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Dances with Whale Sharks

By: Chip Downs

Date Posted: 2000-03-10

Having gathered all the necessary information and prepared myself for what I expected to be a unique experience, I headed out on a boat to view real whale sharks from close range, for the first time in my life. Like many other events though, having a head knowledge of a subject does not necessarily prepare you to face the actual event. As I plunged into the water off of the boat, I was nervous and excited. It is not everyday that you get a chance to come face to face with an animal weighing over one ton.

Although there are no recorded instances of a whale shark eating a person, the warnings not to be eaten that were given to me by some of my friends (they actually thought I was crazy) rang in my ears as I entered the cage and the whale shark swam directly towards me with its mouth (several feet wide) open. The majesty of this creature left me in complete and total awe. I couldn't take my eyes off it as the creature quickly swam beneath me. There was so little time for me to get my camera ready for a quick shot (or consider moving out of the way). Fortunately, the dive was thirty minutes long with many more opportunities for photos and for enjoying the whale sharks.

After everyone from our dive group was safely inside the netting, the Japanese guides fed the whales. As small fish floated through the water, the whale sharks quickly sucked everything into their mouths. After the feeding, we were free to swim around with the sharks. The next time one of the whale sharks went past, I kept the words of one of the instructors in mind. He had said that the whale sharks love to have their chest rubbed. The skin of the whale shark felt like a cross between a smooth velvet and leather. The whale sharks did not seem to mind the company of the divers and were very agreeable to being touched.

After what seemed like just a few minutes, the guides sounded the buzzer to let us know that our time with these creatures was at an end. As we swam out of the netting, I stopped long enough to take one last glimpse at one of the most incredible of God's creations.

Whale sharks are the largest known sharks in the world (and the largest fish in the sea). Divers in Okinawa have the great fortune to be located in the only place on earth where they can dive with these magnificent creatures in a semi-controlled environment, thanks to a partnership between the Torii Beach Scuba Locker, the Yomitan Fishermen’s Association, Yomitan Village, and Top Marine Zampa.

Ranging in length between 18 and 35 feet (5-10 meters) and weighing up to 2,200 pounds (1000 kg), these gentle giants survive on eating plankton, krill, sardines, and other small fish. With their lifespan of up to 150 years, these animals belong to the shark family, though the word "whale" is actually added to their common name so as to describe their immense size.

The creatures are currently considered by many, both at the local and national levels, as one of the keys to increasing tourism in Okinawa. Okinawa is hoping to replicate the success of the Ningaloo Reef (in Western Austrailia) where thousands of divers pay more than $3,000 a piece (not including airfares) for the opportunity to dive with these animals in their natural environment. American sport divers spend $1.4 billion each year on dive related travel; and with its strong ties to America, Okinawa is well positioned to capture a portion of that market.

Unlike Ningaloo, divers in Okinawa are guaranteed to see a whale shark when they dive. This is because the two whale sharks are kept in a circular net about a kilometer off the coast of Yomitan Village. The net begins at a depth of 20 feet (6 m) and goes down to a depth of 80 feet (24 m) and is 200 feet (60 m) in diameter. At a cost of $250,000 (Approx. ¥27 million) for construction, the cage was not initially constructed for the pleasure of divers.

The project began a few years ago when fishermen from Yomitan accidentally captured a whale shark in their nets. Not wanting to hurt the creature (or destroy their nets), they reportedly contacted biologists for advice. When told that the only way to free the whale was to cut up the nets, they willingly did so. However, the whale shark had been injured during its' struggle with the net. The current net cage is a result of a collaboration between the fisherman and biologists to create a safe environment for whale sharks to recuperate.

There are great plans being made for the future of the whale sharks in Okinawa. In consultation with scientific bodies at the international level, there are plans to increase the net size dramatically. The net may be extended to the surface of the water. This would allow the whales a greater range of motion and increase the tourist attractiveness of the area by allowing snorkelers and tourists in glass bottom boats to view the sharks. Other marine animals such as manta rays may also be added to the mixture.

Great pains are also being taken to preserve the well being of the whale sharks. The whale sharks are released back to the wild after a six month period (or during typhoons) and replaced with new whale sharks. Because these animals are generally considered loners and are not easily studied in the wild, the setup in Okinawa is a rare occasion for scientists to study these creatures and their little understood habits such as diet and breeding. Sharks in general are becoming an endangered species around the world. According to researchers, the first step to stopping the decline in the numbers of these animals is to understand them better. One estimate states that without a change in the current trends, sharks could be extinct in as few as fifty years. It is appropriate that Okinawa with such a close connection to the sea is at the forefront of efforts to help preserve them.

The cost of a dive with the whale sharks is $95 for one dive or $130 for two dives. A video of the dive is available as well. To make reservations, contact the Torii Scuba locker at (098) 892-5111 ext. 644-4290.

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