With nearly 2,000 whale sharks (Rhincodon typus), the Philippines is home to the world’s second-largest population of the ocean’s biggest fish. The tropical archipelago is one of the best places in the world to swim with whale sharks — locally called butanding in Tagalog — in the wild. Growing to lengths of up to 18 meters long, they are magnificent but docile leviathans that feed on shrimp, zooplankton and small fish.
Whale Shark Tourism in the Philippines
Whale shark tourism in the country started in Donsol, Sorsogon in 1998, followed by the controversial and overcrowded tours in Oslob, Cebu in 2011, where the sharks are baited with uyap (small shrimp) to keep them around longer for days or weeks in a specific area for the amusement of up to 2,000 tourists everyday.
While the popular activity has benefited the local economy in Oslob, the feeding of whale sharks is an unsustainable practice that disrupts the feeding and migratory behaviors of the animal, and conditions them to approach boats for food, hence increasing the risk of sea vessel collisions, resulting in injury or death. (Read WWF-Philippines’ statement on Oslob whale shark interactions here.)
Donsol tours are a far better option than Oslob. However, while there’s no feeding happening here, some visitors have complained about overcrowding and poor enforcement of the interaction rules among guests.
Sustainable Whale Shark Tours of Sogod Bay
A third option – which in my opinion is the best place to swim with whale sharks in the Philippines – is Sogod Bay, Southern Leyte. Peter’s Dive Resort, one of only a handful of dive operators in the bay area, offers sustainable snorkeling tours with whale sharks or tiki-tiki in the local tongue. Between November and April, whale sharks congregate to feed on plankton off the coast of Pintuyan and San Ricardo on Panaon Island in Southern Leyte.
The tour is a whole-day activity, because the whale sharks are found on the other side of the bay and the boat has to search for them freely cruising around the bay. From the resort, it takes at least 90 minutes to reach Barangay Son-ok, Pintuyan, across Sogod Bay, where the tour boat meets several local spotters on bangkas (outrigger canoes), which are then tied to the boat. A lead spotter also boards the tour boat, before continuing to the southernmost tip of Panaon Island.
Aside from the pandemic lockdowns, the area was devastated by Supertyphoon Odette (Rai) in 2021 and greatly benefits from tourism without exploiting the animals and disregarding their welfare. The tours directly support remote communities by paying environmental fees to the municipal government of Pintuyan, and hiring local fishermen to spot the sharks and assist guests on their bangkas while snorkeling.
Before the search begins, a resort staff member onboard briefs all the guests on the whale shark interaction guidelines (see below). During our tour last weekend with 14 foreign guests, our big boat — accompanied by seven spotters on small bangkas — scoured up and down next to the coastline of San Ricardo near Benit Port, where whale sharks have regularly appeared for the past months.
Unfortunately, after more than three hours of searching – and silently praying – not even a shadow or fin of a whale shark appeared! We had to eventually bring back the spotters to Son-ok, and start our return trip back to the resort. After stopping by Son-ok, our boat slowly traveled northward, staying close to the coastline.
Just before we traversed Sogod Bay, the crew of a dive speedboat, anchored off the coast of Barangay Catbawan, signaled to our passing boat to come over. Just when we thought all hope was lost, we finally hit the jackpot!
Three juvenile whale sharks, measuring around four meters in length, were actively feeding in the area, circling near the surface with their mouth wide open to gulp in plankton-rich water. From a distance, we could see their heads, dorsal fin, and tail break the surface with their distinctive skin pattern of starry dots.
Surprised by the totally unexpected appearance of the whale sharks towards the end of the tour, everyone onboard was scrambling to get back into their wetsuits and wear their masks and fins. At the signal of the crew, all 15 guests were in the water in a matter of minutes, finning towards the whale shark.
Only a handful of us could keep up with the sharks, as they were constantly swimming around in large circles, filtering the water through their mouths. Teeming with zooplankton, the water was somewhat turbid but the sun was out and illuminated the area in gorgeous shades of blue.
Fortunately, the boat crew were helpful at pointing out the exact locations of the animals and the direction they were headed, so we could anticipate their movement. Without the assistance of the spotters on bangkas, it was challenging to keep up with the sharks.
Nonetheless, the last-minute appearance made our unexpected encounter all the more thrilling and rewarding – after hours of waiting and searching in vain. Everyone returned to the boat with the biggest smiles on our faces, letting out a whistle or hoot of joy as our tour boat departed Catbawan for the journey back to Padre Burgos.
How to Get There
Peter’s Dive Resort is located at Barangay Lungsodaan, Padre Burgos, Southern Leyte – a three-hour drive from Tacloban Airport, which serves regular flights from Manila and Cebu.
Alternatively, from Cebu City, you can take a ro-ro ferry or fastcraft to any of the ports along the southwestern coast of Leyte island (ie. from north to south, Ormoc, Baybay, Hilongos, Bato or Maasin), then travel southwards by bus or van to Padre Burgos. (Tip: Cebu-Ormoc route has fastcraft options, while Hilongos has daily ro-ro ferry trips).
I took a Roble Shipping ferry (₱680 for tourist class, 6-7 hours), which departed Cebu City at 9pm and arrived at Hilongos Port at 4am. While onboard, one can purchase bus transfer tickets to other places on Leyte island. I bought a bus ticket for Maasin City Terminal (₱150, 1 hour), where I transferred to a Sogod-bound van (₱100, 45 minutes), which dropped me off at Peter’s Dive Resort in Padre Burgos.
Check out the Facebook pages of the ferry companies for the latest schedule:
- Roble Shipping (Cebu-Hilongos) – Ro-ro ferry, 6 hours
- KHO Shipping Lines (Cebu-Maasin)* – Ro-ro ferry, 6 hours
- OceanJet & SuperCat (Cebu-Ormoc) – Fastcraft, 3 hours
Where to Stay
Peter’s Dive Resort offers an assortment of rooms, starting at ₱400 ($7.25) for a fan-cooled dorm bed or ₱1,440 ($26) for a private economy room. Find discounted rates and check room availability here!
Whale Shark Tour Rates
Whole-day whale shark tours at Peter’s Dive Resort is ₱3,750 ($68) with own equipment, or ₱4,000 ($73) with rental equipment. Whale shark season runs from November to April. For inquiries, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or +63 917 7910993.
- Bring your own lunch, or pre-order from Peter’s Dive Resort.
- Wear a rashguard or wetsuit to protect yourself from jellyfish stings.
- Use only reef-friendly sunblock.
- When snorkeling, listen to the crew or spotters to know the positions of the whale sharks in the water. Chasing them around can quickly exhaust you.