Author: Nita CJ
“We have to wake up really early,” I reminded our guests the night before we were scheduled to (hopefully) swim with whale sharks. I could tell they wanted their sleep, but they were also very eager to get up and swim with these gentle giants of the deep. The group was very relaxed, so I promised them a long nap tomorrow if we managed to actually swim with the whale sharks.
It was June, 2019, and this would be our second time visiting the area where the whale sharks congregate on our Bali to Komodo Dances, Dragons & Magical Lakes cruises. Previously in May, our tour leader Anastasia successfully spotted a whale shark near the floating fishing platform, which the locals call a ‘bagan’, and we were making our way towards it through the night using the GPS point that a local guide had given me.
We arrived at 5:30 in the morning, and a local guide came out to the Katharina in his dugout canoe to meet us. I had a brief chat with him before taking our dinghy to check out some of the bagan to look for the sharks. I didn't have to wait long at all, because while waiting for the tender to be brought down from the top deck, we spotted two whale sharks swimming around our ship! Oh my god!! My heart beat so fast, I was getting more and excited. Who needs coffee when you have the opportunity to swim with whale sharks to kick off your morning? I was now so wide awake!
The first bagan we went to had one whale shark swimming around it. The beautiful creature popped its dorsal fin next to our dinghy and we could see the reflection of white dots from the surface. We gasped. Our local guide stayed with the bagan while I went back to wake our guests up with the good news and get ready for our early morning swim.
Twenty minutes later, still half asleep, everyone were sitting on the side of the dinghy with their snorkel gears on, ready to share the water with one of the most beautiful and largest fish in the world. Yes, you read it right. Whale sharks are not mammal, instead they are fish – cartilaginous fish, to be precise. The whale shark got its “whale” name just because of its size. Even though whale sharks are big and can grow up to 18 meters long, they are filter feeders—which means they eat zooplanktons, krill, fish eggs, and small fish.
Arriving in the first bagan, the local guide signalled that the whale shark was gone. A bit worried that we wouldn’t find anymore whale sharks, I kept silent and didn’t translate anything to anyone on the boat. The guests were busy scanning the waters anyway, so it was good to keep them busy that way. The local guy hopped on the dinghy with us and we started looking at another bagan. One of the fishermen nearby signalled that there was one swimming underneath his bagan so we went towards him. In less than a minute, the whale shark popped its dorsal and caudal fin on the surface. I quickly told everyone not to touch the sharks, not to use flash on their cameras, and to keep a respectful distance before we all jumped in.
The whale sharks in this area are opportunists and feed on the fish that fall out of the fishermen’s nets. Visibility wasn’t the best, because of all the small fish and krill that fell from the fisherman’s nets, but it didn’t matter. Despite the early morning, the water was nice and warm with no current at all.
We were all swimming with one whale shark when another one popped up out of nowhere; they both kind of bumped their mouths into each other before one of them moved away by waving its caudal fin aggressively. Another one came in from a different direction and now there were three of them! Surrounded by three giant whale sharks, we weren’t even sure where to look or to swim. It was silly of me to think that they would swallow us when they open their 1.5-metre-wide mouths, after all, they can only swallow something the size of a grape despite that big mouth. It was my very first to swim with so many whale sharks. I’ve dived with whale sharks before in Thailand and Bali, but never with this many at once. I was so excited.
I whipped out my underwater camera and started taking pictures and videos. That was when yet another whale shark came in. Four! Four whale shark in total!! I could feel the adrenaline pumping. It was mind blowing. I snapped and snapped and managed to get a few shots of the whale sharks with guests as well. We were there for about an hour before one by one guests starting peeling off and getting back into the dinghy.
On our ride back to the Katharina, everyone’s eyes were lit up. We were all on such a high. Nobody could shut up about how close they got to the whale sharks and how big they were. I was just glad that I could share the experience first hand with our guests. After all, it was in the wild, and we cannot predict what nature will bring to us. Luckily though, mother nature was on my side this day, and brought in not one, not two, but four whale sharks for us. It's the kind of thing that makes my job worthwhile and makes me feel blessed every time I go out on a boat with SeaTrek
And as a guest said,"it was worth the early morning wake up".
The four trips below offer a chance to swim with whale sharks in the wild. Make sure to check out one of our trips that might help tick off your bucket list.