The animal passed closed abeam to me, close enough that I could stretch out an arm and allow my hand to brush against the length of its flesh as it swam by. I was breathing slowly, trying to take in as much sensory perception as I could, this being my first time swimming with such massive creatures. But just as the gentle giant was halfway past, it decided on a rather abrupt change of course. In doing so, its tail started a full swing in my direction with speed and force. Seeing it coming and knowing I was no more than a rubber ducky in bathtub, I turned to take the impact on my back. “UGH” I went as the tail struck solidly, and then smoothly shoved me aside. Spinning back around, I was able to see the tail, as tall as I, complete its strong follow-through. Truly a massive and powerful creature!
The whale shark is a slow-moving filter feeding shark and the largest known living fish, the largest confirmed had a length of 41½ feet, weighing in at about 47,000 pounds. Unconfirmed reports of considerably larger whale sharks abound (and manatees are thought to have provided the basis for mermaids – riiiigggghhhhht). They are, by far, the largest living non-mammalian vertebrate, and are thought to have originated about 60 million years ago.
They are found in open waters of the tropical oceans where water is warmer than 71°F. With lifespans believed to approach 70 years, sexual maturity is not reached until they are about 30. Whale sharks have very large mouths which they use to filter-feed mainly on plankton. Despite its size, the whale shark does not pose significant danger to humans. Whale sharks are docile fish; younger whale sharks are gentle and often play with scuba divers. They are considered harmless to humans.
Okinawa has one of the most fabulous aquariums in the world, one of the few which display multiple whale sharks in captivity. The Ocean Expo Park Churaumi Aquarium (沖縄美ら海水族館) welcomed its 20 millionth visitor already in March of 2010, and was for a time the largest aquarium in the world until the Georgia Aquarium opened in 2005. Chura means “beautiful” or “graceful” in the Okinawan dialect, and umi means “ocean.”
And while the whale shark can be experienced in the wild in various places around the globe, in all my travels and 1,000 dives, I’ve encountered only one off Pensacola diving the USS Oriskany. But Jody got to see a migrating pod of 10 or so in the Red Sea while deployed to Africa a few years ago. Yes, there are snorkel and scuba charters that claim to guarantee wild sightings. Admittedly, I’ve never taken one of these “focused” trips, but a close encounter with these gentle giants has always been on my list of “to do” underwater adventures. It just has never risen to the “must do” status. Until recently.
A divemaster I trained, Ms. Tori (what a cool name to have in the Far East!) was leaving Okinawa to go back to the states, and the week prior she decided to book a whale shark dive and asked me to come along. Sure! It’s summer, the water is warm under sunny blue skies, and the whale shark pen is just down the road and slightly offshore from where I live. Most Americans book the experience through the “Torii Scuba Locker,” one of the military-run dive shops (this one affiliated with the Army) on the island. But there are many Japanese tours that are more than happy to host westerners with English-speaking staff. Even when you book through Torii Station, a local Japanese boat is used, although you are escorted and guided by an American Divemaster for the trip.
But where do these sharks come from, and why are they kept in a net off Okinawa? To some, it just seems cruelly unnecessary. But many whale sharks are caught accidentally by Okinawan fishing nets. Before they are released, they are held in an open ocean net enclosure, where the claim is that they are fed and cared for to ensure their safety. Some are rotated into the Churaumi Aquarium to give animals held there a break, or sent to Osaka’s aquarium, but the vast majority are released. While they are held, dive and snorkel trips are offered to those who wish to pay.
The dive trip starts at Torii Scuba Locker, where anything you may need can be easily and cheaply rented. After filling out the standard dive industry paperwork, a group briefing is provided which clearly lays out the flow of the dive. The only real concern of this particular dive that diving will occur in an overhead environment with no direct access to the surface. Further, with some chance of temporary entanglement with the net can occur. Both concerns are easily addressed by the Divemaster – part of why you’ll be well escorted for your trip. Caravanning to the nearby Yomitan Fishing Port, you’ll park in proximity to the dive boat and setup your kit. The actual boat ride to the site is measured in single digit minutes, so it’s important to be ready to go! And, although it’s a short boat ride, it can be rough: take your Dramamine at least an hour before boarding.
