Aside from the amazing property we had the opportunity to stay at, one of the experiences that really stood out above the rest was our snorkelling trip with Katie and Jacob from the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme (MWSRP).
Snorkelling with Whale Sharks
Whale sharks, contrary to popular belief are not actually whales despite their size. In fact, they are the largest of the shark family. What makes them very intriguing is that there really isn't that much data on these sharks which is why the Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme exists. They're typically found in tropical climates and are known to be in areas like the Maldives, Taiwan, Mexico and Indonesia. Whale sharks are capable of diving down to 1,286 meters (4219 feet), can live up to 100 years and average between 4 and 8 meters. With changes to climate, whale sharks can be found around the various atolls of the Maldives all year round but generally, the best chances of spotting them are from December to April.
Being part of the shark family, you'd think they'd be aggressive and meat eaters but again they're quite the opposite. They're extremely docile creatures that eat by filter feeding. What they do is open their mouth wide and as they swim along, plankton will get caught in their filters and that's what they end up eating.
The Conrad Maldives in conjunction with the MWSRP have operated snorkel excursions for years and lucky for us, we were able to catch the end of this joint project. Since the summer of 2014, MWSRP has moved moved to a separate island to focus strictly on research. What I loved about this trip while we were there was the fact that not only did we get a *chance* to snorkel with whale sharks, but we would be doing it with the actual field researchers. Not only that, a portion of trip costs would go directly to MWSRP.
The one thing you have to accept going into the excursion is that luck plays a huge factor in how many or if you see any whale sharks at all. During our trip, we talked to some that only saw 1 while we were lucky enough to see 3.
Signing up for the excursion
On the first day we arrived, I knew that it'd be smart to plan ahead and book all the excursions we wanted to do. We had heard so many good things about the Whale Shark Snorkelling excursion so we signed up right away. It was a good thing that we did because later on we found out that there were a few couples that had to be turned away because our particular time slot was full.
Signing up for the whale shark snorkelling trip is the same as you would to sign up for diving at SubAqua. You go outside their office, and on the display board there should be a sign up sheet for the next excursion. All we had to do was put our names and room number down and that was it.
After an early breakfast we met at the main reception at 8:45. We got a board a speed boat (not the dhoni boats that are used for diving), and off we went towards an area where there had been known sightings of whale sharks over the past little while. On our ride up, we met our MWSRP guides for the day. The co-founder of MWSRP, Katie was with us for the day which was fantastic as she gave us a full brief of whale sharks, their anatomy and about the research they had been doing since the program's inception.
We learned some interesting things about how they've been able to keep track of each whale shark and how they use NASA developed constellation tracking technology to be able to uniquely identify the spots on the sides of a whale shark. There were also some interesting facts about how most of the whale sharks in the Maldives were all juvenile males and that there still really isn't all that much information about their migratory and reproducing patterns.
Katie also made sure to let us know about the do's and don'ts of snorkelling with whale sharks. I was immediately disappointed when I found out that I couldn't touch the whale shark. It was also good to know not to snorkel near the back fin as Katie explained that there have been incidents where snorkelers have been whacked.
With Katie was one of the volunteer's, Jacob from Denmark.
The boat ride out took at most 40 minutes and during that time we got some of our gear ready and got to know some of the other guests at the Conrad Maldives that were with us.
The hunt for whale sharks
Once we got to the area of frequent whale shark sightings, the boat slipped it into low gear. Lucky for us though, we were the first boats on the scene. Katie made mention of how that wasn't always the case and that it would soon change because all the boats in the area communicate with each other to let one another know of sightings. Our boat cruised around a bit as both Katie and Jacob stood at the bow (forward) part of the ship with their polarized sunglasses and scanned the water ahead of them. It was quite fascinating to watch. We were told that they were looking for large dark patches in the water to spot them.
For quite a few minutes, there was a sense of nervousness that luck really wasn't on our side today but all that changed when Jacob and Katie started pointing and shouting “WHALE SHARK!!”.
We were put on high alert after that and slipped on our snorkelling gear right away. The crew opened doors on the stern (rear) and port (left) side of the boat. Without much instruction, we filed in a line and one by one jumped into the water. It was quite the adrenaline rush. I didn't even know where the whale shark at this point but it was almost as if I was on the prowl, hunting for my prey. I popped my head up to find Jacob who had jumped into the water first and started moving in that direction.
