Oslob, Philippines: Whale Sharks, Tourism And A Changing Climate

The exact details on how and why Oslob, Philippines recently became a whale shark feeding epicenter differs depending on the source. Here’s what I was told:

In 2011, when a Norwegian marine biologist passed through the small town of Oslob, a roughly three and a half hour drive from Cebu City on the Filipino island of Cebu, he had the intention of studying the local species. But when he saw a local fisherman throwing rocks at whale sharks, who had recently began feeding in the area again, he complained to the local government and convinced the mayor to make it an official tourist attraction. And just like that, Oslob became an internationally known tourist destination.

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Taking a nap in between customers.

The center of Oslob consists of one main road called Natalio Bacalso Avenue, which houses a small market, a few restaurants, convenience stores and numerous guest houses. Ten kilometers from the main area of town is the whale shark area, Tan-awan, where tourists are dropped off to wait in line to be taken out on a small rowboat. From there, they can scuba, snorkel or watch from the boat while whale sharks get fed. Each person gets 30 minutes in the water.

While I was there, I estimated around 200 people were around trying to get a look as well, so the experience is far from intimate. Fishermen paddle around nearby dropping food in the water to attract the whale sharks to where the tourist boats sit.

Tourists travel great distances for just 30 minutes alongside the impressive sea creatures. Seeing them is on all of the great to-do’s of Cebu and gets mentions on all of the travel blogs.Tourism brings income, jobs and infrastructure, but it usually has a mixed reception for those directly affected.

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Many tourists opt to take a 3:00am bus from Cebu City or from the popular diving spot Moalboal. They leave and return the same day, therefore bypassing most of Oslob. Restaurants and the local government still benefit from their visit, which once used to cost tourists 50 pesos ($1 USD) for 30 minutes of snorkeling but now amounts to 1,500 a person ($28USD). Because the local government manages the project, only locals are employed.

Those who lived in Oslob before the big tourist boom mention that before, it was a very quiet town. I spoke with Pretty, a fruit vendor at the town market who told me the whale sharks bring lots of tourists who spend money. Now, the locals have more buildings and more business. (Later in the day, I returned to the market to pick up more fruit. I spotted the woman who at the whale sharks wharf sold me a few slices of pineapple and a bit of watermelon for an overpriced 100 pesos ($2 USD), something that would normally cost half that price, if not less. I tried to bargain with her, but she wouldn’t budge. I was starving, so I didn’t really care; and after all, what are two dollars to me? “Ah, I recognize her,” I told Pretty. “Oh yes, that’s my mom!” she said. And I realize now why else it’s beneficial to have tourists.)

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My sister and I decided to stay two days in Oslob, hopefully avoiding the potential for an excruciating, nauseating bus trip (prone to motion sickness). When we walked around town and children saw us, they, scream “Hello!” suggesting that they realize we’re a novelty, but our presence isn’t something new. Young boys got nervous speaking around us and several people stopped to ask where we’re from. Whereas surrounding the wharf there were crowds of tourists (reminding me of a smaller version of what I saw at the Vatican), around town my sister and I only saw a few. We asked Pretty what there is to do on a Friday night. Unenthusiastically, she explained that there is a bar, but it’s not that great. “Maybe singing,” she said. We had already heard the painful karaoke from our neighbor the night before.

In that sense, the tourism hasn’t caused the town to be overblown. A few tourists linger around Spanish colonial ruins, but not many. Most locals still live exactly as they used to. But the international community’s “discovery” of the whale sharks has inevitably changed it.

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John, the owner of the guest house where were staying, says that the whale shark tourist industry has altered his social relations with locals. He came here around 15 years ago when he retired after years of living in Canada. His aim was to fish, relax by the ocean, and host friends. He got to do so for a while. The water in front of the guest house used to be teeming with fisherman, he explained. While we were there, we only say two or three.

They would bring their fish in, drink a beer and talk. Now after they fish, he says they say hello but quickly run to their next job attending to tourists. “We’ve lost quality time, you could say,” he told me. John also explained other changes, like the how the road next to his house used to be like an old country road but now sounds like a freeway.

Even his guest house’s very existence is a direct result of tourism: The town didn’t have the capacity to hold the steep increase in tourists, so the mayor asked those with extra spaces to convert them into accommodation. John refused twice, but the third time he wasn’t really given a choice. “You don’t say no to the mayor,” he sighed.

But like all towns and people, they adapt. John realized he enjoyed meeting people from all of the world and eventually came to like being a guest house owner. Pretty seemed pleased with the changes, but she could have just been telling me what she wanted to hear. Obviously Pretty and John come from opposite sides of the spectrum and are aiming for different things, but whether or not others are positively or negatively affected by the newcomers is yet to be analyzed.

