Years ago I remember a friend of mine talking about whale sharks. He was amazed and impressed by them as he studied them online. He shared that although they had the aggressive name “shark” assigned to them, they were actually very docile animals, allowing divers and swimmers to swim up close to them and even touch them. Little did I know, a few years down the road I would have not only the opportunity to swim with them myself, but also live near enough to do it multiple times!
Our town is about 2 hours away by boat from a hot spot for whale sharks. Some friends from another part of our island were visiting our town and Nathan offered to watch the boys for the day so I could take them out to see the whale sharks. I invited my local friend Dora to join us since she had never seen them before even though she is from an island tribe.
We set out at 5am since we were going by car this time and we had a long drive. The road to the beach where the boat was waiting was about 2 1/2 hours long and half of it was on unpaved, or should I say “freshly cut” road through the jungle. It was a beautiful drive though, with the sun rising through the thick forest of green. Wild hornbills flew overhead and our driver pointed out several amazingly bright red heart plants hanging in curtains from the tops of trees all the way to floor below.
After being shaken about on the jagged road for an hour or so, we made a sharp right turn and ended up on a gorgeous secluded beach. Our driver (Pak Engel)’s family is building a little home stay/resort there and they were waiting with our boat. We quickly grabbed our stuff and got out on the water. The best opportunity to catch the whale sharks is early morning when they feed on the ikan puri (small fish) that surround the fisherman's floating platforms.
As we approached the first platform we asked “ada hiu paus kah?” (are there any whale sharks?) to which they replied no. Bummer. I was praying we would find at least one since our friends had come especially to see them! I had already seen them once before, but I didn't want them to miss out! We hit several more docks with each one telling us there weren't any there but to try further out. We headed out around a peninsula toward 2 more platforms. Finally we found the answer we were waiting for! “Ada tiga ekor!” There were three whale sharks feeding there! We all got giddy pulling on our fins and masks.
I don’t think I will ever get over the initial overwhelming moment of sinking under the water and seeing such a massive creature right there in front of me. It takes my breath away! At first you feel a bit cautious, watching them open and close their giant mouths that could easily swallow you whole if they wanted to. Hundreds of tiny fish pour into their mouths and you quickly realise that is all they really care about. Closer and closer you swim, reaching out your hand to slide it along the smooth surface of their skin. One direction feels like soft rubber and the other rough like sandpaper. Some are rather friendly, swimming right toward you, almost asking to be pet.
Having three huge animals busy feeding around you is a lot to keep track of. At one point I moved to the side a bit to let one swim by only to realise as I turned around that one was swimming directly at me from behind! Panic set in a bit and I spun in the water, trying to decide where to go. Our friend Pak Engel noticed my floundering and said “tenang, tenang” (be calm, be calm). Even though they are gentle giants, they are still enormous animals that have incredible power! Grabbing onto their dorsal fin as they pull you through the water shows you first hand just how strong they are. Amazing experience.
When we first arrived there was a real shark, maybe 5 feet long, swimming along with the whale sharks. That admittedly gave me a fright! He swam off quickly though. My friend Dora was so much fun to watch. She was absolutely terrified to get into the water with the whale sharks. What made it even funnier was that the fishermen were making fun of her, telling her that she should be embarrassed that she is from an island tribe and is too afraid to swim with the whale sharks. We all encouraged her to get in with us and after about an hour of us enjoying ourselves she cautiously got in. I gave her some goggles and she timidly poked her head under the water only to yank it out screaming “SHARK!!!!” and scrambling up the side of the fishing platform! I was laughing so hard!
Everyone kept ensuring her that they were not aggressive and this was a rare opportunity that she shouldn't miss! Finally she joined us back in the water but she wouldn't touch them. We continued our fun until she finally agreed to try and touch one. We waited for one to come semi close to her and I dragged her over before she could change her mind and placed her hand on its back (first photo on the left, below). That was enough for her, but hey, at least she did it!
What an incredible opportunity to admire one of God’s beautiful creatures. I am so thankful for His creation and the way we can learn of His creativity and power in nature!