The Whale Sharks of Djibouti

OK, well, this isn’t going to be the best post, picture-wise at least.  I have learned that whale sharks rarely let themselves be seen above or even at the surface of the water beyond raising a flipper out of water, and I have yet to get my underwater camera film developed.  Yes, it’s the old 35mm film so it actually has to be developed and I don’t know where in Djibouti I can do that…… though my trip to see the whale sharks has inspired me to try to find an underwater digital camera online!  It’s surprising how many times an underwater camera can come in handy!  I am tired of buying the disposable underwater cameras which don’t take good pictures, have limited memory and don’t have an LCD screen so you have no idea if you took decent pictures or not, so the time is right.  Plus, Canon, my favorite camera brand, has finally come out with a tough shock-proof, underwater to 33 feet, relatively inexpensive (available for around $250) camera that sounds just perfect, and got good reviews on www.cnet.com (great website for getting reliable opinions on electronic devices and computer stuff).  So, hopefully I’ll have it before my next whale shark trip (which will probably be in a few weeks), and I’ll be able to get decent underwater pictures and video then!  Since I don’t have any good pictures of the whale sharks to share yet, here’s a link where you can find couple of good pictures of them:  http://www.scubatravel.com/destinations/redsea/djibouti/djibouti.html.  I did get a good video of some dolphins though.  I was pretty happy about that!

In the absence of really good pictures, I suppose some OK pictures and detailed descriptions will have to suffice!  The trip started out early in the morning, at the Djibouti Port de Peche (Port of Fishing).  Arriving into the port, we made a right turn into the dirt parking lot next to the docks, whereupon we were immediately assailed by “guards” trying to get us to pull into particular areas to park.  I use the term “guards” in quotations, because they are certainly not security guards in the sense that most Americans would envision – no one has hired these guys to be there, I don’t think.  They certainly don’t wear uniforms.  They show up there, and have just established what part of the lot is each of their respective turf and they expect to be paid to watch your car for you.  This is pretty typical around all of Djibouti.  You can’t go anywhere without someone trying to get you to park in their area, and pay them a wage.  Now, the sum normally paid for a short stint is probably around a dollar, while for all day, closer to $6 or so, so generally, I don’t mind paying it.  It’s certainly worth it just to get them to stop hassling you.  The thing that annoys me is that they will often also “wash” your car.  The quotation marks there reflect the fact that your car (certainly your car windows) will probably be dirtier after they are done than before they “washed” it.  And you can think that you clearly and distinctly told someone “do not wash my car” and then get back from dinner only to find that they’ve “washed” it anyway.  Oh well, what can you do, right?

Anyway, we set out for our whaleshark trip on an overcast morning, but as it rarely rains in Djibouti, I wasn’t too worried.  A month after arriving here, I think it has only rained once, and it was so brief that I missed it!  I just know it rained because when I came out from visiting my neighbor’s house, the ground was already dry, but the sand was packed down a little on top (like the beach a little while after the tide has gone out – better frame of reference for an east-coast gal like me!)  It did actually stay a little bit overcast for the day, but that was actually good – it made it a little cooler out there on the water.  As Djibouti typically still hits the high 80’s/low 90’s (Fahrenheit – that’s around 30 degrees celcius to the metric people!) this time of year, a little cooler isn’t so bad when you’re going to be out on a boat all day!!

Members of our group snorkling around two whale sharks - you can see fins in the middle there......

After we got going, it took some time to finally spot our first whaleshark.  Thankfully, along the way, we were distracted by a pod of dolphins.   We went up and down the coast quite a bit before finally seeing our first whaleshark flipper (at least I’m calling it a flipper – I don’t know if it’s really a flipper, a fin, or part of the tail…… it’s a part of the whaleshark that often flips out above the surface of the water, at any rate!)  The thing that surprised me the most was how fast those huge creatures can move though!  After seeing the first sign of a whaleshark, he or she quickly disappeared and dove into the deeper waters.  As we only had snorkel gear, not scuba, we couldn’t follow.  We kept going, until finally we spotted another one!  Despite the repeated requests by our organizer to slide quietly and with as little splash as possible, people (in their excitement) lept in and caused a splash, and since I had thought it might be wise to get out on the other side of the boat and swim around away from the other people, I missed the whale shark completely.  The splashers scared him off (or her….. for some reason I want to refer to all whalesharks as male….. not sure if that’s a sign of some sort of sexism!!) and by the time I got comfortable with flippers, and got around the boat he had dived down into the deeper, murky waters.  For some reason, the water in this area was not very clear, and we couldn’t really see anything once the whalesharks dove deep.  For now, I would have to be satisfied with having swam near a whaleshark, and not with having seen one underwater.  We had some other opportunities to see the whalesharks, and some others in the group came up quite close.  Some took pictures with my camera.  I, however, continued to have bad luck, and when we got close enough again I would either not have my gear on in time, or would have lost my motivation to jump in along-side them.  No matter, though!  I’m going to go on another Whaleshark trip soon, and in the meantime, I still enjoyed my day on the boat.

To me, the highlight of the day was not seeing the whalesharks from the boat (FYI, these creatures are HUGE!  They looked to be at least 15 feet, by comparison to the people swimming along-side them), but rather it was snorkeling around the Arta Beach and reef area.  There is a beautiful coral reef there, which is home to all sorts of species of coral and sea-life.  The colors of some of the fish are incredible – wild electric blues, fluorescent yellow stripes, purples, all sorts of colors!  Coral in all sorts of configurations – my favorite looked like a brain.  But my absolute favorite: I got to see a sea turtle!!!  Now, the sea turtle was absolutely my favorite character in the movie “Finding Nemo” (“Fin….. Noggin’…… Duuuuuuuude”) so this was, hands down, the most exciting thing that happened all day.  I still have to wait to see whether or not the underwater picture I took of him came out at all (I hope so!) but if not, at least I’ll always have the memory!!  I can’t wait for the next trip, and hope to have another sighting of a sea turtle, as well as next time, hopefully getting my close encounter with a whaleshark.

Until then,

Your water-loving TC2

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