‘What a privilege’: Swimming with endangered whale sharks in Qatar

Qatar’s waters host some of the biggest gatherings of whale sharks, the world’s largest living fish.

Off the coast of Qatar – “Will they be bothered by our presence?”; “They’re so big, how are we going to feel once we’re in the water?”; “Will we be intimidated?”

These are just some of the questions circling in our minds before cameraman Nick Porter and I set out to film whale sharks, the largest living fish, off the coast of Qatar.

I have always been passionate about wildlife. When I was a child, I wanted to be a marine biologist but somehow ended up becoming a journalist.

I have managed to dabble here and there in environmental stories, but most of my all-time consuming travels are defined by politics, conflict and human misery.

I remember first pitching a story about Qatar’s whale sharks some 10 years ago. Now, the coronavirus pandemic means I have been locked down in Doha for almost four months. This has never happened before, so a silver lining is that I have finally been able to attempt to tell the story of the diverse and rich wildlife of Qatar, including the majestic whale sharks.

After long and careful planning – waiting for the whale sharks to arrive, waiting for the right weather conditions and finding a boat – we embark on the two-hour trip out to sea.

On our journey out, bottlenose and spinner dolphins flirt with our boat – the bottlenoses relaxed and smooth, the spinners playful and fast.

Qatar whale shark package
Al Jazeera’s Stefanie Dekker pictured swimming with a whale shark in Qatar’s waters [Al Jazeera]

Finally, we see them and let out a shout of excitement. The whale shark, the gentle sea giant, gracefully skimming through the deep blue waters.

And it is not just one whale shark, or even a few. There are hundreds. Large fins everywhere, feeding on the spawning frenzy happening in the waters right now.

More and more of the harmless giants surface with their mouths wide open as they skim the top of the sea, filter-feeding on gallons of water cloudy with fish eggs.

whale sharks drone footage
Qatar’s waters host some of the biggest gatherings of whale sharks, the world’s largest living fish [Al Jazeera]

It’s time to join them. Nick and I jump into the water. Neither of us is nervous.

Visibility is poor, but I spot one and swim towards it, forgetting that Nick still doesn’t have fins on his feet, so he can’t really swim as fast I can.

But right now, I just want to be close to this incredible animal.

So I end up alone, next to a huge whale shark – huge compared with me, at least. This one is probably six or seven metres (20-23 feet) long, but they can get much bigger, up to 18 metres (59 feet).

With its mouth open, it slides through the water, effortlessly. Suckerfish stick to it, cleaning its dotted skin. Others swim alongside it, underneath it.

There is so much to take in, being so close for the first time. It’s all a little overwhelming and quite emotional. I am in awe.

Qatar whale sharks package
‘I know I am creating more awareness by putting out this story, but they also need more protection,’ – Al Jazeera’s Stefanie Dekker [Fadi Benni/Al Jazeera]

The whale shark seems to be moving quite slowly when you observe it from above water. Not so much when you are side-by-side. I work hard to keep up.

It is massive, graceful, powerful. It’s such a privilege to be in its habitat.

I manage to get so close that I struggle to get out of the way of its large tail as it out-swims me. Almost as big as me, the tail could give you quite a strong smack.

Nick has now gotten his fins, and we swim together. He is filming and is as excited as I am – this is a first for him, too.

We have the luxury of swimming with them for about two hours. And we are alone. Our boat is the only one in these waters.

It’s a different picture in places such as Mexico, where thousands of tourists swim with whale sharks every year.

Here, in the waters of the Gulf, they gather in their hundreds. We are told this is due to the water being a few degrees cooler than in other nearby areas and to the large number of spawning fish. Fish eggs are their delicacy.

A large black-tip reef shark swims with them, too. It’s been spotted earlier.

Nick and I see a smaller, faster-moving fin in the water, not too far from us.

We are no longer as relaxed. “Stick together,” Nick tells me. I ask him if he has seen the film Open Water and instantly regret my joke.

We laugh, slightly nervously, but return our focus to the whale sharks around us. They are everywhere, and it’s mesmerising.

What a privilege it is to swim with them. Them allowing us to observe them up close, in their world. It makes you feel so small, so insignificant – in awe of nature’s natural beauty, in total respect of its power.

It also reminds you of how we are so talented at destroying it.

We return to the boat. Everyone is on a high.

When many people think of Qatar, they think of a small, rich desert country that is dry, hot and arid – bringing to mind the cliche of “where nothing grows”.

They have no idea about the wealth of wildlife that there is here: the whale sharks, the dugongs, and so much more.

Whale sharks are endangered – unsurprisingly, mostly by the actions of humans. They need more protection.

The more people know what beauty we have a privilege to host, the more they should want to care about protecting and conserving it. It’s a privilege we should all work together to protect.

Source: Al Jazeera