Whale Sharks!

I was once asked, “What was the worst day of your life?  What was the best day of your life?”  I can certainly remember the worst day of my life but when I think back to the best day in my life I can’t think of just one day.  I’m not sure I’ve yet had my best day.  I wrote a list of my best days ever and by the time this day was over it was in the top 5 best days of my life.  Aside from seeing several tornadoes today we would have the chance to dive with Whale Sharks, the biggest fish in the sea. An adult whale shark can be as small as 5 meters long (15 feet) and as big as a city bus.  The whale sharks that we saw on this day were six and nine meters long (18’ and 30’).  The whale shark feeds on microscopic plankton and his huge mouth swallows hundreds of tons of sea water every hour.  As the water passes his mouth thousands of small teeth catch the little animals and feed this massive giant.  The Whale Shark – like all sharks – is relatively harmless to humans.  Really, the only way that one could injure you was if you got too close and spooked it and it turned to swim away and schwacked you with its tail.  Unlike sea mammals (whales and dolphins) that swim with vertical tails and an up and down motion, the Whale Shark has a vertical tail and swims with a side to side motion. After we boarded the boat and had our safety brief the crew of our ship gave us instructions on the proper and legal way to dive with Whale Sharks.  The Whale Sharking business brings in huge revenues to the Exmouth area and the government has taken great care to ensure not only this revenue source but to protect the Whale Sharks as well.


Our instructor explained that a spotting plane would be used to sight the whale sharks and the coordinates would be relayed to our spotting boat.  Once we were close to the Whale Shark the airplane pilot would talk the boat captain to steer our boat into the Whale Shark’s path.  Meanwhile, the Whale Shark tourists (us) would assemble on the back deck of the boat with fins and masks on.  As the Whale Shark closed to our position spotters would jump into the water and as soon as the spotter verified Whale Shark the order to “dive, dive, dive!” would be given.  In something resembling D-Day, all of the shark tourists would dive into the water and try to get a view of the huge shark.  To develop a bit of muscle memory we did a mock jump near a patch of the Ningaloo reef and then we were able to swim around a bit.  This also gave the instructors a chance to see who had bent the truth when they said that they were strong swimmers (a prerequisite for diving with the sharks).


Some additional rules included: you must never close to less than 3 meters (9 feet) with the shark, you cannot swim under or over the shark and if it is coming towards you, move out of the way.  Getting hit by its tail – we are told – isn’t a pleasant experience.  We are told that “accidental” infractions would receive a warning with a second infraction resulting in a revocation of your diving privileges.  An intentional infraction would result in your immediate ban.  The instructors were quite insistent on this point and explained that an unchecked infraction could result in the revocation of their Whale Shark license.  This would mean the unemployment line for the entire crew. While we were swimming around the reef someone spotted a sea turtle and I took a shallow dive down to the bottom to get a closer look.  He looked a bit annoyed and after we stared and took his photo he swam off.


We all piled back onto the boat with eyes hungry for Whale Sharks.  I kept an eye on the clouds as well hoping to spot another tornado.  We received a report that a Whale Shark had been spotted and while the captain changed course, we crammed to the back deck ready to jump.  But it was not to be, a nearby boat poached our shark.  The rules are quite explicit: only one boat at a time can view (harass) a shark and must break contact after 45 minutes.  Of course, there is a queue of boats waiting so that a 45 minute dive for one set of Whale Shark tourists could be a 4 boat 3 hour encounter for the Whale Shark.  Well, at least the Aussie gov.gov has instituted rules to protect the sharks; I’ve heard of swimmers in Thailand grabbing a hold of Whale Shark fins and going along for a ride. We were all a bit disappointed that our shark had been stolen but then the captain announced that Manta Rays had been spotted.  We all crowded to the back deck again and we dove into the water in the same way we would if we were ever to see a Whale Shark.  The Manta Rays were an added bonus; there are entire tours dedicated just to viewing these rays.  These majestic creatures are also filter feeders and their wingspan is about 3 meters (9 feet) wide.  I say wingspan because they appear to fly through the water rather than swim and they look just like underwater birds something akin to a huge condor or eagle.


We trolled around in the water for a while waiting for another call from the pilot above.  I went up to the top deck and chatted with the captain.  He told me that he had been driving this boat Whale Sharking for the past 10 years and this day was the first day that he’d ever seen more than one waterspout or tornado.  Someone behind me called out dolphins and everyone on board crowded to the port side of the boat to see them.  Sure enough there were three dolphins swimming in the water.  The captain turned the boat for a better look.  I noticed that the sea appeared to be boiling; it was churning with sardines that were breaking the surface trying to flee schools of tuna that were feeding on them.  The dolphins in turn fed on the tuna and the whole surface seemed to be full of activity.   Then the captain called out “sea snake” and sure enough I saw a bright orange snake swimming along in the water.  The snake seemed to be unconcerned with us and transited along.  The captain said that he was very venomous and if you were bit by one of this type you probably would never reach the shore.


