hearing this, we felt even more blessed by this awesome experience.

wild whale sharks snorkelling
One of six Whale Sharks we saw that day

The biologist urged us to log any photos we took on whaleshark.org. There is still little known about these elusive creatures, so a photo-identification library helps marine biologists analyse sighting data, to learn more about their movements.

If you like snorkelling with wild Whale Sharks

Having the opportunity to witness the world’s biggest fish in its natural habitat was such an unbelievable privilege for us, and is a stand-out moment from our travels – one that we will never forget.

If you would like to experience snorkelling with wild Whale Sharks, why not check out our Padre Burgos Travel Guide to find out more about how to get there, where to stay, things to do and the best time to visit.

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