Whale Sharks in Djibouti

In November 2009 I was invited by Dr David Rowat of the The Marine Conservation Society Seychelles (MCSS) and Michel Vely/Danile Jouannet from Megaptera to join them on their Djibouti Whale Shark Research Programme.  With increased sightings in the UAE I was very interested in learning more about Whale sharks and how to monitor them with the goal of maybe setting up some sort of programme here in the UAE.  I jumped at the chance to go and in January 2010 I boarded the M/V Deli, a 26 metre Turkish built wooden schooner and headed up the Gulf of Tadjoura where the plankton rich waters from November to January attract young Whale sharks.  During our journey from Djibouti the skipper of the Deli briefed us on where we would be finding our Whale sharks and with the use of a map he highlighted the two areas either side of our anchor point at Baie Coraillie.  For the next week, twice a day, we would be visiting either Acacia Beach (West) or (East) Arta Bay where the French Foreign Legion Camp is based.

Finning continuously against the current keeping close to Arta bay’s shoreline where I surveyed the surface looking for the glimpse of a flicking tail fin or shadow of a Whale shark. Over the previous 4 days of surveying I had become quite adept at spotting the signs of these huge fish.  The sea was quite rough and as I surveyed the surface I intermittently found myself dipping my head into the swell to check if there were any sharks swimming towards me.  I quickly turned 360 degrees during my survey and found myself glancing down at my legs dangling in the murky water and couldn’t help but think about the large shark bite on one of the whale sharks that I saw earlier on in the week.  As I lifted my head out of the water I heard the firing of machine guns from a group of French Foreign Legion soldiers that have been training on the firing range all morning.  Moments later, two jet fighters flew overhead and as I bobbed up and down in the Gulf of Tadjoura I thought to myself, what a crazy place to come and see whale sharks.

With a sick sense I dipped my head down into the water and I found myself face to face with two 5 metre long Whale sharks which were ‘ram feeding’ directly towards me.  Being caught out like this had become a regular occurrence over the surveying days and as the two sharks swam centimeters below me, I over-inhale to ensure that I don’t come in contact with their dorsal fins or their powerful tails.

It wasn’t long before the encounter was over, and again I found myself distracted by the artillery firing at their targets.   In the distance I could see the rest of the team approach in their skiff searching for sharks from the surface and as they pass, the skipper signals to me to ask if I want to get on the boat and continue the search further up the shore.  As I swim to the boat he points directly behind me and signals to the team, “SHARK”.  Before I knew it, the rest of the team are in the water with their cameras, working hard to collect the data they need to confirm it as an official Whale shark encounter.  Puffing for breath after a difficult climb onto the skiff, in what was becoming heavy swell, I watch the team as they follow the fast moving fish.

With the team all back on board, I found myself listening to each person as they report their findings.  “Photographs left and right”, “male, about 4.5 metres”, “a large cut to dorsal fin”, “2 large remoras”, one of the teams reports to the data logger.  Another member of the team mentioned that they noted other scaring and while pointing to the team the exact areas on the diagram, the skipper turns the boat into a wave and shouts out “SHARK”.  Once again the team are back in the water doing what they do best – collecting data…

Two hours later and we arrive back at Baie Coraillie and the crew had prepared a most welcome cup of coffee served with cookies.  Showered and warm, I watched the sun set and reflected back to earlier in the week remembering the amazing trip to the Devil’s Islands in the Bay of Ghoubbet where we spent the day surveying this amazing volcanic region to find out if Whale sharks ventured up this far.  On that day we saw plenty of Whale sharks as well as Manta rays and Hawksbill turtles.  In addition to this I experienced my first sonic boom from one of the fighter jets that I did not get to see, only feel.  On our journey back up to Baie Coraillie we found the skipper having to carefully negotiate the ‘Deli’ through a small channel in a force 5/6 sea conditions and with the high winds everyone watched and experienced the adventure.  Another highlight was an afternoon where I witnessed vertical feeding for the first time.  I will never forget how oblivious the Whale sharks were to us when feeding in this manner and how intense it all became when later in the afternoon we had 40 plus Whale sharks, all feeding in an area the size of a small football pitch. I came back to the boat very tired that evening…