I won’t lie here or paint a pretty picture: Japanese dive boats can be chaotically crowded. There is usually more than one boat going at a time, although the divers will be loaded on the vessel nearest the dock. Japanese dive boats have no seats and have a completely open deck plan. Loading last, we put our gear wherever we could, taking a seat on the boat’s gunwale for the short jaunt to the whale shark enclosure. A low backroll will get you quickly into the water, and after the Divemaster joins you, a quick descent and check of the group is completed en route to the underwater opening at the top of the cylinder-shaped netted pen.
The top of the pen is about 15 feet below the surface, where the first distant, hazy glimpses of the giants can be had! The whale sharks kept here, while not anywhere near record size, still dwarf the divers as they enter the cage. We swam with two individuals, one smaller I would estimate at about 18’, and the other quite larger, at least 25-28’ in length! The actual enclosure is much larger than you might think; it’s impossible to see completely across the 330 feet from side to side, while the floor of the net bottoms out at 65-70’.
We waited at the net while the lead Japanese Divemaster opened the entry and cleared the way. Passing head down through a small hole in the top edge of the net, our group gathered inside, where we observed feeding for about 10 minutes. Unfortunately, the small bite-sized nature of the krill intended for the whale sharks (remember, they are filter feeders), also serves as the perfect meal for many other species of fish. An abundance of other fish, all hangers-on, continually clouded our view in their hopes of bagging some spillover.
When the feeding concludes, a loud rattle is heard underwater, the signal that the pen was now open for free-swim. The whale sharks were not shy; if they thought you had food, they would approach rather straightforwardly, sometimes with their mouths wide-open. But neither were they aggressive; when they realized you had no food, off they went.
As the larger shark tended to stay shallow, I descended to near the bottom of the pen, where I was almost alone. There was only one other Japanese diver, a female, and we enjoyed the smaller animal that swam this lower depth’s perimeter. Having the animal brush right by and interact with them eye-to-eye was astonishing.
Free-swim lasts about 20 minutes, and sure enough around a half hour into the dive we heard another series of rattles from the Japanese. Sadly, time to leave our new aquatic friends. Of course I worked it out so that I was the last visitor to depart, leaving only a single Japanese staffer behind me to tidy up the exit. We completed our three-minute safety stop; although you can spend the majority of your time at 20’ on this dive, excursions to 65’ can easily be made.
Of course there is controversy about keeping these animals in captivity, like there is surrounding the treatment of any animal, from the declawing of cats to cattle raised for slaughter, to mammals in zoos, to these giants penned in the wild. For instance, a study of 16 whale sharks kept at the Okinawa Aquarium from 1980 to 1998 found they survived, on average, only 502 days in captivity. In this regard, Okinawa is clearly a world-class leader, holding the record for whale shark long-term exhibition at over 10 years!
Some conservationists feel that it is unnecessary and even cruel to take animals from the wild and showcase them. Some say that it’s more about the benjamins, not conservation or education. The truth is, as I like to say, somewhere in the middle. I believe that those who have a chance to swim with whale sharks will never forget the magical encounter. For me personally, I held off from diving with these sharks for many years, in part because of this controversy. However, after my own captivating experience, I intend to become much more of an ambassador of and more ardent supporter for the protection of these majestic animals. And hopefully it is true that most of the animals kept off Okinawa are generally kept only a short time and released. Hopefully.
Reservations to dive (sorry, no snorkeling option) with the whale sharks must be mad 24 hours in advance. The Torii Scuba Locker is closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The trip is $135 per person and includes tanks, and the shop requires an Advanced certification OR more than 20 dives experience. The To dive with the whale sharks, contact Torii’s Scuba Locker at 644-4263 and ask for Ashley – she’ll take good care of you!