After a while later the captain finally called out “Whale Shark” and everyone scrambled to get their fins and masks on and then to walk like so many penguins with their big feet to the back of the ship to jump in.  My group would be the first in and we waited impatiently as the spotting divers jumped in.  One diver went in and a moment later he shot his fist into the air – the sign that he had sight of the whale shark.  It seemed that the shark was immediately behind the boat and only a moment later we saw a large dark shadow approaching just to the back-left side of the boat.  The shadow grew bigger and bigger and soon we could see that it was a bus sized Whale Shark.  Just when it seemed that it would swim past the instructor called out, “dive, dive, dive” and we all jumped in with great excitement.  I was on the far edge of the jumping platform and – probably due to my long legs – I jumped almost on top of the shark.  It looked further away but when I landed in the water and got my bearings I was only a few feet away.  I tried to back-pedal and take a photo at the same time and I got off one blurry shot before the instructor angrily pulled at my fin signaling that I needed to back up.  Later, the B team told me that the other instructor on deck went nuts screaming and hollering at me (like I could hear her – I was under water).


I swam away a bit and was able to get a better (in focus) photo.  Unfortunately I couldn’t seem to get the entire shark into the photo; it was so long that I would have to back up quite a bit to get it to fit.  Another problem photographing the Whale Shark is that you constantly have to swim to keep up with it – and swim fast!  Once you are dropped into the water you wait until the Whale Shark approaches.  If it is close enough you can shoot a photo or two as it passes and then you try to swim along parallel with it and observe it while it glides through the ocean.  But to take a successful photo that isn’t blurry you really need to stop in the water and shoot the shark as it swims by.  The only way to do this is to swim ahead of the shark and get photos and video as it passes by.  Considering that the shark’s cruising speed is about as fast as you can comfortably swim wearing fins, to pass it you have to make a full strength burst – in other words, you have to swim like hell to get ahead of it.  One or two full speed-full effort bursts and you are just wiped out.  Before the day ended we each had 4 whale shark dives; at two or three full out bouts of speed swimming, we were exhausted by the last dive.


I finally got the hang of it – swimming ahead and shooting photos as the shark passed and I did get a few decent photos.  But it always seemed that I misjudged the positioning of the camera.  I was looking through a mask, underwater and at the back of my small Olympus waterproof camera.  The bright sun through the water and the glare made it tough to see the back of the screen and I couldn’t always tell if I had the whole shark in the frame; most of my photos have the head or the tail cut off.


On the last dive we must have been about 40 yards from the Whale Shark and everyone spread out.  I popped my head above the water and tried to judge where the spotter was indicating its position and then I swam to that position and waited – camera in hand.  I was pleasantly surprised when I saw this huge bus-sized whale slowly materializing out of the blue water ahead of me.  I captured a photo when it was just within sight.


The Whale Shark swam right up to me and gently turned and continued to my left only about 10 feet away.  Since I was sitting still and wasn’t out of breath from chasing to keep up I was able to shoot a relatively tranquil photo.  You can see in this photo that this Whale Shark has an entire entourage of small fish, Ramora (under its fins) and a few juvenile Black Tipped Reef Sharks.  I suppose that the smaller fish find some comfort in this massive giant.  The Whale Shark swam along ever so gently and didn’t seem to be disturbed by a dozen tourists as they splashed about taking photos and yelling back and forth to each other.


One of the great difficulties in swimming with the Whale Sharks is that you’re swimming with about a dozen people and when everyone is crammed in for a front row seat there tends to be a bit of pushing and shoving.  It is unintentional but everyone really gets quite excited being next to such a magnificent creature and they’re swimming with all their strength to keep up.  Add in the difficulties of limited vision with a diving mask and people were constantly kicking off each other’s masks and bumping about in the water.  I tried to avoid all of this by swimming around behind the crowd of swimmers and intercepting the Whale Shark ahead.  I would swim back away from the shark behind all of my friends, kick like a madman to get ahead of the shark and then wait for it to pass again.  In one such attempt I was able to capture this video and in it you can see just how big this Whale Shark is.  Behind the shark you can see another diver.  I believe that Jenna is the diver in the foreground at the end of the video.

 

 

After you “run out of gas” and can no longer keep up with the shark you flip over on to your back and point your fist into the air signaling the boat that you are ready for a pickup and if they aren’t busy dropping off the other swimmers eventually they come around to pick you up and then the boat moves ahead of the shark for another approach.  In this way we had 4 dives with the shark and while each one maybe only lasted a few minutes it was terrifically exciting to be face to face with a shark the size of a school bus.  When the boat came to pick us up after one run I shot a photo of it from the water.


As you can see by the smiles on the faces of my friends, each Whale Shark dive was fun and exciting.  The whole day everyone was smiling and laughing and having such a great time.  By the end of the day, the tornado weather had moved away and while it was still producing funnel clouds it was far enough away so that we had sunny skies and bright clear water.


The hospitality on the boat was wonderful; lunch was a huge buffet spread of sandwiches with every kind of meat and bread that you could imagine. There were regular snacks after each dive to include a lot of fresh fruit and the whole atmosphere the entire day was lighthearted and fun.  For the rest of the day after we got back to our lodging in Exmouth, everyone was talking and retelling stories about their Whale Shark encounters and how much fun they had.  If you ever make it out to Exmouth, be sure to take part in a Whale Shark dive.  I will always look back on this day as one of my best.  I hope you have enjoyed reading my story :-)


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