Moby Dick Meets Jaws – A Whale Shark Story


Whaleshark, Koh Tao, Thailand

New Heaven Diving School

New Heaven Diving School

A Whale Shark comes to Koh Tao

There we were at the dive shop. It happened to be one of the few days that I can remember while diving with New Heaven Dive Shop, that we had to send two longtail boats out to the actual dive boat. For those of you who are unfamiliar with a longtail boat, well… picture a canoe that has been laid on its side and jumped on by a few giants, not broken, but badly bent

Longtail boat, Koh Tao, Thailand

Classy Longtail boat, Koh Tao, Thailand

However, instead of assuming, as one would, that this canoe should be powered by oars or paddles, you must picture that it has a motor. What kind of motor you may ask… and I’m glad you did. Because if you’re sitting there picturing a canoe powered by an outboard, you would be sadly mistaken. No, this motor looks much more like a fan on the end of a large pole-vaulting pole. The driver has full mobility (he can put it inside the canoe to cut the hair of his passengers if he chooses) of this large fan which he takes in and out of the water at his leisure, putting it into the correct (and sometimes incorrect) place in order to steer the canoe in the desired direction. But I digress…

Now, in order to warrant sending two long tail boats out to the dive boat the conditions must be just right… essentially the tide has to be so freaking low at around 9am (when we depart) that it’s damn near impossible to swim over the hard corrals, and we have to have at least 15 people heading out (an infrequent occurrence at our small dive shop), thus weighing down the long tail, such that even when following the channel (which meanders a good 200 metres out of the way) it would still be impossible to clear the rocks and corrals en route. This happened to be one of those days…
As it were, we didn’t actually have two long tail boats in the dive shop, which ended up meaning, as one might be able to guess, that we had to take two different trips. So there we were sitting on the beach, James, Mathilde, and I watching as the first long tail departed for the slow, meandering journey to the dive boat, when Dev, the dive shop owner came down with an announcement.

“You guys are heading to southwest pinnacle and then shark island today right?” he directed towards James, the

The Whaleshark convo

The whale shark convo with Chad, Dev, Mathilde, James

most senior of the staff. “That’s the current plan Dev” he replied
“Well a Whale Shark was just spotted at shark island, so I don’t know if you want to change your plan to head there first man?” James, who had around 3,000 dives on Koh Tao without seeing a whale shark released his Scottish roots in a beautifully accented mishmash of choice words… What I got out of it was, “Dev… whale shark… f’n… dev… f’n… whale shark… whale shark dev? f!” He was either very angry or very happy. Mathilde had been on and off the island for two years without seeing a Whaleshark and was similarly quite excited… I was completely green, but I understood the gist, we had to get there before it left… lets go. Considered swimming to the dive boat… no good, hard corrals on the surface and a good few hundred metres to the boat, damn, we tried communicating with the long tail, but yelling at the back of a canoe with a fan motor is as useful as yelling at the back of a jet airplane, so we waited in painful anticipation as we watched the longtail approach the dive boat and slowly unload all the passengers before coming back to us. When Tua returned with the longtail, the three of us hollered at him excitedly, and used our wicked dive signs to communicate ‘Big. F’n. Shark.’… he got the point, and the longtail was turned around almost before we could hop in it in knee deep water…

James 'communicating' with other boats

James ‘communicating’ with other boats

We arrived at the dive boat in a hurry, and broke every rule about not panicking the customers as we jumped from boat to boat without allowing the longtail to stop. After telling the captain to go straight to shark island, we informed Liz and Abel , the other instructors on board, of the whale shark (they had been busy trying to keep the customers calm) and got on our way. I was still in training, so my job was technically to follow James around, assisting him with his students…
“Mate, I’ll go down with the students, you don’t need to wait for us, find me at 5 meters (deep),” he informed me
“Wicked,” I suited up and waited… and waited…   Waiting on a bumpy dive in full gear… well, it sucks, I don’t recommend it. We arrived on site, and as I was waiting for the boat to stop and anchor up I heard a few splashes. I looked over the side to realize that James and Mathilde had thrown their gear off the moving boat and jumped in after it. “What tha f*** y’doing mate?” James asked me as he turned around to see me on the boat, “Git yer arse in tha watta” I jumped off, and immediately descended, then started scanning the water for a big f’n shark. Something to know about whale sharks, they feed on plankton which means that when they are around, typically the visibility in the water ain’t great… this was no exception. Imagine yourself in deep fog, and suddenly you turn your head and see the figure of a 7 m (20ft) shark. Your gut instinct is fear, of course, until you remember that its harmless so you go closer, convincing yourself its okay.

Whaleshark, Koh Tao, Thailand

Whaleshark, Koh Tao, Thailand, Photo courtesy of Abel Domingo

And then you see them… polka dots. This gigantic shark is hardly moving and is full of large white polka dots. He opens his 1.5 m (4ft) mouth as he passes you, which is slightly startling, until you realize he has no teeth. The only way he’s getting you is if you physically swim into his mouth (incidentally, something like that has happened), so you relax. You remember that you’re not supposed to chase the Whaleshark, but rather allow it to continue on its way, and stay in one spot watching, but that’s hard to do. I looked up and saw Liz with her students at a great distance, James the same and Mathilde by herself. James, the marine biologist, had enlightened us to a weird phenomenon where the Whalesharks will slow completely when their bodies are in bubbles, kind of like a Jacuzzi… so we tried it. James, myself and Mathilde went on our backs in one spot and waited, eventually the shark came right above us, so we blew some bubbles… it worked like a charm. There may never be a moment in my life that compares with this… laying three or four meters under a seven meter whale shark… incredible. As James had to return to his students, he gave me permission to negate my responsibilities, so Mathilde and I stayed with the shark by ourselves for a 44 minute dive before he finally dove into the blue abyss. We signalled to each other to ascend, and finished the most amazing dive experience I could have ever pictured.
Curious about some experiences that don’t go so well, check out this experience in the Galapagos.