Our first whale shark was Fernando and we probably only snorkelled with him for 7 minutes before he continued to dive deeper and deeper and he became a dark patch in the water.
Now just imagine how incredible this is. You literally feel like you're amongst giants. With a length of at least 6 meters, you're up close and personal with this magnificent creature. The challenging part was trying to do everything at once: taking photos, kicking the fins, and breast strokes to swim faster. I had a blast just swimming with the whale shark 7 minutes that it was, seeing him from the right side, left side and behind. And all the while of course, the whale shark is minding his own business, taking in big gulps of water, opening his mouth as wide as he possibly can.
I later found out from Katie that this guy is the most spotted whale shark and the first one they ever saw when MWSRP started back in 2006.
After getting back on the boat, we took a short breather while Katie and Jacob were on the lookout again. It must've been barely 15 minutes before another was spotted in the area we were circling. Our instincts kicked in again and we were suited up in no time and in the water.
This one was even shorter than the first sighting but I was happy enough just spot a second one. Back on the boat, all of us were so ecstatic from the two sightings mere minutes apart. Everyone was all smiles. Katie also made the comment about how lucky we were. On both trips to the water, we were more or less the only boat to catch them before losing sight of them.
I thought things were about to wrap up when…
Then Dylan decided to grace us with his presence. Again, we must've been on the boat for only 5 minutes when there was another sighting. This time however, we weren't so lucky with the crowds. In the area, there were at least 4 or 5 boats and some already in the water. We jumped in just the same and then the real battle began.
Moms were in the water. Kids were in the water. Snorkelers with crazy cameras were in the water. Everyone and their grandma was in the water. It was complete madness there as I literally had to swipe and go around hoards of snorkelers all looking to keep up with Dylan. And boy did Dylan make it tough to do that. As he speared through the water, I was swimming like a madman.
The incredible part about all this was that we were in the water with him for 40 whole minutes. Yes that's correct. FORTY minutes. Insane I tell you. I don't know how we were so lucky but Dylan was just minding his own business, filtering out that plankton and swimming his jolly way around the shallower waters.
As time progressed the crowds eventually started to somewhat thin out but I would still get the occasional smack in the head from someone else's fins. The 40 minutes really gave me an opportunity to swim all around Dylan. I even powered right through to look back and see his face too which was cool.
My expectations were already high from the service we had been getting from diving and these guys were completely up to the task. Katie, Jacob and the boat crew were extremely knowledgable and attentive to all of our needs. They always seemed to have knack for anticipating when we'd need something like having the dish soap ready for our googles, helping with our fins and bringing out the fruits as we settled in.
This was definitely the most expensive excursion of our trip but TOTALLY WORTH IT. Per person it cost $200 USD per person + 10% service charge + tax. This includes the boat ride, the guides, fruits and refreshments. $50 of the cost goes to Maldives Whale Shark Research Programme which I think is great. The price per child is $100 USD.
Note that the excursion only runs Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. It also requires a minimum of 6 snorkelers, up to a maximum of 12.
Tips & tricks
- Book the whale shark excursion immediately after you arrive. Secure your spot early or regret it later!
- Being the photographer I am, I'd totally recommend you getting at least a basic point and shoot underwater camera. I had my Canon S100 + underwater case set up and although it wasn't the best, it was good enough to capture the experience.
- The night before, remember to grab life jackets from the water sports place. Life jackets are optional but I would recommend wearing them just because you will probably get pretty tired especially if you end up chasing after a whale shark for 40 minutes. I would recommend wearing it if you want to free dive a little deeper.
- Be prepared to swim. These guys look clumsy and slow but do those fins pack some horsepower.
- Kids are totally capable of doing this excursion. There was a little girl with the family that was with us and she was amazing at keeping up with the whale shark. The third whale shark was a bit long so she had to go back on the boat but she absolutely loved it (and totally passed out on the way back to the resort).
If you're going to the Maldives, this is a flat out must-do. You don't even need to be a diver to appreciate this. It's a once in a life time experience that you can only get in very select places in the world.
Check out the prices for the Conrad Maldives for when you want to go.