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Taking the road less traveled Spending a year in five continents to embrace my "inner turtle", to live simply, and to avoid being shark bait!

The Whale Shark that was there but not for Me

MOZAMBIQUE | Tuesday, 10 April 2012 | Views [403]

In addition to research dives, we go on ocean safaris, again with the Peri Peri dive shop; our objective is to look for whale sharks and take that perfect ID photo, so conservation and research groups like Marine Megafauna can identify the shark and track it in its database.  For tourists, the Ocean Safari is purely to see and hopefully swim with the whale sharks and/or dolphins.

Ocean safari is similar to land safari, except it's a workout I didn't sign up for!  We launch the boat in the same manner.  The only gear we bring are fins, mask, and snorkel, which we have handy and ready to go in case the skipper spots a whale shark.  Besides the passengers, there are also the skipper and an assistant at the back of the boat to help spot animals.  The skipper drives the boat around the open water, and using his experience and knowledge, and information from that day's earlier dives, he will drive to areas where he thinks there may be whale sharks or dolphins or manta rays.  He's also on the lookout for large shadows near the water surface or the shark fin that may pop up.  If he does locate a whale shark, he tries to drive about 30 meters in front of where he thinks it's heading, tells the passengers to put on their gear, and then slow the boat so passengers can quickly but stealthily enter the water.  Once in the water, we will swim to where we think the whale shark is heading to view it, while sticking to the "code of conduct" (i.e. swimming no less than 3 meters around the whale shark's body and no less than 4 meters from its tail and from behind, no swimming on top nor in front of the shark, no flash photography, and absolutely no touching).  Usually these sightings are far away from shore in the middle of the ocean, so the water is anything but calm, thus adding to the difficulty of seeing the whale shark and snorkeling (water is constantly getting inside the snorkel).  If we're lucky, we may see the whale shark and hopefully can take a clear photo; if we're really lucky, the shark may stay so we can swim alongside it for a short distance.  Once the encounter is over, the skipper drives the boat towards the passengers, we swim towards it and climb (ungracefully) back on board.  This entire scenario may play out just once or twice, many times if whale sharks are spotted amass, or not at all if the skipper does not spot any.  

On my first ocean safari, the skipper had its first sighting about 40 minutes in.  It was midday then and very hot and sunny; luckily, enough water splashed up since it was quite a bumpy ride, so it kept us cool.  Everyone jumped in quietly.  The whale shark swam so fast that by the time we were in the water, it was already by the right side of the boat, so everyone who jumped in from that side saw it immediately, while everyone on the left side missed it completely.  And guess which side of the boat I sat, URGH!  0 for 1 thus far.

The second sighting came about 30 minutes later.  This time the boat was farther away, so once in the water, we all swam in the direction that the skipper pointed; we think it was the same shark as the first sighting, because we were actually not that far from the first sighting area and again it swam away very quickly, so everyone missed it.  0 for 2.

We scrambled back on board and drove around for another 20 minutes, but no more whale shark sighting.  Someone spotted about three bottle-nosed dolphins jumping out of the water briefly but I missed that too.

As a bonus for this safari, we released a rescued juvenile loggerhead turtle back into the ocean.  The turtle was found floating in the open water two days earlier; turtles may spend some time on the water surface but it should be underwater more often.  The biologists at Marine Megafauna cleaned the poor thing thoroughly; it had lots of parasites on its shell and was very dehydrated.  They suspected it may have ingested plastic pieces that were mistaken as food, such as jellyfish.  (The plastics would have blocked its passages so it could not digest any more food; in addition, the plastics would keep the water afloat and thus prevent it from diving underwater.  If it cannot dive underwater, the turtle will remain afloat and eventually "cook" or overheat to death, or be eaten by a larger animal.)  After monitoring it for two turtles, the biologist wanted to release it back into the wild and thus came along on this safari.  We drove to where the biologist suggested; she got into the water and let loose the turtle, swimming alongside it for as long as she could while filming the release.  She swam alongside it for about 40 meters and returned; the turtle still struggled to get underwater, so she could only hope for the best.  She had painted a spot on the turtle shell in case it may be spotted again in the future, hopefully as an adult.  

The subsequent ocean safaris were not any better.  In one, we had three separate sightings of dolphins (twice with bottlenosed and once with humpback); I clearly saw them while in the boat, but once in the water, I did not see them at all, so 0 for 3.  I did see a reef manta ray, so slightly improved my record to 1 for 4.  On the most recent ocean safari, not only did we spot nothing, the water was so rough it was like white water rafting, catching big waves and big air, while water was splashing from all sides, so even though we never even jumped into the water, we were completely drenched.  I think I collected enough salt in my ears to season vegetables.  

I hope future ocean safaris won't be as much of a "shut out" for me.  Please let me see and swim alongside a whale shark at least once!

Tags: dolphin, mozambique, ocean safari, reef manta ray, tofo, whale shark

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