14 January 2011
We got up early in the morning and ate a rushed breakfast before heading to the port to catch an old wooden Dhow into the Gulf of Aiden to swim with the Whale Sharks. As we pulled drove along the extension to the pier parking lot we saw long lines of men walking to work who started calling out to us as we approached the parking lot. A we made the turn into the parking lot a couple men in ragged clothes pointed to us, then started to run alongside the car with their hands on the door handles and fighting off others to to be the one to open the door when we came to a stop. As we got out of the car we were mobbed and our "escorts" would push and shove the others away.
We fought our way through the rocky dirt parking lot and up a narrow gangplank that bowed and flexed considerably under our weight. Once aboard it was evident that we were on the low budget cruise as the cooks started the cooking fire on the main deck in a cut off 55 gallon steel drum. I was glad to see that they had brought jugs of water along to wash their knives and cutting boards as they prepared our lunch on the deck. The cruise on the old leaky diesel boat took over two hours and nearly rattled the fillings out of my teeth. Every half hour someone would turn on the two bilge pumps bolted to the deck to pump out the water accumulating below, streaming an unknown amount of water for 10-15 mins. Stuff streamed out the back of the boat as well from the open bottomed latrine. It seemed that most of the passengers on the ship were from the local French military bases and only a few small kids were aboard. One five year old girl amused herself by chasing a kitten around the boat and trying to talk to my friends.
Finally when we arrived at the western-most point of the Gulf of Aiden the boat dropped anchor near a sandy beach and the crew brought the two small boats we had towed from the port alongside and began to load the divers. Each of the smaller boats held about 20 passengers and i had the misfortune to get on the second boat that only could move at rowing speed. Unfortunately two of my friends literally missed the boat and had to stay behind on the mother ship while we crawled out to the whale shark zone.
The first thing we spotted was a jagged dorsal fin cutting slowly through the water, up to, then under the boat. Then my eyes adjusted and i could make out the rows of white dots that covered the back of the giant shark as it passed under us. I was still, in awe of the giant shark that was bigger than our boat when the boatsman called out to us to dive. I pulled my mask and snorkel on and fell backwards over the edge of the boat and into the warm blue-green waters teeming with whale sharks and other snorkelers. I watched the first whale shark swim slowly away and turned around just in time to see another massive whale shark coming right at me, only to turn quietly and gently pass my on my right, and keep on swimming.
The whale shark is a massive fish that can grow to over 13 meters long and resembles an overgrown catfish without the whiskers. It has over 3000 small teeth but a small mouth and even though i saw it floating and feeding just below the surface of the water i couldn't see what it was eating (must be really small food). I later learned that the whale shark doesn't reach maturity until after about 25 years and bears live young (doesn't lay eggs). They are hunted and prized for their fins (for soup), and one whale shark can sell for $10,000 USD. It would not be hard to catch one as they move slowly and i was able to easily swim alongside several in the warm gulf waters. Some of the over eager snorkelers would reach out and touch the whale sharks or try to hold on for a ride, but then the huge gentle animals would dive deeper and disappear from sight leaving the snorkelers gasping for air. We were warned not to touch the whale sharks as it removes the protective mucus from their skin and exposes them to bacteria and can cause infection and usually on the surface the abusive snorkelers were corrected by their peers.
The wind and strong currents pushed us and the whale sharks into the back corner of the gulf and i was able to spend over an hour swimming next to, over, under, and around several huge whale sharks. It was amazing just to float behind one as it fed and watch the massive gills open and close as it filtered gallons of water. The water was extremely salty and kept us very buoyant so it was no effort to swim or stay at the surface. The only danger was from the swimming crabs that frequently attacked me and chased me around the area. These hand-sized crabs liked to sneak up behind me and attack my back or hamstrings with their oversized claws so i had to keep turning around to protect my back. It was funny to watch or hear the girls in the water scream when they got spooked by a whale shark or pinched by a crab.
After about an hour people started to get hungry and we headed back to the mother ship and lunch. Upon reaching the mothership I jumped in a boat with my two friends that were left behind and headed back to the whale sharks. One had never been snorkeling before and was nervous in the water and the idea of being surrounded by whale sharks. However once she realized it was easy to float and got used to having her head in the water she quickly joined in the chase and enjoyed swimming with the sharks.
Lunch when we got back on the boat was meat on a skewer, a vegetable salad in mayonnaise, french bread, rice, and a red stew. Once everyone had eaten we began the long three hour cruise back against the strengthening wind and rising seas. The wind swells would pitch the bow twenty feet as we slowly pushed our way across the great troughs of water. At one point one of the two smaller boats broke free and we had to circle back to get it as well as a later time when the wind swept a pile of unused life vests into the sea. I became bored and lay down on the deck and fell asleep to the vibrating massage of the rickety diesel engine and the bilge pumps continuously pumping water from the hold.
I woke up as we entered the calm of the harbor, and so we gathered our gear, paid the man who watched our car (he didn't look like he cared anymore- his eyes were glazed over as he chewed on mouthful of green khat leaves) and returned to the hotel for the night.