The International Writers
with Whale Sharks in Djibouti
Rachel and Tom Jones
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 worlds largest fish, the whale shark. And
we were not only going to see whale sharks, we were going to swim with
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.
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.
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
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
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 Toms 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 arms 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 securenym.net
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