Ko Phi Phi: Here there be sharks!

Ko Phi Phi, 10-12 February

The six islands that make up Phi Phi became world-famous when Maya Bay was chosen the setting of the Leonardo DiCaprio movie The Beach. Although the original story was actually inspired by Palawan Island in the Philippines, Maya Bay has drawn in more than 3,700 visitors on a daily ever since, decimating the marine life in the area. As of June 2018 the bay has been closed to the public while a coral rehabilitation project is ongoing.

Between this and nearby James Bond Island, which appeared in 1974’s The Man with the Golden Gun, The Andaman attracts a lot of visitors chasing a Hollywood experience. While the scenery of clear blue waters, white sandy beaches and dramatic karst formations is beautiful, it’s no different to what we’ve seen before on Palawan, Coron, Langkawi and Ko Chang, just a bit more crowded. However, there’s another reason we are both excited to visit Ko Phi Phi: Sharks!

We’re staying on Long beach, the biggest beach on the island, which is 2-km walk away from the main town.

You can snorkel right off the beach here and it’s remarkable how many different types of fish are swimming super close to the shore.

Just 200 meters further out a big rock sticks out from the water: Shark Point. Here’s where you can find blacktip reef shark at all hours of the day. Careful not to collide with the heavy traffic of long tail boats passing along the beach we swim out in search of these giant fish.

First, nothing, but then a big shark appears out of nowhere right in front of us. Thankfully it’s pretty skittish. Reef sharks grow up to about 1.6 meters in length but pose no threat to humans. In total we spot about seven of them around the rocks. At the moment it’s birthing season and right enough one of the sharks looks like she could be pregnant.

The next day we’re heading out to dive. Now that we have our open water we want to build up some experience. The sites we visit are Bida Nok and Palong. Unfortunately, because of the recent full moon, visibility levels again are low, and, by some weird occurrence, the area is infested by tiny purple jelly fish stinging us in the arms, legs and face. Once we’re safely in the deep we spot some puffer fish, trigger fish, a moray eel, clown fish and a giant barracuda. Hopefully on our next dive we’ll finally be able to see further than 7 meters and swim with something big..

So that’s all for Ko Phi Phi. We swam with sharks, saw Maya Bay (from a distance) and got another two dives under our belt, can’t ask for more. While back home it’s snowing, storming and minus 4 degrees, we’re still baking in the sun. Only two more weeks to go before heading home to the cold..

Whale Shark watching in Oslob, a fair warning.

Oslob, Cebu, 22-24 November

Our next stop is Oslob on Cebu Island, but, as of last month, the ferry service between Tagbilaran and Argao has been suspended. This means we’re first taking the ferry back to Cebu city, which quickly turns a three hour journey into a gruelling 8,5 hours. After a long day we reach Oslob just before dark, ready to dive straight into the pool!

First established in 1690, Oslob became an independent parish in 1848 when the present-day church of Immaculate Conception was completed. The church is made out of coral stone and was burned down during WW2, but has since been restored to its former glory.

Oslob is most famous for its whale shark watching, but first we’re taking it easy after a long day of travelling. The start to our morning is not ideal however. We’re a bit bummed out because we realize some of the souvenirs we’ve been collecting on our travels have been nicked from my bag, during our stay in Hong Kong Kowloon I’m convinced. None of it was particularly expensive, but impossible to replace. If you read this manager at Wai Fan Guest House, I’m pretty sure stealing figurines of gods is bad karma..

We decide not to let it ruin a good time (it’s a good excuse to do more travelling in the future after all) and all is soon forgotten when we enjoy the crystal clear waters the hotel looks out over.

The next morning we wake up bright and early to go whale shark watching and we’re excited. This endangered animal is a filter-feeding carpet shark, which feeds on plankton and small fishes, and it’s the largest fish still in existence, growing up to a possible 18 meters in length!

After witnessing in Zanzibar how crazy (Western) tourists get when it comes to seeing rare wildlife, we’re not sure how today will pan out to be. A few organisations in fact have warned against the whale watching practices in Oslob in the past, but we’re told some big improvements have since been made. In 1998, the Philippines banned all fishing, selling, importing and exporting of whale sharks, and by law, all snorkelers must now maintain a distance of four feet from the sharks or risk a fine or even a prison sentence. A marine biologist is on site at all times and only ten people at a time are allowed in the water. All of this however turns out to be far removed from the reality we witness here today.

After buying a (non-refundable) ticket, we attend a mandatory briefing reiterating Philippine law and are brought to the boats. There are at least 15 boats out on the water at the same time, for a grand total of about 150 snorkelers rather than 10! The boats are formed in an orderly line and another boat (with the marine biologist on board, apparently) throws shrimp near the boats to attract the whale sharks. We’re quickly ushered into a boat with 8 other (Chinese) tourists, who, after we have joined the others, immediately swim away and start touching and even kicking the whale sharks! Lauren completely loses it at this point, and rightly so, but the boatman does absolutely nothing to intervene. Don’t get me wrong, it’s amazing to see these wonderful giants up close, and punching the worst offending Chinese tourist in the arm did relieve some stress, but we both wish we never went here in the first place. Sadly the management is clearly not at all interested in this gentle animal’s wellbeing!

Visiting the muddy Tumalog Falls nearby doesn’t do much to improve our mood today. Cebu Island is a beautiful place, but after having a near perfect time on Bohol Island, we can’t help but feel Oslob has been a bit of a let down, it happens.

After travelling tomorrow from the east coast to Samboan on the west coast, in search of a more positive experience!