If you’ve been fortunate enough to have been exposed to Shark Week on discovery channel you would’ve had your mind blown at the images of the massive and gentle whale shark, the largest fish in the ocean. As a kid growing up in the suburbs of Los Angeles I remember telling friends of mine that I had a neighbor who once swam with whale sharks in Australia (yes all the right friends in all the right places). I was that removed and the dream seems that far off – Shark Week indeed turned me into a weird kid. Swimming with sharks of any kind seemed like an unattainable reality for a LA suburbs kid.
Once you break the seal of traveling and find a home abroad, particularly South Africa, opportunities have a way of presenting themselves to you. And long story short there I was – a 23 year old American on a bus headed from Johannesburg to Mozambique with two South African buddies en route for Tofo: land of the whale sharks and giant mantas.
From Maputo we took a 12 seater van/taxi crammed with 20 people on their way to Tofo – quite the adventure. I happened to sit next to a late 20’s British guy who was just enough older than I was to be incredibly cool. Turns out that he specialized in underwater video and had plenty of tales to tell about all there is to see in Tofo. I knew though from other tales of Tofo that I needed to be practical and realistic. The weather in Tofo can vary in December and likewise the likelihood of swimming with beautiful monsters too can be unpredictable.
Without digressing into the wonderful world of Tofo and Mozambique let’s just say it’s paradise. Beautiful long beaches with rolling waves. It’s just undeveloped enough for it to feel like you are truly on an adventure and amongst locals. The town is fairly integrated between locals and a diverse group of expats.
Nearly everything you need is within walking distance including the scuba centers. Being that we were rookies we just went with the most experienced and popular Tofo Scuba. It seemed almost too simple: we headed in, paid our deposit, and then were told to return 15 minutes before departure. It didn’t take more than 5 minutes to get a feel for the operation. From the office on the beach you could watch the boats depart, people grab their gear and see the friendly staff answer ‘all the questions’. Anticipation was building. The staff made it clear that whale shark spottings were happening regularly and I could feel the excitement and nerves building inside me. Could this really be happening? How did I get here?
Pre-departure you are shown a video and fitted with fins, masks and if needed a rash guard. A video is shown talking about safety and whale shark interaction. Honestly, it still feels almost too easy and surreal that within moments you will be in the vast ocean, possibly with a massive creature. When all is ready the group heads out to the shore where the sturdy rubber boat awaits. You throw your gear in and help embark by pushing the boat out to sea. Once the people (stronger people) are about waist deep in the water the leader waits for a wave to come in and then asks the people in the back to jump in. The engine is started and voom you are skipping over waves headed straight out to sea.
One thing to mention is that our boat had a large whale shark spotting seat raised at least 8 feet above the boat to make it easier to spot the sharks who generally swim near the surface. Some scuba companies do not do this. Once out at sea the boat generally head south and go in and out towards and away from the shore using the waves to get high enough to get a look at the sea surface. Our first time out we were searching for about 10 minutes before coming across a dark shadow. Our leader yelled out, get your gear on. The boat repositioned itself in front of the whale shark and then the leader pointed and yelled go there. We all fearfully and excitingly jumped out.
These first moments looking at the clear, boundless ocean are invigorating to sun-soaked skin and it’s incredibly mind-blowing as you try to come to grips with what you are seeing – vast blue ocean. A second or milliseconds in, after acclimating yourself with the ocean, you are desperately looking for the shark and in our case it was not difficult because as we turned to our right the shark was coming right for us. Now try to remove yourself from any Jaws visions, this is a whale shark, and while any animal that is 15 feet coming at you is going to be scary, whale sharks are particularly non-threatening. Did we want to get out of the way, oh hell yes, but was it overly frightening, not at all. As we positioned ourselves along this massive beast we began to swim.
Whale sharks are deceptively fast, I would say on average you have to kick and use your arms to swim at a moderate pace to keep up, at times at an aggressive pace – all the while the shark looks like it’s it’s just slowly cruising by.
Swimming next to the shark you can’t help but feel small and meaningless. Being in the middle of the ocean next to such a being is simply envigorating. I would describe the entire experience as surreal as you try to take in what you are seeing and how fortunate you are to see what you are seeing.
I think what makes the experience even more incredible is that the effort that goes into seeing them can never prepare you for what you get to experience. Watching a massive creature peacefully move through the water is unlike anything else you will ever do. As you are swimming along you will reach moments of tranquility where you are just along for the ride and you have no idea how long or where you are going. There will also be moments where you suddenly become aware of where you are. This is not a game park or enclosed environment but the wild and you have no idea what is behind or below you, but frankly, when next to whale shark it doesn’t matter.
My favorite part of swimming alongside whale sharks is the time when they decide they are over company and depart. Their departure is effortlessly graceful as they slowly descend into the great abyss below – beautiful and mysterious.
Most whale shark snorkling trips will head out for around 1.5-2 hours. All in all I’ve been on 5 whale shark trips on 3 different trips to Mozambique altogether. The first 2 times on my first trip it felt like it was almost like there must be whale sharks all over the place because we just kept running into them. On the second trip we were way less fortunate. The weather all week was quite bad and our boat ride out was hopeless. The third time we had good weather but very high seas, an hour in we hadn’t seen much and I was pretty discouraged especially because it was Annchen’s first time, first time to Tofo (I had talked it up big time), and her birthday. When all hope was lost we spotted that familar shadow and together we had the most remarkable experience all over again – it doesn’t get old. I was so in the zone of swimming next to the shark that I hadn’t realized that all the people from my boat had given up trying to keep up with the shark and I found myself all alone next to the monster, honestly one of the best moments of my life until a new boat group jumped in and it gets quite chaotic quickly – can’t blame them!
Hopefully you’ve caught my passion and excitement for swimming with whale sharks in Tofo. Doing it has been some of the best experiences in my travel but just keep in mind there is no guarantee and do not expect the snorkel companies to be that honest with you although many of them will give you a 1/2 price second trip if you do not see anything on your first. I can’t say enough good things about Tofo and will be sure to write more about traveling there very soon.
P.S. Can’t take credit for any of the photos in the post – thank you, internet!