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Scuba Diver Australasia - Gentle Giants of Djibouti

Along a small stretch of uninhabitable coastline off the coast of Djibouti lies one of natures treasures which up until now, few have been privileged to witness. During the months of October through to February, large aggregations of young whale sharks visit the Gulf of Tadjoura to feed on the plankton rich waters within the Gulf of Aden. Djibouti is situated in the north east of Africa between Ethiopia and Somalia, with the Gulf of Tadjoura, at the southern entrance to the Red Sea. This amazing spectacle can be witnessed, if you are an adventurous type that has an open mind about visiting countries that the Foreign & Commonwealth Office advises strongly against traveling to. Djibouti is most definitely a no frills destination where most people initially feel out of their comfort zone. Fortunately, from the time you leave the shores of Djibouti and head down the coastline, you’ll find yourself quickly delivered into a wilderness that will relieve you of your modern day life stresses. To ensure a safe Djibouti whale shark experience both on land and at sea, it is essential that you travel with an experienced tour operator of which there is only one that is reputable. Dolphin Services provide extremely secure and safe visits to this region and take care of you from the moment you clear customs to the time of your departure.

As the cooler months arrive in Djibouti, so do young whale sharks measuring 3 to 6 metres in length, although sometimes sharks up to 8 metres have been sighted. Little is known about where the sharks come from, but local reports from ecotourism operators suggest that during the months of October to February, large aggregations of mostly juvenile male sharks move around a small area of coastline in search of food. Luckily, during this time of year food is plentiful and at certain times of the day, dense blooms of plankton are brought to the surface, which the whale sharks seem to find.

Plankton is made up of small or microscopic organisms such as fish eggs, tiny fish fry, crustaceans, algae and protozoans. Whale sharks are filter feeders that swim through the water with their mouths wide open to feed. As they gulp at the incoming water they use their gill rakers to filter out the microscopic plankton before exhausting the filtered water over their gills for oxygen transfer. In Djibouti, from around 10.30am through to 6pm, sharks rise to the surface and cruise along the shallow shoreline in search of food.

By late morning as the sun becomes higher in the sky, plankton is attracted to the waters surface. Additionally, as the wind picks up, currents upwell creating plankton hot spots up and down the coast. Once the cruising sharks track down these blooms of plankton, their swimming patterns will change to either ram or vertical feeding. Ram feeding sharks will swim very fast through the water with their mouths wide open trying to filter as much water as possible. As plankton density increases, the sharks will often start to gulp which will invariably slow their swimming speed. If, left undisturbed a gulping whale shark will often stop swimming and instead rotate itself into an almost vertical position where it will continuously gulp stationary in one area until the food source is depleted. Having the right camera equipment to capture this action is very important and taking into consideration that you wont be using strobes to light your subject you’ll need a good fisheye lens and a camera that works well in low light. Unlike the large aggregation of whale sharks found off the coast of Yucatán Peninsula (Mexico) where visibilities and water color seems perfect for underwater photography, Djibouti offers slightly more challenging conditions which include plenty of cloud cover and green water.

The following is a 48-hour snippet of just what you can experience when you visit Djibouti in search of whale sharks.

After an overnight stay at the very secure Djibouti Sheraton 3 Star Hotel, I find myself on the MV Deli, a Turkish built wooden schooner. As in previous years, I have joined a team of 10 researchers/volunteers from Megaptera and the Marine Conservation Society Seychelles (MCSS) and we are heading off for five days to build on the existing research data of the large aggregation of whale sharks that are attracted to this region. Sailing alongside the deserted coastline you gradually forget fears such as piracy and as you give in to being un-contactable with no mobile reception, you find yourself finally relaxing and enjoying the adventure. Two hours and 33km later we arrive at Acacia Bay in the late afternoon and as the skiff boats are lowered into the water we prepare ourselves for a couple of hours of whale shark research.

