Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Swimming with St Helena’s Whale Sharks

Swimming with whale sharks, trying to keep up - the whale sharks move deceptively quick.

Swimming with whale sharks, trying to keep up – the whale sharks move deceptively quick.

St Helena’s Whale Sharks | Sharon Henry

I am in the sea, a mile out from shore, swimming after a massive whale shark. My heart is pounding as I struggle against choppy waves while at the same time my eyes are locked on the huge tail and the fish it is attached to. A heady mixture of adrenaline and apprehension courses through my veins, ignited since leaving the safety of the boat for the vast blue below.

Spot The Spotted One

Darrin and I are the first from our tour party to jump in. I’m not overly anxious about the whale shark, more the fact that we’re afloat in 100 metres of deep ocean and so far from land. I have a WTF moment, and need to catch my breath and calm nerves before I can submerge my masked face. An then I’m doing it, I’m finally swimming with whale sharks. Metres away is a magnificent, 11m male specimen, we watch in awe as he glides lazily, basking in sunrays piercing the water. I say male as having previously researched the subject, I see he has fully grown claspers (male reproductive bits).

The male's claspers on the whale shark can be seen in this picture.

The male’s claspers on the whale shark can be seen in this picture.

Other swimmers in the group swimming with whale sharks on our trip.

Other swimmers in the group swimming with whale sharks on our trip.

Here I am on the top of 100m of beautiful, blue ocean.

Here I am on the top of 100m of beautiful, blue ocean.

These are lovely moments when the whale shark turns around and swims by.

These are lovely moments when the whale shark turns around and swims by.

I’m Swimming With Whale Sharks

Pulling breaststroke through the water with closed rigid fingers and briskly flapping my flippers I keep pace and stay close. This is surreal, swimming alongside the biggest fish in the ocean, whose gigantic size effortlessly dwarfs us humans. He turns, and an enormous flattened head looms, wide mouth slightly ajar possibly filter feeding on miniscule plankton, but I interpret it as a friendly smile. Sucker fish (remoras) are clinging on to the whale shark, hitching a ride.

This giant of the deep doesn’t seem to have any pressing appointments and slowly floats by. Up close, I examine the beautifully spotted and striped skin; the bright white, fuzzy spots are dazzling. As the restless sea tosses us about I keep an eye on Darrin and the boat, slightly concerned of going adrift whilst engrossed with the whale shark.

Darrin has the underwater camera, bought especially for occasions like this and is demonstrating a well executed, if rather comical, one-handed swim stroke. After about six minutes our new friend dives and disappears into the blue abyss. Elated we swim back to the boat, fighting hard against the current.

Climbing back onto the boat, the Sea Horse, after the first encounter swimming with whale sharks.

Climbing back onto the boat, the Sea Horse, after the first encounter swimming with whale sharks.

Searching for whale sharks relies on experience and a bit of luck!

Searching for whale sharks relies on experience and a bit of luck!

The other boat stays nearby, although between us only 8 swimmers enter the water at any one time.

The other boat stays nearby, although between us only 8 swimmers enter the water at any one time.

The Third Time Is The Best

We are about a mile north of Jamestown, on an early Saturday afternoon, whale shark spotting with Sub Tropic Adventures. Owner, Anthony ‘Nails’ Thomas has two vessels, a 10m cab boat and a 8.5m RIB speed boat, each carrying around 15 people. St Helena guidelines state that a maximum of eight snorkelers at a time are permitted to interact with whale sharks.

Before long the whale shark reappears, or is it a different one? Anthony stops the boat again and a new group plunges in following instructions of, “Okay – GO! Jump – NOW!”

Not all of the party are snorkelling and luckily I get to say I went swimming with whale sharks three times. The third time is the best as the placid creature seems to have taken a shine to his new admirers. Swimming with the sea current and consciously calming my breathing, I have the most exhilarating experience. The whale shark and I seem to be swimming in tandem and it feels like, (crazy as it sounds) we have a connection. It’s so surreal, I am mesmerised. His spots and stripes shimmer and then he leisurely cruises off into the distance.

Swimming with whale sharks, a totally surreal experience.

Swimming with whale sharks, a totally surreal experience.

