Whalesharks are the biggest fish in the sea. You don’t get any bigger. 30-40ft and 30 tonnes of shark. They’re peaceful, filter feeding behemoths of the ocean and they are the pinnacle of a scuba diver’s log book, with good reason.
Back in 2007, I realised that, following my divorce, that I had the freedom and ability (and will) to do absolutely anything I’d ever wanted to do. And as a fairly newly qualified scuba diver, I wanted to do it all. I wanted to experience the world in all its natural mind-blowing wonder. And I wanted to swim with a whaleshark. So I did.
Okay, so I want to swim with a whaleshark – how?
There are various places in the world you can swim with these stunning fish. Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia and the Maldives are fairly popular places. Ningaloo is a popular tourist spot, and can often be overcrowded, however with spotter planes, you are usually guaranteed a sighting. Maldives, less so (as I found out recently, when we went looking on a recent liveaboard trip). However if you’re in Europe and not that fond of tourists, there ‘s a less well-known and slightly more off the track place to go, to be guaranteed a swim – Djibouti.
Djibouti is a tiny African country in the eastern coast, in between Eritrea and Sudan, the area is not without its problems and current travel advice is to stay away from the borders. But a live aboard out of the capital, Djibouti city, is far enough away from the war-torn areas. Plus, as a previous French colony, and one where the French Foreign Legion train all of their recruits – I always felt safe surrounded by the large amounts of crazy French soldiers. Check travel advice before you travel, of course.
Every year, around October, the Gulf of Tadjurah, that splits Djibouti attracts millions of tonnes of plankton,, and therefore becomes a gathering point for dozens and dozens of whalesharks who migrate there to feed. While this does mean that if you do plan to scuba dive while you’re there, you should be aware that the visibility will be rubbish. Like swimming in milk, some of the time. But it’s the trade-off you pay for Whalesharks.
Swimming with the fishes
I decided I would scuba dive while I was there, and booked a liveaboard through Scuba Travel (my favourite dive travel company, although they don’t offer this trip anymore. Others, like Regal Dive do). For the non-divers, a live aboard is a boat that you live on for the full week, and you dive off it – allowing you to get to some more out-of-the-way dive sites that you wouldn’t be able to reach from land.
The schedule for a whaleshark liveaboard, is simply to fit some diving around the whaleshark hunting. A typical day consists of getting up, diving, breakfast, then a short nap, and perhaps another dive. Then getting into a small dinghy, with a snorkel and fins, and going out into the bay to find the sharks. Then come back, have some lunch. Go back again, look for sharks. Come back. maybe go for a night dive. Then relax.
It’s sometimes not as easy as jumping in the dinghy; even though these are huge creatures, it’s a big ocean, so they’re not always easy to spot. But the Gulf is relatively small compared to other areas, like the Maldives and Ningaloo, so this really does increase your chances. In addition, there are very few liveaboards that do the Djibouti run, so when you do find one, you won’t be in the water with a million other people – just the people off your boat – around 20 of them at most.
Once you do find them, well….. get your fins and mask on, and get in the water!
Hopefully, if you’re there at the right time, there will be lots of them. At one point, I was in the water with four. Yes four. Three massive 30 ft sharks, and a little baby, about 15 feet long. And they’re all swimming around you with their huge mouths, gulping as much plankton as they can. If you’re unlucky, the shark will decide it doesn’t want to hang around you, and will simply dive deeper away from the splashing. if you’re lucky, he’ll hang around, and swim with you at the surface, so effortlessly with a flick of his tail, and you’ll have to swim like an Olympian to even keep up with him!
Don’t expect to get fantastic photos, as mine attest to – the water is murky, and they’re probably going so fast you’ll just get a blur. But just put your camera down and enjoy being next to a peaceful giant.
If you’re on a liveaboard, another benefit is you can go back to your floating hotel with your fellow whale shark spotters and celebrate. There will be a bar onboard, and although drinking to excess and diving is a no-no, you can celebrate your new bucket list experience with a small shandy.
In addition, because you’re still in the whaleshark area, there’s the likelihood that the Sharks will hang around. Plankton are attracted to light, so in the evening, if you shine a spotlight on the surface, not long will the plankton come to the surface towards the light, but the Sharks will too to eat the plankton! We were treated to a whaleshark show, watching the Sharks stand upright in the water, and gulping huge mouthfuls of plankton in the spotlight.
If you’re really lucky, you can then stick your mask and find back on and get into the water, as the 30 tonnes shark circles your boat. For that reason, it’s probably wise not to have too many shandies….
What else is there to do in Djibouti?
Djibouti is a proper African country. It’s not touristy like Kenya, and you should probably stick to the capital, Djibouti City unless you’re on a tour. It’s French speaking, so you can find your way around the main market, which is fun in itself and there are a few bars to sample the local life in (albeit many are brothels, to serve the local military trade!). If you’re looking for authentic African, you could just take a wander around the main square, and watch kids kick footballs around the streets, and immerse yourself in a different culture.
Djibouti really is the place to go if you’re on a mission to see Whalesharks. It doesn’t have the romance of the Maldives, or the modernity of Australia, but it’s Africa – it’s raw, it’s cool, it’s African and at the right time of year, it’s pretty much guaranteed you’ll be in the water with these gorgeous creatures.