To me, Oslob was still a sleepy town. Besides the whale sharks, there’s simply not much to do. Of course there’s karaoke and the beach, but those aren’t unique to the place. And there are the recent travel warnings. My sister and I ran into a cheery Australian couple on the bus from Oslob to Moalboal. “Yeah, we were going to stay four days and we already paid for the accommodation, but we ditched after two nights,” they said, referring to the lack of activities.

Even though I didn’t see much destructive evidence of tourism beyond the area around the whale sharks, for those that saw the before and after, like John and Pretty, it must require some getting used to.

More demand brings hostels, drunken backpackers, bars and prostitutes. It’s not Phuket and it’s not Boracay, but as I watched the stream of yellow buses full of tourists disembark at the wharf, a fear washed over me that this could eventually become what no one wants it to. At least for a while though, it’s too boring to become any of those things.

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The oldest street in Oslob.

Thinking about swimming with the whale sharks? This article wasn’t about the environmental controversy, but if you’re going to Oslob you should do your research. Here are a few articles to help you make you decision:

5 reasons not to swim with whale sharks in Oslob

Whale Sharks in the Philippines- is it wrong to swim with them?

Should you swim with whale sharks in the Philippines?


Featured photo: A man rides his bike in front of the cuartel, still standing from the 1600s.

What Happened To The Photo Challenge Of The Month?

If you happen to be celebrating, Merry Christmas! If not, I hope your day is just as joyful.

When I posted in January that 2016 would be a year of street photography capturing personality, I failed to take into account that 2016 was also my year of Australia. If you’ve heard anything about Australia, you might have heard that while it has a handful of populated cities, the majority of the country is bush.

Which means that there aren’t always streets, there are dirt roads. There aren’t always people there are cattle, and traveling on a budget means that while on the road your travel mates aren’t into waiting for you to get a shot.

And when you work on a mine for three months, the options are even more limited. So while I’m hesitant to make excuses as to why the photo challenge failed after May, I do hope you won’t think less of me for not continuing. You do know I’m joking, don’t you?

To redeem myself I’d like to share three photos from a recent trip I took to Japan. Look forward to more Japan pictures in my “Photo Friday” series.

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Smoke near a street vendor in Kyoto.
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A child looks at a ninja costume on the streets of Kyoto.
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A tourist dresses up like a geisha and takes photos at Fushimi-Inari Shrine. 

See the rest of the months’ photos here.

Photo Friday: 72 Hours in Guangzhou, China

 

Is it still Friday? Even if it’s not let’s just pretend it is.

Earlier this week Pink Pangea published my article “Make the Most of a 72 Hour Free Visa in Guangzhou, China.” In the article, I give tips for others looking to take advantage of the free visa.

I may not have gotten to spend much time there, but in three days I quickly figured out the city is more than just the place that makes all of consumers cheap goods. Its a warm, bright city with patient people, religious worship, Korean cafes, consumerist youth, famed Cantonese cuisine and a diverse expat community. Here’s a bit of what I saw when I was there:

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Painted rubbish bins at Redtory Art and Design Factory.
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A woman cleans the streets near Beijing Lu, one of the busiest pedestrian only streets. Taken around 7:30am.

 

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Old city bikers.
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Unknown numbers. 
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Taking a break near the old city.
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A boy makes an offering to in Old Guangzhou. 
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Posing. 

Coming soon: A “what I did” series, including a what I did in Guangzhou. Sort of like a travel guide, but less formal. I just want you know what I did and what I thought was cool!

Photo Friday: State Library of Victoria in Melbourne

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The above photo, which was the photo for the photo challenge of the month in May, was taken in a photo workshop (organization listed in post on where to continue your learning in Melbourne). The workshop’s theme was storytelling, and the subject was the State Library. The workshop was in June, but to commemorate my current visit to Melbourne I’m posting this now. Below are the rest of the photos and my amateur attempt to convey a story.

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Around 9:00am there were only a few people around the grounds. It was a brisk fall morning.

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Some people started to walk around the entrance, even though it didn’t open until around 10.
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It was almost the end of the semester, so many students started to show up in hope of getting a good spot for a day of study.
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People of all ages and backgrounds began to wait.
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Around 10:00am, people had already been waiting. Some had takeaway pastries and coffee. (Some, like the man in the photo of the month, had an entire chicken.)

As soon as the doors were unlocked, the people waiting flooded in and secured their best spots, with powerpoints (plugs) and silence. I went inside to see what all the fuss was about.

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When I stepped back outside, there were a lot more people. The regular city goers had taken their places in the lawn outside. Skateboarders were doing tricks and even the crepe food truck was setting up.

A live band started playing and I went across the street for some coffee. So Melbourne.