An unforgettable experience for all of us who got in the water.

An unforgettable experience for all of us who got in the water.

Snorkellers in the water, viewed from the boat.

Snorkellers in the water, viewed from the boat.

It's normally the tail fin that is seen breaking the surface.

It’s normally the huge tail fin that is seen breaking the surface.

How To Go Swimming With Whale Sharks On St Helena

Whale shark tourism is new to St Helena; this is only our third season. For decades fishermen have reported harmless encounters with these migratory creatures. Although, I hasten to add, they have never been hunted here.

Whale sharks are fairly new to science and it is believed they visit to feed, and possibly mate and give birth. Satellite tagging devices were attached to 14 whale sharks on a recent exploratory visit by marine biologists, Dr Raphael de la Parra of Cancun, Mexico and Dr Alistair Dove of Georgia Aquarium, USA. Data gathered should help to discover more about these mysterious animals.

Raphael has witnessed over-commercialisation on a grand scale in Cancun and urges St Helena not to fall into the same trap.

For the moment St Helena’s fledgling industry has four accredited tour operators. They follow local guidelines to protect and preserve the marine environment.

Enjoying the boat ride, the sunshine and the views - and then came the whale sharks!

Enjoying the boat ride, the sunshine and the views – and then came the whale sharks!

The trip offers great views of St Helena's coastline.

The trip offers great views of St Helena’s coastline.

The whale shark season runs roughly from January to early April.

This is our second trip this week, the first was unsuccessful. No one can control nature and finding whale sharks is not guaranteed.

We heard of an unpleasant story, whereby a tourist was refusing to pay an operator when whale sharks were a no-show. They didn’t account for the use of the boat, man hours or fuel.

I’m of the optimistic type, at the very least, there’s a boat ride along the coastline of our beautiful island, with fresh air, great views and interesting conversation with fellow sightseers.

Tours range from £5 – £15 on St Helena; Sub Tropic Adventures provide snorkelling kit. In contrast, it costs $360 (£182) for the privilege at Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia.

A lazy kick of the tail and the whale shark soon leaves us behind.

A lazy kick of the tail and the whale shark soon leaves us behind.

COMMENTS

  • Julie Fowler

    February 16, 2015

    Wow! Wonderful, I have to say I am trying to imagine Darrin swimming with one arm, Jayann really enjoys your stories as I read everything aloud and the supporting pictures are a bonus. All educational 🙂 Keep it up Saints!

    • February 17, 2015

      Thanks for the feedback Julie and Jayann. Darrin really did do well to master the one-arm-stroke and take the brilliant photos. 🙂

  • Paula Moyce

    February 16, 2015

    keep up the good work and thanks for those great pics.

  • Alice Greentree

    February 16, 2015

    Very exciting Sharon. It seems you all had a ‘whale of a time’ !

    • February 16, 2015

      It was extremely exciting Alice and recommend it to anyone. Shame we didn’t see a ‘grouper’ them! Just one at the time!

      • Diane Webb

        February 19, 2015

        Great humour, Saints rule ! Saskias joke….. What do you call a group of Religious Whale Sharks…..?
        A CONGREGATION

  • Patricia Williams

    February 15, 2015

    Well done Sharon and Darrin, a great read/very informative yet a an amazing descriptive account! I still have to experience that! Love those photos!

    • February 16, 2015

      Pat you’ll absolutely love it. 🙂

  • February 15, 2015

    Amazing photos and a great read.

  • February 15, 2015

    Awesome …beautiful pictures and beautiful story x

  • Sandra crowie.

    February 15, 2015

    What great pictures Sharon !!!!!!!!!!
    look at those wonderful sharks !Amazing !!!!!!!!!!!

    • Diane Webb

      February 15, 2015

      Amazing photos, gentle giants…The memory of Saskia and I bobbing around in the Atlanitic with a large aggregation off the Island, from Banjo, will be treasured forever. Di

      • February 16, 2015

        Wow – Diane what a wonderful memory. Thanks for sharing.

    • February 16, 2015

      Thanks Sandra – they are truely amazing – you’ll have to take Jada on a trip. 🙂

POST A COMMENT