Sitting in the skiff moving at a snails pace, five metres from the shoreline, our research team sit in anticipation, surveying the surface for sharks. Suddenly one of the team shouts and points in the direction of the oncoming whale shark and everyone grabs their cameras and enters the water. Timing your entry to a fast moving shark is not easy, especially with your very first encounter. Invariably, like on this occasion, I found myself waiting for the bubbles to clear in front of my mask only to find that the shark had raced past me. Finning after the shark hoping that it might slow down to feed, I watched the team taking their identification shots for spot pattern identification. Using waterproof military grade laser sites mounted either side of a camera, one of the team take photographs which will later assist in the determining the length of the shark, while another dives deep to observe what sex the shark is. Eventually I give up trying to keep up and instead tread water to get my breath back. Taking my bearings, I find that the chase has taken me 15 metres away from the shoreline with the skiff and the team also some distance away. Luckily there is not much of a current running in this area and so it does not take too long to get back to the comfort zone of the shoreline. I find that it is far easier to find the sharks from the water and so as the boat comes to collect me, I wave them on asking them to come back for me in a while. Watching the boat survey further down the shoreline I keep an eye on the team jumping in on other shark sighting. You can guarantee if the team, are jumping in on a shark 40 metres down the shoreline you have a 50/50 chance of it coming your way. Waiting for the boat to follow the team confirms that there is a shark heading my way, which allows me time to prepare my manual settings for my next encounter. It’s not long before I spot the tip of the sharks tail breaking through the waters surface, sweeping quickly from side to side. Dipping my head underwater at the last minute I become face to face with this majestic fish and fire off several shots. Ensuring that the shark’s path is clear, it allows me to swim along side for some time giving me all the opportunities I need to get the photograph that I want. As I follow the shark I notice that the density of the plankton cloud thickens and as it does, the behavior of the shark changes too. Slowing its pace, the whale shark opens it mouth and starts to repeatedly gulp at the cloud of plankton. In almost a trance like state the shark stops swimming and instead maneuvers itself so it can feed vertically in one spot. As I get too close to this feeding shark, I am reminded that this giant is fully aware of my presence and so as it moves away from the cloud of food I realise that I have disturbed it. With experience from my previous visits I have learnt not to chase the sharks and instead to stay with the food and as I follow the cloud of plankton its not long before other whale sharks join me to feed on the soup of microscopic organisms. Back on the boat and reviewing the afternoon’s photographs I instantly recognise the benefits of my recent upgrade to a Nikon D3s full frame DSLR. With its improved ISO capabilities, I now have the ability to increase my shutter speeds with my desired aperture settings without increasing the amount of noise in my photographs. Zooming in on my photographs I do notice that there is some noise and blurring to photographs taken later in the day and so I make a mental note to take this into consideration tomorrow.

The next morning and the two teams set off in opposite directions. This time we are off to Arta Bay which in previous years has provided some very good encounters. With the French foreign legion camp running along side the bay you are comforted by the knowledge that far from where the Deli is anchored, there is a European military base.

Back in the water, I follow the shallow shore parallel to the firing range whilst French soldiers practice their shooting skills. Continually scan the surface for that familiar flick of a shark’s tail. It’s not too long before I come face to face with a young three long metre shark that is searching for food. Positioning myself with the sun behind me, the shark cruises closely past with its mouth wide open, allowing me to get some brilliantly lit photographs. Although there is little food around, shark activity is good and with up to three sharks circling in a 10 metre radius, feeding on what little food is available, the photographic opportunities are plentiful.

After a lunch break and a nap, the team heads out again for some more shark action. This time the team are equipped with a satellite tag, which they are hoping to deploy onto a shark so that they can track its journey and learn more about the whale shark movements in the region. The device is a PAT tag (pop-off archival tag), which records data over a pre-programmed period of time before disconnecting itself from its anchor, floating to the surface and beaming its data to a satellite. The tag is attached to an anchor, which is inserted into the tough fleshy back of the shark close to the dorsal fin. The data will then be converted to give information such as light location, depth and water temperatures.

By mid afternoon the plankton levels are considerable and there are plenty of tagging candidates. Eventually the team manages to find a young female that they also saw on the morning’s survey. Very quickly, the tag is attached to her and incredibly the shark hardly notices that this has happened and pulls up to feed vertically right in front of me.

With large blooms of arrow worms, the area quickly turns into a shark highway. Swimming side by side, less than a meter apart up to four sharks ram feed while all the time avoiding collision. To add to the drama a French army cougar helicopter appears and hovers 20 metres above, while the soldiers peer down at the sharks from their aerial vantage point. Treading water next to a giant gulping mouth, I look up and shake my head in wonder at how surreal the whole Djibouti whale shark experience can be…….

Useful stuff…

Shark Trust – Whale Shark Code of Conduct - don’t forget to visit this site to learn all about responsible behavior when swimming with whale sharks.

Whale Sharks: An Introduction to the World's Largest Fish from One of the World's Smallest Nations The Seychelles - an amazing visual informative book written by Dr David Rowat – a must own for anyone interested in whale sharks.

A big thankyou to Megaptera and the Marine Conservation Society Seychelles.

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