Just off the coast of Oslob, Janina Roque almost gets close enough to touch a whale shark.

It's 5.12am and our tour driver is not impressed. We were to leave Cebu City in the Philippines at 5am on the dot to make sure we made our date with the largest fish in the world, the whale shark.

We're in a rush because the best time to swim with the giant beasts is first thing in the morning during feeding time, and we don't want to get caught up in Cebu's rush-hour traffic.

Weaving in and out of lanes and overtaking vehicles despite oncoming traffic, our driver is in a serious hurry to get us to the small fishing village of Oslob, southeast of Cebu.


By this point, swimming with the sharks is the least of my concerns, I am just hoping to get there in one piece.

Luckily, it is a public holiday and we make it to the village in about three hours to be greeted by our tour guide, Kuya Iti.

It costs 1500 pesos — roughly $40 — to take care of all the trip expenses and snorkelling equipment hire.

Iti takes us to the briefing area and we sit alongside other tourists who look just as anxious as us.

A staff member stands before us and recites the dos and don'ts before we can enter the water. First: "Sunscreen must not be worn." A handful of our group are told to wash off the sunscreen to keep the water pollutant-free. Then: "Always maintain a 4m distance between you and the sharks." And finally, the most important rule: "Don't touch the sharks! Touching the sharks is a serious offence and could cost you a fine or even jail time." After being fitted with snorkels and lifejackets three times our size, and filled with nervous excitement, we head to the beach where a small banca (outrigger canoe) is waiting for us.

We are crammed, in a single row, into this small canoe that would easily capsize if we make a wrong move, and have only paddled about 100m out from the beach when one of the boatmen yells "we are here".

Slightly surprised by the short distance we've covered, one by one we take off our jackets and make the plunge. Almost as soon as I jump in, not even having enough time to defog and adjust my snorkel, I hear one of the boatmen shout "there is one behind you. I will push you down. Take some photos."

"What?" I say in a panic. It all happens so fast. He signals "3, 2, 1" with his fingers and dunks me deep into the seawater. Not knowing what to expect, I slowly turn my head and there it is, a 10m-long, 19,000kg whale shark, calmly and majestically swimming past.

Barely paying any attention to me or the rest of the group, it's as if it is the only living creature in the water.

About half a dozen "gentle giants" slowly circle our boat, with their mouths wide open, plundering the ocean's bounty for food.

Known to the locals as tuki or butanding, whale sharks vary in size, reaching lengths of 12m or more (equivalent to a bus). Despite their overwhelming size, there is not a moment where I feel fear, just utter amazement.

Moving at such a slow pace gives us perfect photo opportunities, but also allows us to observe these magnificent creatures close-up, as they slide through the water, their white-spotted coats glistening under the sea.

The current pushes us closer and closer to them and I find myself daydreaming, wanting to touch and pat them, but I know better. It is more advisable, I decide, to spend my remaining pesos on some duty-free shopping, instead of a fine.

When you are travelling in a group, there's always that one person who breaks the rules.
Unfortunately, this time that person is me.

Getting told off for being too close wasn't my intention; it was the current, I swear. At least I didn't touch.

Thirty minutes is over too fast.

I feel like a child getting taken away from a newly discovered playground. Just like that, it is time to say goodbye to our new friends.

As we paddle back to the shore, a new batch of tourists comes swarming in. I hope they remember the golden rule.



Cathay Pacific

flies from Auckland to Cebu City, via Hong Kong.