Close Encounters of the Best Kind

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Africa » Djibouti
December 20th 2010
Published: December 21st 2010EDIT THIS ENTRY

Nothing prepared me for it. I had signed up for just this experience; I knew I was going to see one (or two) of them. But then I SAW the first one…and I about choked on seawater because I was so astounded. I was awestruck and giddy all at once.

Just inches away, a whale shark was slipping by, its massive grey body, spotted in white, almost blocking the rest of my view. So close that it practically brushed against me.

Then another. And another.

You will have to take my word that I had this experience, as I did not have a camera capable of taking underwater photos (I am still kicking myself on this account!). But I got to spend hours swimming among a pod of whale sharks, who were seemingly unperturbed by the overly excited humans flipping about in the water. It was genuinely awesome (in the truest sense).

The Bay of Ghoubbet – a pinch of the larger Gulf of Tadjoura (Djibouti’s mouth into the Gulf of Aden) – is considered the best place in the world to see whale sharks. And it’s not hard to see why. One of the other participants – a Finn, just wrapping up a jaunt through Ethiopia’s Danakil Depression, Somaliland, and Djibouti (jealous!) – told me he had gone on a whale shark spotting excursion in Mozambique, but only saw one. Here, we jumped into the water and were immediately within touching distance of three!

There was even a magical moment when I was away from the other swimmers and one of the whale sharks appeared at my side. We swam together, just the two of us, side by side, for 5-10 minutes. I was ready to follow the gentle giant as far as he wanted. I was mesmerized. (But, as you can see, I didn’t get lost at sea!)

While these are plankton-eating creatures (not the man-eaters of current Sharm el-Sheik fame), the sheer size of these fish – and they are fish – is unnerving. My last view of one of these giants was one coming at me with its mouth agape. It was hard not to imagine getting swallowed up in that wide expanse! But it dove beneath me, almost smacking me in the face with its tail fin.

I would have come to Djibouti just to have this close encounter - of the best kind!

But the fun wasn’t quite over. After lunch on a remote beach (I would have said “secluded”, but there were a couple other boats moored off shore), we headed back into the Bay of Tadjoura proper and anchored by a coral reef.

The last time I really snorkeled was in the Red Sea, near Aqaba in Jordan – back in the summer of 1994. All I remember is being frustrated that I could see only splotches of bright color, being nearly blind without my glasses. Somehow this time, though, I was able to see the reef and its wildlife in all their vivid glory (I had assumed I could see the whale sharks so well because they were so BIG). It was like diving into someone’s tropical aquarium – but on a much grander scale. The corals fanned in bizarre formations and the fish, in every color imaginable – some of the fish appeared to have ALL these colors swirled on their bodies in one go – darted in and around these structures. I even got to see a moray eel hiding in its lair at the base of a stack of coral. Again, pretty awesome.

As my day in the Bay of Ghoubbet/Gulf of Tadjoura progressed, all my childhood dreams of running away to join Jacques Cousteau came rushing back to me. I have decided I really need to do more snorkeling and diving. Especially if there are whale sharks involved!

PS The whale shark tour started off from the dock at the Kempenski Hotel, which is to Djibouti what the Rotana is to Khartoum - a five-star enclave that blocks out the country it is in (with rooms starting at $400 a night).

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