My thoughts were disrupted when the crew called to say that Whale shark were off the starboard side, gulping at a cloud of plankton, which had been attracted by a strip light that they had set up.  With that, we all sat down for supper and as we ate, discussed the numbers.  Things were going very well and with 80+ Whale shark sightings being logged daily and with one morning left to go the team were very close to beating their 2009 record of 826 encounters (Using the I3S computer program the team yielded 186 uniquely identified whale sharks, of which 17 had been identified in 2008 – 2 week period).  With cameras ready for the next day I made my bed up on deck and with a light warm breeze, stared up at the stars and as the mast swayed from side to side, I watched a fast moving UFO (Drone) circle the skyline.

The next morning and we had been blessed with clear sky and a calm sea.  This mornings aircraft of choice was to be large military helicopter that came in especially close to check out the Whale sharks and us.  My first Whale shark of the day and it is lead by a shoal of Golden Pilot fish and with clear water and early morning sun, I can’t help but feel humble to see this magnificent shark.

One of the team ducks deep down below the shark to check out what sex it is, while another directs two green laser points at its flank and takes a photograph for measurement identification.  Suddenly another shark swims past and with everything they need the team swam rapidly after this shark.

Back on the skiff I watch the team and before I know it, another shark.  This time the shark is stationary in vertical feeding mode and as I jump in along side this 5 metre shark I am surrounded by plankton.  Suddenly another shark comes into view being trailed by 5 members of the team all-trying to keep up with this ‘ram feeding’ giant.  Snapping away I sniggered to myself “I’m so glad I’m with this shark and not theirs”.  With my camera right at the mouth of this giant I am privileged to watch the plankton being gulped down while all the time its gills pump for its next intake of food.  After a while, the bloom of plankton moved off by the current and, so does my shark.

Some distance from shore, bobbing up and down in slightly rougher water I used the height of a wave to find our boat.  It is some distance away and as I tread water waiting for the skiff I decided to call it a day after that special experience.  Back on the skiff and everyone is ready to return to the Deli and after a quick count from each of the teams we confirm that we have beaten 2009’s record – the new record being 846 shark encounters.  With the boat heading back to Djibouti, cameras and equipment packed away, I again reflected on my week’s experience and thought to myself – “same time, same place next year – now where’s that hot shower and beer?”.

Top Tips:
Djibouti Airport – be prepared for lengthy VISA process – travel light.  If you can get your VISA in advance get it.  If you can get a bottle of water on the plane before landing, do so as there is little ventilation in the air port.
Hotel – The Sheraton Djibouti Hotel is secure, basic but clean and good value for money.
Eating Out – Try the Melting Pot (fusion cuisine Japanese Greek French – good food in an excellent atmosphere) – http://www.meltingpotdj.com/
Liveaboard/Dive Operation – Dolphin Excursions (Djibouti) M/V Deli offers superb service on and an excellent well equipped vessel.  Avoid day trips to Arta Bay in small local boats as generally the afternoon winds create large waves making your return to Djibouti very dangerous. – http://dolphinexcursions.free.fr/
Season – November to January.
Equipment – Personally I would leave the dive equipment at home and go light.  Include free diver fins for those fast sharks, a 3mm full wet suit, 2 masks and snorkels, a wind jacket, lycra hood, wooly hat and a fleece.
Underwater Camera – travel light – for the whole time I used a Nikon D2Xs in a Subal D2 with a Nikkor 10.5mm and a Nikon D2X in a Subal D2 with a Nikkor 17-55mm shooting in ambient light.
Photography – what to expect – calm seas in the mornings with visibilities dropping off slightly by mid-day.  Sightings start off slowly gradually increasing by mid morning.  Afternoons generally choppy with reduced visibilities but sightings are plentiful.
Skiffs – The only way to spot whale sharks are from a skiff or a dingy.  Be prepared for a lot of climbing in and out of boats.

A special thanks to:
The Marine Conservation Society Seychelles – www.mcss.sc/whale.htm
Megaptera – www.megaptera.org


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