Jill Craig goes diving with whale sharks in Djibouti
With the exception of the magnificent Lake Assal and Lake Abbe, Djibouti doesn’t make most travelers’ bucket lists, primarily because there’s not a lot of sightseeing to be had. In the coastal Djibouti City, you could have the best mango milkshake of your life at Moon Light restaurant, drive around the massive port in a beat-up taxi taking photos before a hoard of security officers descend upon you to ask what you’re doing, or, if you’re feeling fancy, stop by the Sheraton for a seven-dollar bottle of water.
You could also go scuba diving from a liveaboard ship; swimming with whale sharks and experiencing the thrill of a military helicopter fly-by courtesy of bored French airmen. Neither experiences are, however, guaranteed.
Years ago, my friends from the Nairobi Dive Club and I would frequently go diving off the Kenyan coast; usually hiring a leaking dhow from a local Kilifi fisherman named “Captain Shallow” and praying that this time, he used the petrol money we gave him to actually buy petrol, thus alleviating the need to paddle the small boat back in from the Indian Ocean (this happened at least once).
In November 2011, we were returning from an exhausting trip to Vuma Caves in Kilifi when my friend Henrik yelled out, “whale shark!” Instantly, everyone in the boat was grabbing whichever fins, snorkels and masks they could find and leaping into the water. By the time I managed to get my gear on and jump off the boat, I was nowhere near the giant creature’s head or enormous mouth. Yet, I still remember how awestruck I was to be swimming next to it for even a few seconds before it disappeared into the murky blue.
With an average length of between 5.5m and 10m, the whale shark is the biggest fish in the sea. Its color pattern is magical; white spots and stripes embellishing a grayish to brown background, giving an illusion of a sparkling glow. Fortunately for us, the docile filter feeding whale shark eats plankton and small fish through its mouth, not humans. Seeing that gigantic mouth up close is a surreal experience nonetheless. More than one diver has made the biblical Jonah reference when discussing it, nervously laughing about what it would be like to get caught in there. For these reasons, spotting a whale shark is one of the most exhilarating experiences one can have underwater.
Thus I found myself in Djibouti in January, one of the best times to spot whale sharks in the Gulf of Tadjoura where they come to feast in nutrient-rich waters. I did my research and decided to book a liveaboard, whereby, as the name suggests, you live aboard the ship. It’s the perfect option for maniacs who enjoy cramming as much diving into their holiday week as possible.
The first five days followed a predictable schedule: wake up very early, dive, eat breakfast, dive, eat lunch, take a nap, dive, take another nap, dive, eat dinner, go to bed, repeat. The other 16 passengers and I spent most of our time underwater in a chain of islands called the Seven Brothers with the “usual” cast of sea creatures: turtles, eels, crabs, a lobster or two, lots of colorful fish and even a pod of dolphins who showed up on two separate occasions. Under normal circumstances, this would have been considered good diving, but without seeing the much-anticipated whale shark, we were left a bit disappointed at the end of each day.
When we arrived in the Gulf of Tadjoura on the sixth day, however, our luck was about to change. The dive leaders gave us a morning briefing that focused on the whale sharks’ safety: keep a good distance, don’t impede their movements, don’t touch them. We would only need our mask, snorkel and fins – not the full scuba kit – since they could be spotted so close to the surface.
We then cruised around the gulf in two smaller boats to find them, to no avail. As we focused on finding whale sharks, a helicopter carrying French airmen buzzed above us, presumably doing training exercises (several countries’ militaries operate in Djibouti). Nothing seemed strange until we noticed it aligning itself behind our boat, then quickly picking up speed as it zipped over our heads with an overhead clearance of what seemed like only a meter or so. It reminded me of that scene in Top Gun when Maverick illegally buzzes the tower, causing the air traffic controller to spill hot coffee all over himself. Hilarious, yet terrifying.
After lunch, we tried again for whale sharks. This time, it only took about ten minutes before one of our guides yelled out, “there!” and the boat captain zipped over to the spotted bubbles. Having learned my lesson from our previous sighting in Kilifi, I was already wearing my snorkeling gear and was able to leap off the side in no time.
I found myself swimming in front of what I estimated to be a seven-meter long whale shark, with those almost iridescent spots glimmering from its sides. I was quickly panting into my snorkel, trying to keep up, as it glided through the water. Soon, this one was gone, and I noticed our group splitting up; some approaching a baby whale shark, while others made the more adventurous decision to swim out farther after seeing bubbles in the distance.
It was a whale shark extravaganza. We spent 45 minutes like this, searching for whale sharks, spotting one and then quickly swimming over for a closer look. The question was not if we would see a whale shark; it was how many.
This experience of a lifetime is why I would recommend that tourists visit Djibouti between November and January, the peak season. Look at the bright side: even if you don’t see any whale sharks, you’ll still have a chance at your own (French-style) Top Gun fly-by – a most unusual item for that bucket list.