 

Photo Challenge Of The Month: May

This post is the fifth of a 12-part photo challenge for 2016 to capture “personality” on the street. This challenge is inspired by  Valerie Jardin‘s podcast This Week in Photos: Street Focus, the episode “2016 Resolutions,” featuring Marco Larousse.

In terms of making this photography a priority, this month sadly wasn’t any different than the last. I went out to shoot one time, and it was for a photo workshop on storytelling (photo story to come) with the group Photoh (check them out for workshops! I had a great experience).

Lucky for me, after two hours I took one shot that I really, really liked. It has never happened to me before that I take a photo and feel really good about it. And I’m so happy it finally happened! What was different this time was my attitude towards shooting my subjects. I was in a very public place, where tourists normally frequent. Besides that, I stayed in the same place for two hours, feeling very comfortable with the space.

And best of all, the photo fits into the category I’m aiming for, personality. The subject in my photo below was goofy, loud and chewed quickly. He brought a giant bottle of milk and an entire rotisserie chicken in bag from Coles to the Library. He just wanted a morning snack before heading into the State Library Victoria before it opened at 10:00am.

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Photo Challenge Of The Month: April

This post is the fourth of a 12-part photo challenge for 2016 to capture “personality” on the street. This challenge is inspired by  Valerie Jardin‘s podcast This Week in Photos: Street Focus, the episode “2016 Resolutions,” featuring Marco Larousse.

I have once again failed my mission to get out on the streets and take photos whenever I can. Too many salads made and not enough back strength to carry everything I need for my day (a girl’s got to pack her lunch and carry her laptop!). But, of the two times I did go out this month I was both disappointed at my lack of ability to adjust the lighting as I desired and impressed by the never-ending array of juxtapositions and odd phrases twisted together in some sort of disgusting fashion aimed at ingenuity.

I didn’t have to walk from my job as a salad maker to find this picture, taken of the window of Bromley & Co, provocative and colorful decor label based in Melbourne. To be fair, this man’s not a real person, so I’m not capturing live personality, but his beer belly, relaxed but not tired eyes and unabashed balding say anything but without personality.

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What name would you give him? Put it in the comments.

He could your caring father, you sexist boss or your annoyingly judgmental neighbor. He’s curious and well rested, as if he just popped out of bed and is about to dive into a giant bowl of Frosted Flakes while he listens to the news of Trump’s latest win. He doesn’t tell anyone, but sometimes he waxes his eyebrows at the Chinese-run nail salon at Spencer and La Trobe. They all notice anyway.

Lately, he’s been playing around with foundation and bronzer. No one noticed, until one day they did. He wiped his mouth on his napkin at lunch and instead of putting it back on his lap, he set it on the table. He stood up to go to the bathroom, his bulgy stomach hitting the edge of his plate and almost staining his white shirt with red sauce. After he left, the eyes of his lunch companions were drawn in all at once to his brown powder-stained napkin. Their heads lifted after a few moments of silence, and without a word exchanged, they all collectively understood why he always looked so rejuvenated.

2016 Photo Challenge: March

This post is the third of a 12-part photo challenge for 2016 to capture “personality” on the street. This challenge is inspired by  Valerie Jardin‘s podcast This Week in Photos: Street Focus, the episode “2016 Resolutions,” featuring Marco Larousse.

Remember how in January I practiced but I was scared, and in February I vowed to make March a month of much photography? Well, I failed. Not completely, but mostly. I took photos around three days this month.

Little practice for someone with much to learn can only mean…I haven’t improved? That is certain, and the other certainty lies in the fact that I don’t have many photos to choose from.There were better quality photos than the one I chose. However, I wanted to stay true to my theme: personality. If I didn’t see something entertaining, it didn’t qualify.

I was trying to practice photography on my way to see Becky Lucas at the Victoria Hotel in the CBD as part of the Melbourne Comedy Festival (I highly recommend her show! It was spectacular and had me not literally, but almost rolling over in laughter. I learned what “pash” means (making out) and about what reputation the people who sell The Big Issue really have).

A bar called Hairy Little Sista caught my eye. What an amazing name! How could I have not seen it before? And what an amazing thing to celebrate female body hair! I couldn’t let a name like this pass me by. I whipped out my camera and in no time someone behind me started laughing. He ran up in front of the camera and posed excitedly with the sign. “It’s a great sign!” I explained to him, “I couldn’t not take a photo!”

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A man poses with the sign of the restaurant “Hairy Little Sista.”

He ran off with his female companion as I walked across the street to enter into the venue for the comedy show. It’s my only wish that the rest of his Thursday night was full of the same vigor as he showed me. I appreciate this man’s spontaneity and unabashed goofiness. If anything, it should give us all courage to photo bomb. You never know whose photo you’d end up in.