Whale Sharks

Whale Sharks are the largest living non-mammalian vertebrate, rivalling many of the largest dinosaurs in weight.  They have been recorded at over 45 feet long and over 66,000 pounds, making them the largest existing fish.  So, of course, I couldn’t wait to go snorkelling within a few feet of them.  Not to worry though, they are a slow-moving filter feeding shark, which means they do not have teeth like a shark and they feed mainly, though not exclusively, on plankton, which are microscopic plants and animals, so swimming with them is very safe.

This was one of the most incredible “national geographic” moments I have ever experienced.

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We started out at the Port of Djibouti on a large boat ran by a company known as Dolphin Services.  Dan and his team were great hosts and went out of their way to make sure everyone saw a shark before we left.  This was their first tour of the season and it was quite successful.  As we started our 2-hour trip out to the site we picked up a few locals with skiffs that we would use to get close to the sharks.

The whale sharks were in the Gulf of Tadjoura, west of Djibouti City

The whale sharks were in the Gulf of Tadjoura, west of Djibouti City

We stayed close to the coast line, heading west into the Gulf of Tadjoura.  It was a very plain coastline with very little vegetation.  Mostly rocky cliffs and rolling hills.  There were a couple of beaches along the way as well.  We laid around on the deck and took a nap.  It was nice not having anything to do or anywhere to go.

Once we arrived at the site they anchored the boat near a reef.  We would split the tours into two groups.  One team would go out looking for sharks while the other stayed back and hung out on the boat or snorkelled the reef.  I was on the first group to go looking for the sharks.  We grabbed our snorkelling gear and got on a skiff.  The skiff driver did not speak English…  French or Swahili.  Becomes interesting later.  We assume he know what he is doing and head out on our journey.  We probably tooled around the coast line for 45 minutes without a sign of the sharks.  It was starting to look bleak.  Everyone kept looking around for the tell tale sign of the sharks dorsal fin projecting up through the water as it surfaced to feed.  We finally saw a fin break the surface about 50 yards ahead of us and it was off to the races.  The driver pulls right up to the shark and we all jump in.  By the time we got our bearings, it was long gone.  We needed to get out in front of it enough to get in, locate it, and then swim with it.  This is where the language barrier became an issue.  The water was bathtub temperature and very refreshing.  It was also very salty, of course.  It was very clear and you could see over 30 feet around you.  We got back into the boat and started looking again.  We spotted another shark.  He drove right to it, again.  We tried to explain to get in front of it.  He just kept saying “OK” as in “Why aren’t you jumping in the water now?”  I spent 4 years in Belgium, I should be able to give directions in French, So I gave it my best shot.  We were finally able to get ahead of the shark and get in the water before it caught up to us.

I pulled my mask down, set my snorkel, and jumped in.  I turned left…  nothing.  I turned right…  it was 3 feet away from me!  I could nearly touch it.  I started kicking my flippers and staying right next to it.  I held my breath and dove under to see its entire body.  It had to be 20 feet long or more.  It hardly looked like it was moving at all, but it kept pulling away.  I stayed with it for quite a while before it got so far away I could not see it.  That was pretty awesome.  We probably saw 6 or so others and swam with them as well.  We finally got back in the skiff and headed back to the boat.

When we got back we ate lunch and then went swimming along the reef.  This was another incredible experience.  On our way out there we could see little crabs about the size of your hand just hovering a few feet under the surface of the water.  It was funny because as you approached them they would hold their claws up and watch you pass as if they couldn’t wait to snap at you.  There were so many different fish and plant and coral.  Lots of different colors and so deep.  We saw rays and urchins.  At one point a sea turtle came swimming over the top of the reef, so I hovered over it and followed it for a while.  It wasn’t very big, maybe two feet or so from side to side.  It reminded me of Squirt from Finding Nemo.  I bet we were in the water for well over an hour just swimming along the reef finding new stuff.

We finally got back on the boat and so I decided to jump of the top deck into the water.  It was pretty high, but a lot of fun.  It was finally time to get a beer and sit out on the deck and relax.  I slept for a little bit, but mostly just enjoyed the wind in my face and a relaxing day away from the base.  It was a pretty remarkable day.

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