What A Whale Shark!
After a few months of diving on Koh Tao, I was starting to empathize with Captain Ahab from Moby Dick. Except I hadn’t been searching for a giant white whale, but rather a giant whale shark. Not one in particular, any one of the majestically, massive creatures would do. It seemed that fate was against me ever seeing one face to face.
The first time that I missed one was on the 4th of July. After a week of diving every morning, I took the morning off to pick up beer and meat to celebrate Independence Day. As the longtail returned, it was filled with my mates enthusiastically gesturing ‘whale shark’ by making a fin with their hand on their foreheads. First one missed. Another string of bad luck followed, with whale sharks seeming to turn up only on the few mornings that I wasn’t scheduled to go diving.
And then I hit rock bottom. On an afternoon dive at Chumpon, with the rare condition of the big pink boat being the only boat on the dive site, I descended with an Israeli fun diver who had seen a whale shark the morning before (of course I was off that morning). The dive was awesome as the north end of the site was packed with giant barracuda and rainbow runners hunting the massive schools of smaller fish. An extremely rare and fast sail fish even darted past. As we made our way towards Barracuda Rock at the south end of the pinnacle, Josh signaled that he had just seen a whale shark on the north west side of the pinnacle. Excitedly changing direction, we looked expectantly for a giant shadow blotting out the sun. Except the shark had crossed over to the other side of the pinnacle and went to hang out around Barracuda Rock, where we were no longer headed. With my fun diver running low on air, we surfaced wondering if Josh had just been messing with us.
He wasn’t. As literally everyone else on the boat came up, they started whooping and talking about how massive it was. At this point, everyone on the boat had seen a whale shark (even my fun diver the day before) except for me. I even jumped in and went snorkeling to catch a glimpse, and two minutes after entering the water it apparently swam by the boat and hung around. Meanwhile, I was obliviously searching around with my head in the water, frustrated beyond belief. We stuck around for a second dive but the shark had decided it was closing time and left the vicinity.
At this point I had resigned to share my fate with Captain Ahab, never finding that which I sought. Which is what made my moment of triumph that much sweeter.
It was a typical Tuesday morning at Chumpon, with the sun reflecting off the deep blue waters signifying good visibility. Leading one fun diver, we followed a school of spanish mackerel around the north end of the pinnacle. Corkscrewing around to look up, I felt my breath catch in my lungs. No chance, they really do exist! And they’re massive! A giant shadow hovered around 10 meters, escorted by a number of smaller cobia and remoras. It was a beautiful 4 meter long whale shark. Finally! And my fun diver and I had it all to ourselves (along with the captain of Big Blue. He had jumped down with only a mask and his reg, riding his tank and kicking with his one fin (he lost his other leg in a commercial diving accident) like a true badass.) For the next five minutes the inquisitive shark swam in circles around us, enjoying the feel of our bubbles against its skin. Then came a huge horde of divers who had spotted the shark from across the pinnacle and it dove down deep, escaping the paparazzi.
It was truly a blessing to spend that much time isolated with the shark. Being separated by just a few meters, the sheer size of these magnificent creatures forces you to be in awe of nature. The feeling is hard to describe. It is part amazement and feeling slightly insignificant (like looking at the stars), part adrenaline rush, all accompanied by a profound responsibility to protect the beauty of nature.
As these reflective feelings coursed through my mind, the whale shark made its return and swam directly over top and next to us. As my extreme turn of fortune would have it, a videographer named James caught our interaction on camera.
I have since seen one more whale shark, and it was an awesome experience. But nothing will ever beat the vindication, the awe, of seeing that first special shark. The odds of seeing a whale shark while diving in the world are something close to 1 in 5,000 dives. Now that I am averaging 1 in every 80 dives (2 in around 160 dives), I can consider myself very fortunate.
There is much that is not understood about whale sharks. They are the largest living non-mammalian vertebrates and have been around for over 60 million years. In all this time, there has never been a live whale shark birth witnessed. Each shark has unique markings on their back, allowing scientists to track them when they are seen in different locations. The ones around Thailand are believed to be near the adolescent stages of their lives, as they average between 3.5 to 6 meters long. The average size for an adult whale shark is between 9-10 meters and weigh on average around 20,000lbs. Their size is astounding considering that they are one of only three filter feeding sharks, feasting on algae, plankton, krill, and other small invertebrates. They pose very little threat to divers, as long as you are careful not to get walloped by its tail.
Hopefully our understanding of these creatures will increase in the near future. And hopefully a few more will come to visit.