Final note about Whale sharks

Whalesharks come to the surface to feed. As they are incredibly large, and easy to spot, many cultures hunted them for years and some still do. (Did the bible talk about catching 2 fish to feed a community for a year? If they were these badboys (sharks are fish), than I see no reason to doubt the credibility of the story.)

Photo retrieved from:

Photo retrieved from:

Many countries have started to protect the whale shark realizing that is offers more economic gain as a tourist draw than as a meal. This is, however, a two-edged sword. Because the whale shark is so placid, it is easy for divers to get in the water, and chase it around, which many do. According to PADI you are not allowed to dive with a whale shark, but if you are already in the water and see one you can continue on. We need to be responsible in the water so that we are not changing the habits of this magnificent creature. You can imagine what it would be like if there were hundreds of creatures (I kid you not, other stories I’ve heard from Koh Tao involve 100+ people in the water with the shark) staring at you and wanting to touch you every time you went to eat. Give them space and they will be around for generations to come. Who knows, maybe we’ll need to use whale sharks to feed whole communities once again.Curious about whale sharks? Check the wikipedia link here
Jonny Jenkins

Jonny Jenkins

My name is Jonny, my friends call me Stef. I'm Canadian born, but don't find my identity based upon some borders that man drew hundreds of years ago. I have begun to make my way through the world, travelling and living in many different countries and cultures. I believe whole heartedly in staying longer and going deeper to get the best understanding possible of many different perspectives of life. In order to do so, you have to speak the language. I am no polyglot, but have started to put more emphasis on learning languages in the last few years. I have learned Spanish, relearned French, and started in on Portuguese, German, Indonesian and Malagasy. When it comes to the third world, I am willing to help where they (and not I) decide they need it... in the first world, I am hoping to inspire and motivate people to live more engaging lives.

14 Replies to “Moby Dick Meets Jaws – A Whale Shark Story”

  1. Erin says:

    SO cool! Wow, that is the chance of a lifetime. Good for you!

    1. It really was such a lucky break… sometimes things just work out that way 🙂

  2. Syd says:

    Okay, this might be a dumb comment but I had NO IDEA that that’s what whale sharks looked like. They’re way more….uh….polka dotty? lol

    1. Totally fair comment, hahaha… it’s certainly not the natural image when you hear the words ‘whale’ and ‘shark’ combined… If you get a chance, look up images for a Leopard Shark, also a brutal misnomer and fun ‘polka dotty’ shark hahaha

  3. Sounds like a fun adventure. Marine life really does intrigue me though I do not know how I feel about sharks. . .

    1. Sharks get such a bad reputation, when in reality they’re a VERY few shark attacks per year, we’re talking fewer people killed by sharks than by deer every year… much fewer! However, the great white and anything that looks like it is so bad ass that even if you psychologically know you’re not going to get attacked, it’s hard to convince your intuition to not ‘warm your wetsuit’… BUT… Whale Sharks, despite being the biggest, are so calm and harmless looking that it’s pretty hard to be afraid of them. 🙂

  4. WOW, what an adventure. Your photos are wonderful!

    1. Thanks so much Marilyn… it was quite unforgettable

  5. Tara Gorman says:

    What an amazing experience for you guys! I like the dialogue in your story, makes me feel like I was actually there. Can’t wait to have a scuba diving experience like this – will be fun!

    1. Hi Tara, glad I could pull you into the story. Some of the experiences you run into diving are like nothing else imaginable… this was certainly one of those. Really lucky and jaw-dropping 🙂
      Good luck getting one of your own, you’ll have a blast!

  6. interesting read,
    i am a water baby but i am TERRIFIED of the sea and sharks, and while this shark doesnt have teeth, it could probably eat me 😛
    Has always been a dream to swim with a whale shark – you are very lucky!

    1. It’s actually got a mouth that’s large enough to swim into. Believe it or not there was an instance where a Snorkeler swam right in front of one as he opened his mouth to feed, ended up in his mouth, he brought her down a ways before finally spitting her out and she swam back to the surface. But, you have to REALLY be doing something wrong for that to happen!

  7. This is great. I didn’t realize you weren’t allowed to dive with them though? At the risk of sounding idiotic, I thought there were several places where they do just that?

    1. There are places where you can go snorkeling with them for sure. And, in reality, the very notion of diving with them isn’t much of an issue. The problem is that people love to touch them and of course you’ll get your oddball that would love to ride them… Again, not a huge issue if one person does it… but it starts to become a large issue when many people start doing it.
      What compounds the issue is that the places that can advertise ‘guaranteed Whalesharks’ are typically in their breeding grounds… The concern is that having many divers follow them around touching them will cause stress and change behaviour in a period where they are really vulnerable… not to mention what it might do to the Whalesharklings.

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