I spent two weeks in late August on the island of Koh Tao, which is located in the eastern Gulf of Thailand.
The weather was perfect. Every day, I’d head out on the boat to go scuba diving at various dive sites around the island. I’d been a qualified diver for several months prior, so no training was needed, and I signed up for the fun dives, where we would be taken on underwater tours by a guide called a dive master.
I was planning on diving virtually every day around the beautiful island of Koh Tao. In particular, I was hoping to see some big sea creatures such as the Whale Shark.
Now I should give some context. Some of you might hear the word “shark” and think of danger, or perhaps a film such as Jaws
A whale shark, while being huge at up to 14m long and 21 tonne, is nothing like the kinds of sharks that you might see on the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week. Instead, a whale shark has no teeth, and is a gentle, slow-moving, filter-feeding carpet shark, feeding only on plankton (not on humans!!)
My time on the island passed in a flash and suddenly, it was Saturday, and day 12 of 14 days on the island. I had already done 20 amazing dives, but I still hadn’t seen a whale shark.
I was talking to a couple of friends from the dive club, who heard a rumor that whale sharks had been spotted that morning at a location called Sail Rock, which is approximately a 90 minute boat trip from Koh Tao - further than most dive companies were willing to travel..
I’m only on the island for two more days, and if I have any chance of seeing a whale shark, it’ll be at Sail Rock. I start searching online for a dive company who was willing to take me, and found a company called Rocktopus Divers. Rocktopus organise trips out to Sail Rock every Sunday. The next trip is tomorrow, the day before I leave the island. I sign up immediately.
The following morning, I walk the 10 minutes to the ferry pier, to board the 6am dive boat out to Sail Rock. Everybody, including the Rocktopus staff are excited, and buzzing at the prospect that a whale shark may still be in the area.
After the 90 minute boat ride, long out of sight of land, we finally arrive at Sail Rock. There are a few other boats here already.
Sail Rock, which this dive site is named after, appears incredibly uninspiring from the surface, and is merely a small, grey tip of a rock, jutting a few meters out of the ocean, with nothing else around. That being said, we’re not here to look at the surface, we’re here to explore what’s below surface.
The dive briefing is quick, and we all form small groups of 4, including our dive master. We get our scuba gear on, jump the roughly 3m off the side of the boat, and splash in the water below.
The water is a perfect azure blue, and I’m stunned at how clear it is. Looking below the surface, I can see all the way to the bottom of the ocean, 40m below. I take a deep breath through the air regulator in my mouth, fully exhale, and begin to descend.
The experience is awe inspiring, with a impressive density, and variety of colorful fish. I look left and see a huge school what must be 100 fish. I look right, and see another school. I look ahead, and there’s another.
After roughly 40 minutes underwater, we finish up the dive, and head back to the boat to take a break, and get ready for our second dive. Back on the boat, everybody is abuzz with excitement, all asking each other if they’d seen any whale sharks, but nobody had any luck. Then one of the Rocktopus boat staff pipes up, and says “I saw one.”, the other staff laugh, this guy is known to be a joker and a prankster, and nobody believes him.
After our break, we jump back in the water for our second dive. The experience is once again incredibly awesome.
We finish our second dive, and head to the surface. After 80 minutes underwater, I hadn’t seen a whale shark, but felt like I got so close, missing out by only a day. Even still, Sail Rock had been the best dive experience in Thailand so far, for its azure blue water, and vibrant aquarium-like fish life, and I’m glad I came.
We’re back on the boat after our second dive, hanging out and getting ready for lunch, when we suddenly hear shouting from the other three boats. “Whale shark, whale shark!” they’re pointing at the water, but, when we look over the side of the boat, we can’t see any sign of it. I say to my friend, “they must just be messing with us”, and my friend agrees.
As we’re about to return to lunch, suddenly we see a massive shadow appears directly under our boat. They weren’t lying. Some of the instructors start shouting “mask snorkel fins, mask snorkel fins!” the whale shark could be here for only a few moments, so we better get in quick.
Everybody on the boat rushes to grab their gear, and one by one, jumps off the 3m high side of the boat, splashing into the ocean.
Within the minute it takes me to jump in the water, the whale shark has gone, I missed my opportunity and am disappointed. We got so close, and have only had a fleeting glimpse of this majestic creature. Even still, the boat is abuzz, and the mood is positive. There are definitely whale sharks in the area, and the day is not over yet.
My group huddles together, and our dive master start the debrief of our second dive, when the shouting starts up again “whale shark, whale shark!!”, she immediately puts her debriefing book on the table, and says “GO, GO”. We grab our gear and jump back in the water.
This time, I manage to get in the water much more quickly, and have a fleeting moment where I see the whale shark from behind about 10 meters away. As I pause, hovering in the water, I watch it swim off into the azure blue fog of the sea. It was an awesome moment, however brief, and I’m glad to be able to go home, having seen it. The group starts to climb back on the boat, when one of the dive masters leans over, and tells us to all stay in the water. We follow his instruction.
The commotion starts again from the other boats, and the whale shark arrives once again, moving in it’s, slow calm, gentle way, directly toward us. We’re in a group of about 30 people, and somehow all manage to synchronously part ways, as the whale shark slowly swims directly through the middle of the group. It’s not afraid, and is curiously taking a good look at all of us. I’m just over a meter away from this creature as it passes me. It is then that I have an eerie moment, where I see it’s eye move, and looking directly into my eyes, that I feel a strange connection that I’ve never felt before, as if the whale shark has a deep understanding, and a kind of transcendent wisdom.
For about 20 minutes, the whale shark slowly and gently swims the roughly 30 metre laps, back and forth in front of the Rocktopus dive boat, taking a good look at all of us, until finally, it no longer does a return lap, and glides away into the azure blue fog of the sea.
Back on the boat, our dive master tells me that she’s been in Thailand with Rocktopus dive for nearly a year, and has done over 300 dives off the boat, and this was the first time she’s ever seen a whale shark. We all feel truly lucky to witness such a thing, and the boat is abuzz while we eat lunch.
Later that evening, we head over to the Rocktopus bar to watch a combination of video footage to celebrate the graduation of some freshly qualified divers, along with the day’s footage from our whale shark encounter. We all share a new camaraderie, there is much cheering, and celebration.
I couldn’t think of a more perfect way to end a holiday. After six weeks travel, meeting some amazing people, and experiencing some life defining moments. I went home, truly happy.