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Swimming with St Helena’s Whale Sharks

Trying to keep up - the whale sharks move deceptively quick.

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. 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. 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 can be seen in this picture.

The male’s claspers can be seen in this picture.

Other swimmers in the group taking a turn up close.

Other swimmers in the group taking a turn up close.

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.

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 after the first encounter.

Climbing back onto the boat after the first encounter.

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.

We are about a mile north of Jamestown, on an early Saturday afternoon, whale shark watching 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 swim three times with the placid creature who has taken a shine to his new admirers. The third time is the best. 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.

A totally surreal experience.

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.

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.

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