Whale shark: Close encounter with the gentle giant

Years of scuba diving has taught me a lesson: go with low expectation, and you will be justly rewarded. But do I practice what I preach? Of course not, I’m only human. When I go on scuba diving trips, I pretend not to have high expectations, but deep inside, I’m a seething mess of nerves and high hopes. Pathetic, I know. On this particular weekend, however, I can honestly say I went diving with no expectation whatsoever. I have dived the same site a few times, and really, I went to just have fun with my dive buddies. Guess what, I was justly rewarded: I dove with one of the least encountered marine animals – the whale shark (Rhincodon typus).

When I started scuba diving four years ago, I had a wish list that contains the names of the marine animals I want to see. Some are really ordinary (tuna), some are downright scary (great white shark and saltwater crocodile), and some are just notoriously difficult to encounter (the whale shark). The whale shark, however, had always been on top of my list. I simply find the whale shark an amazing creature, so graceful despite its size, so majestic, and such a joy to watch. I go into some kind of a hypnotic trance whenever I watch a documentary on whale sharks (I’m exaggerating, but there’s a smidgen of truth in it). But after hearing of divers with 10, 15 years of diving without encountering a single whale shark, I get a little frustrated.

I was in one of my blue funk mood (pessimistic, morose, just basically feeling like crap) when I went diving that weekend. I hadn’t slept enough, two of my friends pulled out of the trip so I had to frantically find replacements, and my friend who was supposed to work as DM that weekend was transferred to another boat. How much worse could things get? At the last minute, I pulled myself together and mentally slapped myself out of the blue funk. I packed my bags and went to meet my friends at Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal in Singapore.

I got my first nice surprise: my DM friend Ed was there! There was a last-minute change and he was back on my boat! Woohoo! One by one my dive buddies, Eric, Alice, and Dawn arrived, and we were onboard the dive boat in no time.

The liveaboard – a self-contained dive boat – had the maximum capacity of 24 divers and 12 crew members. For the rest of the weekend, we were to eat, sleep, dive, basically, live on the boat.

Twelve hours later, the boat arrived at Damar Island in the Anambas Islands, South China Sea. Just like any scuba diving trip, the divers were required to do an easy, shallow dive to check for equipment malfunction, to determine comfort level, and general readiness to dive. So we did two dives at Damar, by accident. The first dive, we didn't descend fast enough so we drifted too far out. We surfaced, got back on the boat, and jumped into the shallow part of the reef. Quite enjoyable dives, but not what we came all this way for. Next destination: The Seven Skies wreck.

The Seven Skies wreck is a supertanker that sank in 1969 after a fire of mysterious origin. Some said it was struck by lightning, some claimed there was an explosion, some said it was attacked by aliens – take your pick. Half of the ship was intact, the other half lie somewhere at the bottom of the sea; it had never been found.

We were loitering around the dive deck, while the boat owner and the captain dove down to tie a rope that anchors the dive boat to the wreck. We were getting bored and restless, when suddenly the boat owner popped out of the water screaming, “WHALE SHARK!!!”. People were not sure how to react – either they can’t believe their luck, or they think the boat owner was pulling their leg. I, however, reacted quickly. I donned my scuba equipment in what felt like seconds, grabbed my underwater camera, and took a giant stride into the water just as the whale shark’s head appeared on the surface. JACKPOT!

My buddy Eric finally caught up with me, and was in the water. The surface current carried us toward the whale shark, and there! Suddenly it was in front of me! I frantically took shots after shots of the pup (it was a 4-meter long puppy! A whale shark can grow up to 20 meters in length).

The current kept pushing me toward the shark, and I think I frightened it. It turned, its tail gently slapping my arm. I was slapped by a whale shark! If I didn’t have to have a regulator in my mouth, I would have a loopy grin on my face. It was a dream that came true. The whale shark stayed with us for about five minutes, until it disappeared into the depths. It may have been a short encounter, but one that will stay etched in my mind for many years to come.

When we came out of our euphoria, we realized we’d drifted far from the boat. The rubber dinghy had to make three trips before picking us up. By the time we got back to the boat, people have geared up and some were already in the water. We followed suit, and was in the water pulling ourselves down the rope towards the wreck.

