Day 198, 25th February – Whalesharks in South Ari Atoll

One of the highlights of working down south in Velavaru was that we were in close proximity to a place in South Ari Atoll that was frequented by whale sharks. It’s been an absolute dream of mine to swim alongside a wild whale shark so I’d begged the dive centre to let me tag along on my day off. Several days ago, I joined a trip and spent several hours looking for them to no avail. When I heard they were having another whale shark trip to South Ari Atoll, I tried not to get my hopes up again, but eagerly climbed aboard the speedboat with my fingers crossed.

Today, we wait with the sun beating down our shoulders, squinting for a shadow over the rippling waters, trying not to be thrown off-balance from the lurching boat. With the sun glaring down at the sea, the blue becomes reflective and even more difficult to look through. Wave after wave, all I see is an infinite blue, incapable of even gauging how deep we are anymore. All of a sudden, someone shouts, “Vaaiy faraaiy! To the left of the boat!” I catch a glimpse of a dark shadow slowly cruising across the reef and then it disappears. The next few minutes pass by in madness. Everyone scrambling to put on their snorkel gear, the captain trying to keep an eye on the shark and lots of shouting to get into the water as fast as possible. I help the kids into the water first and soon enough I’m the last one on the boat. “Where is my stuff! And….I can’t find my fins.”

Everyone is off the boat, in the water, and I can’t find my fins. Ageel is drifting away and I see him waving his arms, calling me to get in the water…but my fins are not on the deck, not under the seats, and then a moment of dread washes over me. Can I keep up with an 8-m long shark without any fins? No…HAS ANYONE SEEN MY FINS? The boat crew scramble around helping me to find them and finally we find them stowed in the lower deck. I don’t bother to ask why and without hesitation, I jump off the bow and straight into the water, putting on my fins as I swim towards the large shadow. My jet fins are heavy, and definitely not ideal for swimming fast at the surface, but I press on.

I spot it around 6m from the surface, polka-dotted and huge, the foot-long remoras clinging on to its side look as small as cleaner wrasses. It swims unhurriedly, its large tail sweeping slowly in the dim light. Should it have been swimming any faster, I’d probably not be able to close the distance between us. Just as I manage to keep directly overhead the shark, I take a deep breath and pull myself deeper, my heart still racing from trying to keep up with this giant, my lungs gasping to take another breath, but all this discomfort escapes. It’s massive! It’s beautiful. It’s breathtaking. Following it deeper, I watch as it swims placidly, barely brushing its body on the seabed. The reef is just a bluish blur of boulder corals scattered around, the shark crosses over it with ease, completely dwarfing everything.

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I need air.

I rush back up to the surface, heaving and panting, still relentlessly swimming above the shark, trying to catch my breath to descend once more. I feel so small, my fins feebly trying to keep up with this giant, who is very annoyingly swimming effortlessly against a current towards the drop-off. This is where the reef gradually trails off into a deep slope, and the water temperature ominously drops into a spine-chilling cold. All I feel is pure adrenaline, and before I’ve taken a large enough breath, I find myself chasing the shark into the deep blue until soon enough, it completely disappears, engulfed by the far-reaching depths of the sea. And I, limited by my lungs, am forced to retire to the surface once again. I wish I had gills.

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After I haul myself back onto the speedboat, I am an absolute mess and continually stutter about what might have been one of the greatest experiences in my entire life. I feel like I’ve known whale sharks, read about them and how large they can grow to, watched documentaries chronicling their fate today and spoken to people about how gentle these giants are. Well, let’s just say that all that did absolutely nothing to prepare me for this encounter face to face.

Before I had the time to process what was going on, the boat had set off again in search for more whale sharks. One of the boat crew received word from other operators that another shark had been sighted on the radio, and we followed their directions for our next sighting. This time, we weren’t the only boat around and another four more boats with loads more tourists were starting to enter the water.

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The second time around, I was way more prepared. Fins, mask, snorkel, camera all within an arms reach and ready to go. Once the boat stopped, I dived in without hesitation and followed Ageel, mentally prepared to keep up with the shark once again. This time, he helped me snap a few photos of the incredible encounter. “This one is still considered small”, he explained to me as I tried to catch my breath again, as I stared slightly dumbfounded at him that he was referring to an animal more than thrice my height. This is without a doubt the largest animal I’ve been in the water with in my life. Whale sharks are the largest recorded species of fish, the longest individual being 12.65 metres in length. They’re still smaller than whales for sure, but at least double the size of a great white shark.

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The second whale shark of the day, a ‘mere’ 6m long (Thanks Ageel for these photos!)

For such large animals, our understanding of them is still very limited. Believe it or not, but nobody knows how and where whale sharks mate or give birth. The bulk of what we know about whale shark reproduction is from a single female caught in Taiwan, which was found carrying with 300 embryos.

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Egg cases and embryos found from a single 10.6 metre long female caught in Taiwan in 1996 (Photo from WL Chen)

Whale sharks are endangered and internationally protected species, listed under Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), meaning that exports of these animals must be done with a valid license. In the Indo-Pacific region, whale shark populations have collapsed by 63% within the last 75 years. Globally, the decline is estimated to be more than 50%. In recent years, however, the value of these sharks has increased in the tourism industry relative to the fisheries industries. A single whale shark fin can be valued at as much as USD$57’000 in restaurants, but recorded prices paid to fishermen can be as low as USD$3000-4000 for a whole shark. In terms of tourism, whale shark watching is far more lucrative here in the Maldives. The value of whale shark tourism in South Ari Atoll alone was estimated to be about USD$7.6 million in 2012 and USD$9.4 million in 2013, with between 72-78’000 tourists on the look for these sharks annually. Whale shark fishing was banned in 1995 across the whole of the Maldives, and by 1998, all shark fishing in tourism zones were prohibited. Clearly, the value of sharks is much higher in terms of tourism than it is as a fishery species.

With so many tourists traveling to the Maldives to see whale sharks, it’s easy to see how this can all get out of control. Whale shark tourism has been particularly controversial, especially in cases where sharks are lured intentionally. In some places around the world such as Oslob, the Philippines, tour guides deliberately empty loads of baitfish into the water to attract these sharks. In other cases, these sharks are captured for display in live aquaria, such as in Okinawa, Japan, and Georgia, USA.

So, the question is this…how can we ensure that tourism is sustainable and minimizes impacts on wild whale sharks? Here’s a great video on ethical guidelines to whale shark watching by the Maldives Whale Shark Research Program (MWSRP), I found out about after the day’s events. It’s a charity that carries out whale shark research and fosters community focused conservation initiatives in the Maldives.

I learned that they’ve also put together an amazing app ‘Whale Shark Network Maldives’ that helps you to contribute citizen science data from recording sightings of whale sharks and identify different individuals. Basically, it provides a live feed of whale shark sightings around the Maldives, and using the dots on each individual helps identify each whale…it’s basically like a human fingerprint! The app now even lists the name of these sharks with some pretty creative names such as “Mohammed Ali”, “Nemo”, “Sparkle” and “Hook”. Pretty neat huh? I thought it was a great way for operators to cooperate and not only share information about the whereabouts of these animals but to also contribute to a better understanding of the population at large.

It’s heartening to see tourist and boat operators here looking towards sustainable tourism for whale sharks so that many more people like myself can truly enjoy and experience these majestic and beautiful creatures first hand. What an amazing day, and I’m so glad to finally be able to cross that off my bucket list!

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