999Exp: #300– Dive with whalesharks
My diving activities has taken me to fantastic places over the years and I have been privileged to see a great many wonderful sea creatures and critters during the past five years. I have dived with all kinds of sharks, and although that is magical and scary in its own right, the animal I love most is the whale shark. A whaleshark is not a shark in the sense that it’s not a carnivore. It is a plankton feeding animal closer in my opinion to a whale than a shark. They are completely harmless, except when they’re pregnant or protective of their young. They do have the ability to give a unwanted diver a severe knock if required. Under normal conditions these animals are ginormous, inquisitive and absolutely majestic. I absolutely love seeing them close-by and interacting with their natural curiosity.
Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about this animal:
The whale shark (Rhincodon typus) is a slow-moving filter feeding shark and the largest known extant fish species. The largest confirmed individual had a length of 12.65 metres (41.50 ft) and a weight of more than 21.5 metric tons (47,000 lb), and there are unconfirmed reports of considerably larger whale sharks. Claims of individuals over 14 metres (46 ft) long and weighing at least 30 metric tons (66,000 lb) are not uncommon. The whale shark holds many records for sheer size in the animal kingdom, most notably being by far the largest living non-mammalian vertebrate, rivalling many of the largest dinosaurs in weight. It is the sole member of the genus Rhincodon and the family, Rhincodontidae (called Rhiniodon and Rhinodontidae before 1984), which belongs to the subclass Elasmobranchii in the class Chondrichthyes. The species originated approximately 60 million years ago.
The whale shark is found in tropical and warm oceans and lives in the open sea with a lifespan of about 70 years. Although whale sharks have very large mouths, as filter feeders they feed mainly, though not exclusively, on plankton, which are microscopic plants and animals. However, the BBC program Planet Earth filmed a whale shark feeding on a school of small fish. The same documentary showed footage of a whale shark timing its arrival to coincide with the mass spawning of fish shoals and feeding on the resultant clouds of eggs and sperm.
The species was distinguished in April 1828 after the harpooning of a 4.6 metres (15.1 ft) specimen in Table Bay, South Africa. Andrew Smith, a military doctor associated with British troops stationed in Cape Town, described it the following year. The name “whale shark” comes from the fish’s physiology, being as large as some species of whales and also a filter feeder like baleen whales.
I have had the opportunity to swim and dive with whale sharks on a number of occasions, but arguably my best experience to date has been in Umkomaas at the end of a dive. There were as much as five of these animals around us as one stage, one of which the length of our duck. After the dive they were all around the boat and as we surfaces they swam off a little bit. One of the younger ones kept on coming back to the boat to investigate what we are. We dumped our scuba kit and snorkelled with these animals for a good half an hour. The younger, smaller one would repeatedly swim right up to you – perfectly content that you touch him. If at any stage they became a little uncomfortable with our familiarity, they would just dive instantly to incredible depths and disappear. Invariably after a couple of minutes they would return for air and ‘play’ with us again.
On my initial drop, I was trying to sort out my camera kit and was late to jump in. By that stage the pod swam on and left me on the boat. The skipper drove closer, and when I dropped into the water I was less than a metre from one of them! He came up and pushed his enormous mouth right up against me. I was able to look him directly into one of his big round eyes at the side of his head. Truly one of the most memorable experienced of my life.
Here are some of the best pictures I was able to take.