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The International Writers Magazine

Swimming with Whale Sharks in Djibouti
Rachel and Tom Jones

The spray-painted road sign signaled seven more kilometers to Arta Beach, a two-hour drive from Djibouti Ville, Djibouti. Three kilometers later another spray-painted sign read, “Nine kilometers.” The road curved and snaked between mountains littered with plastic bags, ancient volcanic rock and herds of goats. We passed the occasional camel, munching on the thorny branches of an acacia tree. Ten minutes and eight more kilometers from the beach, we saw two dikdik and a lizard sunning itself on a black rock. Goats, camels, dikdik and lizards were somewhat interesting, but they were not the wildlife we had come to the beach to see.

New Years’ Day, my husband Tom and I had loaded up our three children and braved the car-sickness and head-thumping bumpy roads to Arta Beach in an effort to see the world’s largest fish, the whale shark. And we were not only going to see whale sharks, we were going to swim with them.

  Whale sharks grow up to fifty-feet long and weigh 40,000 tons. They are gentle, harmless giants who even allow divers to hold on to their fins for an underwater ride. They feed on plankton, straining it out of the water by gill rakers at the back of their throats. Whale sharks are endangered and only an estimated one hundred have ever been seen. However, the Gulf of Tadjourah in Djibouti is one of the best locations worldwide for watching this magnificent fish.
Every year in December and January, adolescent male whale sharks gather in the gulf and brave tourists and residents of Djibouti flock to the untamed, wild beaches for the opportunity of a lifetime.

We reached Arta Beach and set up a temporary shelter for shade while we waited for the boat we had rented to arrive. Thirty-minutes later, the local fisherman coasted ashore. We gathered our camera, life-jackets for the children and snorkel gear and climbed into the rickety, white-washed boat. Tom and I sat on warped planks of wood and the children sat on the floor as the boat bounced over the waves, away from shore.

Within minutes and less than one hundred yards from shore, the fisherman pointed straight ahead. Two dorsal fins broke the surface of the ocean. He drove the boat closer while Tom and I pulled our masks over our faces. A few yards from the whale shark, he stopped the boat and we jumped over the side.

Tom swam toward the shark, but I tread water for a moment, taking in its size. Although only an adolescent, the whale shark was longer than our boat. I could see its brown body and white spots as his back surfaced. I looked back at the boat and reminded the children to remain sitting. They clung to the sides of the boat, staring at the fish. I waved and followed Tom.

We stopped just five feet from the whale shark. My heart was pounding. The shark was feeding; his body straight up and down, his mouth at the surface, taking in plankton. We could see the gills along his sides open and close, expelling water. His tail swung from left to right, graceful, powerful swoops, while the upper part of his body remained still. His open mouth spanned four feet and hung open as he gulped water and plankton.

I was overcome with the urge to either scream or shout in exultation. This was not the zoo, this was not a paid tour. I repeated in my mind that whale sharks were harmless, but the words were meaningless next to the massive creature. This whale shark was wild, we were in the middle of the ocean, waters full of jellyfish, hammerhead sharks and dolphins and we were armed with a camera and a snorkel.

Tom swam closer and reached out his hand to touch the shark. The shark continued to eat as Tom’s hand brushed its side, then with a mighty push of its tail, it flattened against the surface of the water and swam away from Tom, straight toward me. I forced myself to keep my face under the water, watching. The shark swam within arm’s length and I felt the force of the water pushing me back. Then he was gone.

We surfaced and swam back to the boat, exhilarated and hungry for more. The children cheered when they saw us and recounted how the whale shark had swum so close to the boat they could have leaned over the side and touched its fins.

The fisherman waited until Tom and I were sitting, wrapped in towels, then pointed to the left and zoomed off toward three sharks feeding near each other. We swam all afternoon with the sharks, until our arms and legs could take no more and we began sinking under the rolling waves.

Whale sharks, the size of a city bus, strong enough to overturn a boat with a mere flip of their tails, allowed us to gaze at them while they ate and to run our fingers along their skin. Unforgettable. And only in Djibouti, wild, untamed and astonishing.
© Rachel Jones March 2007
trjones at

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