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Whale Shark Diving

By: Gary Hagland

Date Posted: 1998-05-30

After leaving Yomitan's fishing port, we reach our destination in less than ten minutes. We tie off to one of the brightly colored fishing balls, and everyone on board gathers their gear together, and prepares to enter the water. The two Top Marine divemasters are in first, and we follow them down the descent line to a huge, cavernous enclosed net. We take our places along the top edge of the net at 20 feet, and stare in awe of what's inside; two whale sharks.

Whale sharks are found throughout the world in tropical and warm-temperate seas, according to the Shark Research Institute. They are especially prevalent, during certain times of the year, in the Indian Ocean at such sites as Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia, the Seychelles, Mozambique, and the northern coast of South Africa. South Africa has the record for number of sightings with 95 in a 68 mile (110 km) distance between Durban and Umtentweni in 1994.

Whale sharks are apparently found throughout the year on Okinawa, where they sometimes wander into large fishing nets. Each year, Yomitan fishermen capture and release 40 to 50 of these huge fish. Infrequently, a whale shark may be sent to either the aquarium at Okinawa's Expo Park in Motobu, or to the Ring of Fire Aquarium in Osaka. The sharks we see are kept several months, fed well, and then released.

The procedure for diving with whale sharks is to let one of the divemasters enter the net first with a large bag of krill. He feeds them, and then motions for us to follow him through the wide opening at the top of the net. We swim in, accompanied by a large, docile lionfish, apparently intent on cleaning up the table scraps from the recent feeding. Once in, we station ourselves at various vantage points, depending whether we wish to photograph, shoot video, or just get close to the sharks.

Whale sharks feed not only on krill, but also on plankton, squid, and small fish, such as anchovies and sardines. There have been reports of whale sharks even feeding on larger fish. However, they do not eat humans, nor have they inadvertently ever harmed a diver.

The sharks are friendly. They are like large puppy dogs, as they approach us with apparent curiosity and possible hope of further handouts. They hold open their huge mouths, and for a few moments seem to wait for more delicious krill, before swimming by. They do not seem to mind when we touch their rough skin, or even when one of us catches a ride on their dorsal fin.

Although over three times larger than we are, these particular whale sharks, at 20 feet, are about half the size of the verified world's record of 40 feet caught in India in 1983. There are reports that one caught in the Gulf of Thailand in 1925, was estimated to be 60 feet long. Unfortunately, that can not be proven because the poor folks who supposedly caught it, probably ate it. It is doubtful that seeking a means to officially measure and record the size for posterity was a concern for them. Also, there was no way to piece the bones back together to determine size after the feast, because there were none. All sharks are cartilaginous, meaning they have no bones just cartilage.

A 20 foot whale shark is still impressive, however. Not too many divers in this world experience the chance to swim with nature's largest fish. Divers from all parts of the globe, travel to Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia and pay $3000, exclusive of air fare, to dive with them. On Okinawa, we have the opportunity to do that for a fraction of that amount.

You can sign up for the whale shark dives at the Torii Beach Scuba Locker, which is the only MWR facility on Okinawa to offer this service. A single dive costs $95, and two dives cost $130. During weekends, whale shark dive tours depart the Scuba Locker at 8 a.m. and 12 p.m. On weekdays, departure is at 9 a.m. For further information on diving with whale sharks, call 644-4290.

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