I remember when I was a kid, being enthralled with whale sharks after seeing a picture and reading about them. Then, when I got scuba certified and I heard about the potential for seeing them, they moved directly to the top of my scuba wish list. Well, year by year I seemed to go to potential sighting spots, but always at the wrong time of year. However, I knew this trip the timing and location might just be right for me to finally see one.
Indonesia and Malaysia had possibilities but the most likely of those places were in remote locations. I read about places in the Philippines where you can snorkel with them and are guaranteed to see them most of the year, but that is only because they feed them to lure them in as tourist attractions. Think…a dozen boats with a dozen people on each, half probably wearing life preservers and floaties, all jumping into a small section of water to be around a fish that has been trained to eat there. Ehh, not quite the image I’ve had in my mind all these years.
Then while doing a little research in early December, I stumbled upon a more out of the way place in the Philippines called southern Letye where whale sharks frequent from November to May. After confirming everything, this became the first and only thing I scheduled in advance during this trip. All subsequent planning became secondary and reliant on me being at Peters Dive Resort, in Padre Burgos, on the Sogod Bay, on January 5th.
I arrived a couple days early just in case and did a couple scuba dives the day before. Then finally, I woke up on the morning of the anticipated day and…oh, the sea was angry that day, my friends. Weather in this area had not been good and we were even receiving severe flood and rain warnings on our phones for the past couple days. My initial reaction of no #$&%ing way could this happen to me quickly subsided, and as expected the locals here are used to it so for them, canceling the tour was never a consideration. Phew! And it ended up turning out to be a pretty nice day.
We took the boat out to an area across the Bay near where the whale sharks frequent. There, in small wooden boats that looked like very narrow single person canoes with outriggers on each side, made from coconut trees, were our whale shark spotters (and taxi cab drivers) for the day. With one long rope our boat towed our spotters the final short distance to the hunting grounds.
We had 10 tourists on our boat and when we arrived, we were the only ones around. We all geared up in our wetsuits, masks, snorkels, and fins and waited for our spotters to send the signal. Almost immediately a whale shark was spotted and we eagerly jumped off the boat. We soon saw a small young whale shark about 15 feet long and 25 feet below the surface, effortlessly gliding through the water past us. We then turned and with all our might and energy, tried to swim and keep up with this shark. Not that easy my friends. While the shark appeared to barely be moving, we were all thrashing around like the start of a triathlon, trying to stay with it.
While we swimmers would periodically fall behind, our spotters in the boats were spread out, some staying with the whale shark to monitor its location and others would assist stragglers by having them jump on board, to then paddle them up in front of the shark to begin the viewing and chase process all over again. Eventually this shark went down to deeper waters, but we had a good fifteen minutes with it.
After a lull and the appearance of one other tourist boat (with only 6 snorkelers), the excitement and yelling in the local language from our spotters renewed and we were once again off to the races. This one was much larger, likely 20-25 feet long and for most of this adventure, the water was shallower, often only 15 to 20 feet deep. This whale shark was also content to swim at a slow pace and come closer to the surface, so the encounters were much more fulfilling.
We stayed with this whale shark for probably 45 minutes and during this time I alternated from keeping up with the whale shark while in a full freestyle swim (I’m glad I started swimming again a few years ago) and hitching a ride back to the front with one of the spotters. Periodically the shark would dive deep or get so far ahead we would all get back onto our main boat and move forward anticipating where the shark would go.
One of these times our boat was in front when it was spotted again and we jumped back in the water. Whenever jumping in, the first priority was getting clear of the boat for safety reasons. Second was getting your mask in the water to spot the prize. In this instance, I cleared the boat, looked to the left and saw nothing. I looked to the right and again saw nothing. Then I looked straight ahead and there, 20 feet away from me, no more than 15 feet below the surface, heading straight in my direction, was our friend the whale shark. I watched in amazement as it glided towards, below, and past me. And then I swam like hell after it.
I don’t think I could have had a much better experience finally seeing a whale shark. While I wanted to see one scuba diving, I now realize that experience would be extremely brief as there would be no way to swim with it (although the serenity with it in the ocean is still something I look forward to). This experience also taught me, if anyone ever asks how fast I can swim, I can say “as fast as a whale shark”. Lastly, I guess I now have to update my scuba diving wish list; anyone know where the hammerheads are?