Saturday, July 31, 2010

In Search of the Whale Shark

five boats launch in search of whale shark

I have done trips both to the Philippines and Thailand in the 1990s following migratory paths specifically to see whale sharks, but they have remained elusive to me. Thus when Bubba notified me to the whale shark presence all year round in Tofo, Southern Mozambique I was incredulous. How is this possible?

I attend a lecture given by a New Zealand born marine biologist Dr. Simon Davies (Casa Barry 6pm every Wednesday – MTC100) who has been resident here since 2005 who explains that zooplankton gets caught up in upsurges in the smallish natural harbor creating feeding frenzies for predominantly juvenile males averaging between 6 – 8 metres long. Full grown whale sharks grow up to 20 metres can live to about 100 years old. Some 485 individuals have been identified off-shore using digital tracking of photos taken of the individuals’ pectoral fins. There is a website devoted to whale shark research and conservation at including a database of individuals.

Not much is known about these incredible shark species. Most spotting globally consist of more than 80% male and only one pregnant female as ever been examined – well a dead one has ever been properly examined. Some 300 babies were found inside her measuring some 60 - 70cms long in perfect replica of the adult.

There are at least two Whale Shark / Ocean Safaris operate from Tofo and i opt for Tofo Dives. It departs every day between 11am - 1pm and currently costs MTC1000.

It is crowded the day i go, with 3 boats going out from Tofo Dives alone. Each group is called in turn to watch an information film put together by Dr. Davies about the dos and don’ts when swimming with the whale shark – entering the water quietly and no touching which will cause the whale shark to dive. Departures are staggered over a fifteen minute period, although seem to quickly catch up with each other on the somewhat choppy waters. There are clearly certain parts off the coastline which are preferred.

The first group out of shore jump into the water to experience some dolphins, but by the time our boat joins them the dolphins quickly move on. It takes some 40 minutes to get a first whale shark spotting. As soon as one boat strikes gold others quickly descend. The skipper attempts to get in front of the whale sharks swimming path by dropping off snorkelers some 30 metres in front of it.

By the time i am in the water all i can make out is a vast vanishing shadow in the water, and despite my heartiest efforts I get no closer. Disappointed i try to locate which boat i came on before ungracefully re-boarding as we continue our search. After a further 20 minutes i am beginning to feel it’s not going to be my day when our guide gets another whale shark sighting. This time i’m the 2nd into the water and i see it emerging slowly in front of me from the shadows of the deep blue ocean. To me it looks completely huge as i try to guestimate its size, Surely it must be close to 8 metres! I stare completely and utterly gob-smacked as i try to capture it’s image on my 2nd and last disposable camera. It is only after it lazily swims past me that i react to try and swim alongside it. It looks like it is just gliding along, but no matter how I pump my fins and indeed my arms there is not a chance that i can get anywhere near it. I eventually get back into the boat completely exhausted but marveled by what I have just seen. The skipper says shame it was such a small one – some 4 metres long. So much for my guestimates.

When we have picked up all 9 from our boat we head back down the coast line for about a further 15 minutes and then we notice a boat in front who has made another spotting. This one is clearly bigger than before - some 7 – 8 metres long. Again I am in awe of this incredible sized shark gracefully gliding through the water. This one is travelling much slower and I swim just above it for some 5 minutes. It’s dorsal fin is just inches from my body and despite the instructional video i lazily stroke my hand along its length. It feels like it is - smooth cartilage. It's like swimming with a cathedral.

By the time the encounter has ended, i realise just how far i have swum and the boat is miles away. By the time i get back on board, I am at a point of exhaustion. 10 minutes later a fourth whale shark is spotted, but I have already burned through all my energy reserves and I am unable to move. I am now cold and shivering – most of the others sensibly had wetsuits.

There are also dolphins and manta rays to be spotted, and even humpback whales to be seen at this time of year. Although we see none of these, no-one leaves disappointed. It has been an incredible and unforgettable encounter.

I think i got at least a few half-decent shots, but am unlikely to see the results until my next major city – in all likelihood 2 - 3 months up the road in Dar E Salam, Tanzania. Like myself we’ll just have to be patient and wait to see what came out.

Editor's Addition
: These were developed in Beira. Pretty crap really, but still a treasured moment indeed!


  1. "It's like swimming with a cathedral." This is why I am ever so glad to have accepted your friend request on FB, sir. I'm in awe. Thank you for sharing that.


  2. Good job Aubrey. I'm jealous of your multiple whale shark sightings. Can't wait to see the photos. Might try for a photo place in Nampula or Beira if you're headed that way...

  3. so immense. I will see what can be found in Beira - i need them to be put onto CD so i can access them. Indeed i slowly head that way but travel can be slow. I need more patiencia!

  4. i'm speechless. those pix are awesome!! i understand now. you were swimming with a cathedral my friend...amazing pix with a disposable camera.

    i'll take the first one in a print...

    i see your hand in pic 3. haha. if it came so close, i dunno if i could resist reaching out.

  5. am glad it's not just me that would molest one of these. Hehe.

    It wasn't my hand in the picture - you share the encounter with some 60 odd others.

    Picture 5 shows that dorsal fin within reaching distance and all the temptations that it brought.

    It really was a completely amazing and unforgetable experience.