At about 18 meters, the silhouette of the funnel appeared. As we descended further, a familiar sight welcomed us: The Seven Skies wreck. We swam around the top deck for a little while, taking silly pictures and peeking into the cargo hold, looking at the schooling barracuda, and circling the funnel all the way to the top. The current was friendly; we didn’t have to fin hard to get anywhere. After about 20 minutes, we started our deep stops along the rope, hanging like bananas.

Onboard the mother ship, we relived our whale shark moments (well, some of us who actually saw it). Alice was rather upset that she only saw the head of the whale shark on the surface. I didn’t mean to gloat, but it was quite difficult to pretend I wasn’t still ecstatic.

We then prepared for our second dive at the same site. Eric and I descended fast, as we wanted to maximize our air. Alice and Ed stayed with Dawn, who had to descend slowly because she can’t equalize fast. Eric and I were happily looking at the schooling barracuda, when suddenly one of the DMs frantically pointed upwards. The whale shark is back!!! The silhouette of its body was one of the most awe-inspiring and beautiful sights I’ve ever seen. The shark gracefully circled, and descended further towards us.

I kept looking at the rope, willing Dawn to come down faster so the three of them don’t miss the spectacular sight. Finally, I saw the three of them coming down the line, Alice immediately letting go of the rope to chase the shark for pictures. After a short while, the shark disappeared into the blue, but we all had our fill and were grinning madly from ear to ear.

Eric and I continued our dive, looking at nooks and crannies in the wreck. We looked into the cargo hold, the staircase visible from the gaping hole, tempting us to go in and have a closer look. One look at my dive computer prevented us from doing so. We were at 37m, Eric had four minutes left of NDL, and it was just too dangerous. So I signaled to him that we should start our ascend. I started swimming around the funnel towards the upline.

We got to the rope, and by that time Eric has gone into deco. We started our deep stops, and met Ed on the upline. We were happily looking at the barracudas, when suddenly Ed pointed at something. I turned around, and there it was again!!! The whale shark came back! By this time, there were just five of us in the water. It was like a private show, we got to gawk at the shark without any pesky divers blocking the view. Lucky Ed, how many trainee DMs can claim they showed the customers a whale shark?

We were watching intently, then spotted Dawn swimming towards the line, not realizing the shark was nearby. She sensed we were watching something, and turned her head around, and came face to face with the shark. She had the most comical expression on her face. I wasn’t sure who was more startled, she or the shark. Within minutes, the shark grew bored of us and left.

Back on the boat, we saw many grinning faces. Apparently the shark made another appearance on the surface, and put on quite a good show for the divers.

After the Seven Skies, we made our way to Pulau Dayang, four hours away, to do our night dive. We jumped in the water at about 10.45pm at Telok Jawa, a protected bay. Dawn chose to have a massage instead (clever girl!), but she didn’t miss much. I briefly saw a blue-ring octopus, a few crabs and shrimps, and a teeny weeny scorpionfish that Ed spotted, so kawaii!

The events of the day left us high on adrenaline and pure joy, so we decided to pop open the wine bottles and have a mini party. At the top deck, under the starry sky, we sipped our wine and marvel at our luck. The whale shark sighting was the first for all five of us. Alice has had 360+ dives under her belt, so she was ecstatic that she finally saw her first whale shark. We were whispering so loudly that we woke one of the DMs sleeping there (oops). When he left, there was a big empty space so we thought, let’s sleep under the stars! We put a few mattresses together, the boys went to retrieve our jumpers and pillows and blankets, and we snuggled up like bunnies. Within minutes, we were out like a light.

Sunday morning, we headed towards Pinnacles at Pulau Aur, but the current was to strong so we moved to Rayner’s Rock instead. The dive was an anticlimax after the whale shark encounter, but we were happy just to potter about.

The next dive site was Jack Rock, a decent site if not for the shite viz. We saw some cool nudibranchs: Hypselodoris bullockii, Nembrotha kubaryana, and one that I cannot identify.

I must say, this is probably one of the top five dive trips for me, if not THE number one. Nothing beats a close encounter with a rare animal and good company. Next, bring on the hammerheads!!!