Rescuing a Whale Shark in Koh Tao
I just had one of the best days of my life. I mean, it's pretty up there. I'd put it right next to the day I opened my college acceptance letter and the moment I held my baby niece for the first time.
Yeah, diving with whale sharks is way up there. We even helped a whale shark by cutting off a rope attached to it!
At 5:45am, I pulled myself out of bed, nose still sniffling from a cold I was getting over. I showed up at Roctopus Dive, banana in hand, as we climbed into the trucks that would take us to the pier. We were diving Sail Rock that morning, the best dive site in the Southern gulf of Thailand. I had dived Sail Rock previously, but it had been two years ago and the visibility had been god-awful. I hoped today would be different.
After a two hour boat ride, we were geared up and ready to go. We were the only boat on the site, which was unheard of.
Moments after the first group entered the water, we heard it: "WHALE SHAAARRRKK!!!"
No. Freaking. Way.
The whole dive boat went into chaos as we clamored into the water. I snapped the releases closed on my BCD, rushed through the safety check with my dive buddy, and leaped in the water.
We didn't see it at first. I was worried that the time I had spent equalizing my ears had meant that we had missed the whale shark; that it had swam off into the deep waters, far from the dive site.
And then I saw Michael, our Divemaster, make the unmistakable sign for whale shark.
And there it was. It swam slowly out of the depths of the ocean, taking its sweet time.
It was beautiful.
The whale shark moved in figure-eights above us and its presence seemed to have an instantly calming effect on us. The four of us, mesmerized by this beautiful animal, just sat back and watched it, being careful to keep an appropriate distance. It was just us and the whale shark. I was in awe and as cheesy as it sounds, I could feel hot tears prickling in the corners of my eyes.
I'm convinced that watching a whale shark swim past you is the very definition of grace.
After a few minutes, it continued on its way. It would circle back to us two more times during our dive. The second time, it swam right over us, close enough to touch.
It is definitely an experience that I am always going to remember. It was completely unexpected and honestly just an incredible experience.
Seeing a whale shark is the holy grail for any diver. It's something that you hope for, but never say aloud because you don't want to jinx it (seriously, we don't say whale shark on the boat before a dive!). It's one of the reasons I dived in Placencia, Belize, a natural spot for whale sharks to congregate, just like Mexico, the Philippines, Mozambique, and Honduras.
But I hadn't seen one yet. Even though Koh Tao had seen an amazing number of whale sharks this season (the Roctopus IG account is proof of that), I didn't allow myself to get my hopes up. I knew the chances were slim.
But on a Sunday morning at Sail Rock, we happened to be in the right place at the right time and it was beautiful.
And that was only our first dive! Little did we know that we would have an amazing opportunity to help out a second whale shark.
When we climbed back on the boat for our surface interval, we spotted a second whale shark nearby, so many of us immediately jumped back in the water with snorkels.
Once I got a good look at this whale shark, I was caught off guard by the thick rope that was attached to the poor animal's tail. I could clearly see that the wound was red and raw; the rope was so tight around its tail that it was eating into its flesh. (You can see the rope attached in the above photos.)
I yelled if anyone had a knife, but none of us had diving gear on. Undeterred, another diver and I swam back to the Roctopus dive boat. I quickly explained what I saw. Within minutes, three Roctopus dive instructors had geared up, threw tanks on, and grabbed knives.
I was worried that the whale shark had since swam off, as the number of snorkelers had dwindled, but we found it within minutes. It was still close to the surface and I know it seems odd, but I think it was looking for us to help it.
Dive instructor Michael Scherer (aka Micko) immediately got to work with a small machete that he grabbed from the boat's kitchen! The rope was tied so tight that I worried he wasn't going to be able to cut it off.
After thirty seconds of working on the rope, the whale shark became uncomfortable and tossed him off. Amazingly, it circled back around, almost knowing that Micko was there to help and that we meant no harm. The rest of us kept a respectable different as Micko tried again.
On Micko's third try, the rope came free. The whale shark, seemingly feeling the weight lifted, instantly swam off into the distance.
I was in awe and instantly thankful to be a part of an experience that lessened the pain of a creature on this planet.
Once we got a closer look at the rope, which had been tied to tightly that it had embedded itself into the whale shark's flesh, it became clear that the whale shark hadn't accidently gotten caught up in the rope.
This gentle giant had been caught and tied up. Some tourist boat probably caught it, let tourists touch and poke and pet it as they took selfies, then cut the rope with no regard for any pain on the animal's part. Either that or it had been tied up in an attempt to capture it, and the whale shark broke free by snapping the rope. We may never know what happened, but at least this beautiful animal is finally free.
As humans, we can and MUST do better. It starts with education and knowing that a small act of kindness can go a long way, even for an animal as big as a whale shark.
I can't think of a better way to end my time on Koh Tao.
Edit: I wrote an updated version of my experience for Voices of Biodiversity. Check it out here!
PSA: While whale sharks are magnificent creatures and its tempting to see them in any way, the best way to see them is to keep your fingers crossed and hope you are in the right place at the right time! Please do NOT support companies that feed or bait whale sharks, specifically in Oslob, Philippines. Whale shark populations are already at an all-time low due to illegal fishing, boat injuries, and net entrapments. They are considered endangered animals.