Diving with a Whale Shark for the First Time
Every scuba diver’s dream is to experience a close encounter with the ocean’s largest fish – the Whale Shark – the holy grail of every marine-life enthusiast. I too shared this dream, but was convinced that the existence of these mythical creatures was, at best, somewhat dubious.
Of course I’d heard many wonderful stories of divers catching a glimpse of these huge marine animals and seen the Natural History programmes showcasing breathtaking footage of these graceful giants, but my own history of encountering a Whale Shark had been one of near misses and well, let’s face it, bitter disappointment.
How many times had I heard ‘We’re seeing Whale Sharks every day at the moment’ – except, of course, the day I’m out on the boat! Or even worse, surfacing from a perfectly lovely dive, to hear my fellow divers raving about a Whale Shark that I’d somehow missed. ‘How could you have missed it – it was huge!’ is not a winning formula to make a disappointed diver feel any better. Enduring the ride home with the animated chatter of divers who have realised a dream – the stories of its size getting ever bigger, whilst trying to feel genuinely happy that everyone else has had such a great day, can start to make one feel somewhat jinxed. So the day I finally saw my first Whale Shark, was a very special day indeed.
Cruising out to the twin sea mounts, Hin Daeng & Hin Muang, on Scubafish’s luxury speed cruiser, I day dreamed of what surprises lay in store. The two famous pinnacle dive sites are located about an hour’s ride from Kantiang Bay at the southern end of Ko Lanta. They are fairly exposed in the open ocean, but lie only 200m apart. Being the deepest drop-offs in Thailand, they are magnets for all sorts of marine life, from rare critters, right up to the big stuff. You can expect to find something pretty special on almost every dive. My first dive however, was (you’ve guessed it) another personal Whale Shark disappointment. Some of the other divers on the boat had a fleeting encounter, but yet again, I was not one of them.
Little did I know, my luck was about to change dramatically… Just after we’d finished the first dive, we noticed some activity in the water just a few metres away from Hin Muang, so we went over to take a closer look.
A few people jumped into the water with snorkelling gear on and instantly there were excited shouts of ‘Whale Shark! Whale Shark!’. Feeling rather cynical about my luck, I assumed that as soon as I set foot anywhere near the water, any sign of this creature would instantly disappear, so I took my time.
Excited anticipation soon took over and I followed everyone else in. I was rewarded with a one hour personal Whale Shark encounter from a curious giant who just kept on coming back for more.
Within a minute of being in the water, I was greeted by the giant shark cruising directly underneath me at a depth of just 4 metres, seemingly revelling in the attention of humans. I was lucky enough to have my video camera with me and, with the sunlight glistening over his beautifully patterned body, our new friend offered repeated opportunities for great shots.
As the Whale Shark showed no signs of disappearing into the depths, we climbed back on board the boat, hastily got into our scuba gear and jumped back in for a closer look. As I floated effortlessly in the blue, marvelling at the truly breathtaking scene I was experiencing, it occurred to me how the curiosity of these gentle creatures is both a blessing and a curse, making them easy targets for fishermen, but also allowing lucky divers and scientists time to study and appreciate these ancient giants.
The Whale Shark continued to circle around, sometimes even swimming through, our group of delighted divers for another 40 minutes, treating almost everyone to at least one face-to-face encounter they will never forget.
As we neared the end of our dive, our obliging Whale Shark took in one last look at each diver, before gracefully diving down into the depths. I stayed watching his huge caudal (tail) fin get smaller and smaller until long after it had disappeared. I felt profoundly privileged, ecstatically happy, yet strangely sad that it was over. I finally surfaced from the dive having banished all my previous frustrations, safe in the knowledge that I had my own experience of a lifetime, safely recorded both in my memory and on film.
Phil, UK, 03/03/07
Hin Muang & Hin Daeng are easily reached in about 1 hour from the south of Ko Lanta on Scubafish’s luxury high-speed dive cruiser. These world-class dive sites offer some of the most regular Manta Ray and Whale Shark encounters in Thailand.