It’s a beautiful day with a cooling breeze and calm, crystal-clear waters underneath a dazzling blue sky.
I’m in a dhoni with six people. In the middle of the boat is our gear: masks, snorkels, ice box with drinks, and a bag full of snacks. We are well-stocked for a long day at sea.
From time to time we cross paths with other boats. European tourists, lazily sunning on deck, whizz past in speedboats. A dhoni passes full of Chinese tourists, geared up in snorkels, masks and life vests, ready to jump at a moment’s notice.
None of the boats has a clear destination but each has a lookout person. We are all looking for the same quarry: a dark shadow, appearing just beneath the surface of the sea.
We are in Alifu Dhaalu Atoll, just off Dhigurah Island, scouting for the world’s largest fish: the whale shark. The South Ari Marine Protected Area is the Maldives’ largest marine protected area: a 42km stretch of ocean from the Conrad Resort in the north-west to Dhigurah in the east.
“S.A.MPA is one of the only places in the world where we can see whale sharks all year round,” says Abdul Basith Mohamed, coordinator for the Maldives Whale Shark Research programme.
You can also spot whale sharks at Hanifaru Bay, in the Baa Atoll UNESCO biosphere. “There is also a number of whale shark sightings in Thaa and Gaafu Atoll where whale sharks appear behind liveaboards, feeding off plankton and tiny fish that are attracted by the boat lights.”
Despite being one of the world’s most majestic aquatic sightings, not much is known about these mysterious creatures.
Whale sharks are known to travel a lot but their migratory patterns, the depths they plunge, and how long they stay in the deep ocean, are poorly understood.
“We have started collecting data on their movements in the Maldives and there is an emerging pattern of some individuals showing up in the same place in the same time of the year,” says Basith.
“Each whale shark has unique markings of spot and lines on their body, if we can get a photo of the target area [behind the gills, above the pectoral fins] there is a pattern recognition software which we use to identify individual whale sharks.”
The software is a modified version of NASA’s Groth Algorithm, which was created to map stars. The developers adapted the algorithm from identifying white spots on a black night sky to the white spots on the flank of a whale shark.
The MWSRP has been collecting data on more than 300 sharks seen in the Maldives. There is an app to track their sightings in the Maldives.
Each newly discovered whale shark is named. Some members of our group were busy thinking up names in case we stumbled upon a new one.
– Local stay –
We had set sail from Dhigurah. The island lives up to its name (Long Island) with a length of 3km. Despite numerous guesthouses, it feels tranquil and largely uninhabited.
Locals live on a third of the island and the rest is covered with thick jungle. Even the inhabited parts of Dhigurah are green and lush, with palm trees and mangroves lining the unspoiled beach, evoking nostalgia of a more pristine past.
The shady areas are littered with a bounty of fallen coconuts, sea almond nuts, and breadfruit. Each week, two days are set aside for collecting the windfall; Thursdays for coconuts, Saturdays for fallen palm fronds.
It’s a long trek through the forest to the thundi (long narrow beach at the tip of the island). Alternately, a friend with a dinghy could drop you off. The thundi has been set up for picnics and barbecues with traditional joli (swings) and two clean public toilets among the foliage. In low tide, you can walk to neighbouring Lux Resort, but you would need permission to visit the high-end resort.
Dhigurah’s vastness ensures you can find a private spot on the beach even in the village. There is a bikini beach for tourists to sunbath.
– Seizing the moment –
Did we finally see a whale shark? Four hours and a snorkelling stop later, a passing speedboat makes a sign. Our crew check their phones. They’ve received a message: a whale shark has been spotted to the north. “That way,” shouts one of the crew, and it’s a race against time. We can see two boats on the horizon changing course and heading towards the drop zone.
We finally make it there, but the giant fish is nowhere to be seen. A couple of minutes later, though, the crew shouts, “it’s here, it’s here.” We scramble to put on our masks and fins. We are about to jump off the side of the boat, when the whale shark dives back down into the ocean.
There are about three boats in the vicinity now, and suddenly we understand the wisdom of the Chinese, wearing their gear all day. In our scramble, we missed even seeing the outline of the whale shark from the boat.
Suddenly, someone shouts, “it’s over there.” This is starting to feel like a Navy Seals operation, albeit with Seals who can barely put on their snorkels unaided. We wait for the signal. The crew deftly manoeuvres the boat into position. A school of tourists are swimming towards us, following the whale shark. “Jump now and swim in that direction,” our crew shouts, and we bundle over the side into the sea. I start swimming, wildly looking around.
And there it is. Time seems to stand still. Unlike the pandemonium on the surface, under the water, the whale shark moves gracefully, seemingly at peace. It’s enormous, and passes directly underneath me, a remora fish hitching a ride on its back. I enjoy this amazing moment and try to swim slowly alongside it when someone barrels towards me. It’s my friend: “Sorry I saw it come towards me, no one was around, I panicked a bit,” she explains, gasping for breath.
I’ve lost sight of the whale shark now and the humans are upon us. Flippers are pulled, elbows knocking out snorkels, as the tourists scurry after the whale shark.
“Did you see it?” a complete stranger asks excitably. I nod, grinning. We look at each other, realising we now belong to the fraction of people lucky enough to have seen a whale shark in the wild.
Top photo by Melody Sky