First week as a whale shark research volunteer in the Maldives

Wow. A week has gone by, and it amazes me as to how much has happened! Just a heads up, this is an epic post!

Male

Our first two days in the Maldives were spent in Male, the capital. Before coming to the Maldives, I had no idea about the place. Little did I know that each island of the Maldives is so very small, and that their one airport is on its own separate island!

Getting off the plane and hopping onto a Dhoni, a boat, to transfer from the airport to Male was a big surprise. We had our backpacks lugged onto this long dark boat that had people and various kinds of cargo on it. The ride there was far from smooth and I can just remember thinking about how hot and dark it was. I even mentioned to Kev that ‘hey, this is our first time on a boat at night‘. Arriving on the island of Male at night is a little chaotic. There are people everywhere and the language is so foreign that I don’t recognise a single phrase, word or sound.

When we jumped into a taxi, our trip to House Clover was quite an eye opener. Driving down a tiny street, the taxi came to a halt and Kev said to me ‘that doesn’t sound good.’ When I listened, I realised he was talking about the cars honking and a voice in the distance on a loud speaker. Protests.

We backed out of the road and took another small road. In a matter of seconds, we had arrived at House Clover. A local who was in the taxi with us warned us to be careful in Male.

Male during the day was completely different. It was busy, but everyone was so nice and friendly. Kev and I stuck out as the majority of tourists get a sea plane charter straight from the airport to their resort.  On the street there were bright yellow and pink flags strung up on the streets. I thought it was pretty, vibrant and happy looking. Kev pointed out that the flags were related to the protests about the delayed elections. We mainly walked around Male and ate at Seagull Cafe. The fruit smoothies, where to die for. Big love for their fruit smoothies. I crave one now.

Even though the day was hot, Kev and I were sweaty and tired, Kev did not hessitate to agree to complete one of my goals – to walk around a complete island. So we walked. We walked through the popular spots and the not so popular spots. We stuck by the sea and followed my iphone and google maps to ensure that we did not get lost.

1386013_10153281101590361_1119880190_n

That night, I was woke up from a nightmare. I dreamed that this angry crowd of people busted into House Clover and ran up the stairs to our room (similar to that scene in the movie Inception where Leonardo Dicaprio’s character gets kicked into the bath tub). Anyways, when I awoke, I realised that I could still hear the angry mob, and that indeed there were people protesting downstairs. Eventually after looking up the Maldivian news on twitter to see what was happening, I fell back asleep.

Angry protests in Male
Angry protests in Male

 Congrad Rangali

The next day Kev and I set off to the Conrad Rangali. From what we could see, this resort is a very, very luxurious hotel. When we arrived at the sea plane lounge, we were really surprised at how swank this place is. When we showed our ticket to the staff member, he gave it a double take, and then led us to a separate area which was different to the other people flying off. We were led up an elevator and then we were shown into a airconditioned room with white leather seats, a magnificent view of the sea plane terminal and the turquoise ocean and there was wifi and free food and drinks. I was so surprised and felt a little guilty for arriving in such luxurious conditions, but then again, we were there. So I went up for the sandwiches and drinks.

View of the sea plane run way from the Conrad Rangali waiting lounge
View of the sea plane run way from the Conrad Rangali waiting lounge
Kev estatic because we scored an  awesome lounge
Kev estatic because we scored an awesome lounge

The sea plane ride was amazing. The blues of the ocean made me smile bigger and bigger. I couldn’t believe that there could be more shades of blue!

When we arrived at the Conrad, we were greeted by Katie and Alissa of the MWSRP and we were shown around the resort. We then met Neal, another member of the MWSRP and finally Chris, the third volunteer for thus period. We were a small team but it seemed quite good to get to know everyone intimately.

Being a whale shark volunteer with MWSRP

Our days have been long, tiring, physically challenging but mind blowing, soul cleansing and just wonderful. Our day as a volunteer is like this:

06:30 – Wake up at our accommodation at Mandhoo Island (we stay with the Conrad staff on a local island and share the food and the facilities with staff. So we are not guests and enjoy the 5 star experience. However, we really like it this way as we get to mingle with the locals).

07:00 – Have breakfast

07:30 – Catch the Dhoni to the Conrad Rangali – this is a 30 minute ride looking out into the endless horizon and seeing th sunrise. Even though I suffer a bit of sea sickness and its rainy, this beats the daily commute by train to the city any day.

08:00 – Have second breakfast then collect towels, water, sandwiches – supplies for the day

09:00 – Get on the MWSRP Dhoni and head for the reef (MPA – Marine Protected Area) to search for whale sharks

16:00 – If we arrive back at the Conrad Rangali then go for short eats – WE LOVE SHORT EATS

18:00 – Catch the Dhoni back to Mandhoo

18.40 – Upload data and ID photos onto our computers and start analyzing them to figure out which whale sharks we have seen, if they have grown or changed (injured) or if we have spotted a new shark!

20:00 – Have dinner

*Note – as the resorts in the Maldives are pretty huge, and are a business, they have invented this thing called ‘resort time‘ where all the resorts set their clocks one hour forward so that people can have dinner at sunset.

Our Dhoni
Our Dhoni

We have a full day on the water, and admittedly it was hard to get used to. I got mega bad sea sick on the first day out and when we met the other MWSRP members Rach and Ben. (When I arrived back on land I still swayed).  However, it was an awesome day. We had 7 encounters with the whale sharks. The second day (Tuesday 8 October 2013) we had a small team of just Kev, Chris, Katie and I, and we had 9 whale shark encounters! This has been my favorite day so far! And then finally, yesterday when we had a full team of us plus Alissa, Neal, Rach and Ben, we had 5 encounters, one of them was a female whale shark! (Females are rare to see!).

Being on the MWSRP Dhoni is a little crazy when we spot a whale shark. We spend hours in the hot sun looking at the never ending blues chatting about the sea, whale sharks, and life until when either in mid sentence or mid sandwich someone yells out ‘SHARK SHARK SHARK!’ while violently stomping the roof of the Dhoni to tell the captain to stop. After that it’s like firefighter station, everyone flies down the ladder, gets onto deck, grabs cameras, GoPros, the laser measuring device and then to pull on the flippers and snorkels and then jump into the blue.

Once the bubbles have disbursed you swim like mad in the direction that the spotter has yelled out to you. You swim with your camera in your hand looking into the blue, seeing all the colour fishes and coral until you see this large, ink blue shadow appear. As you swim closer white stripes and spots appear and then you see it, with its large mouth, a whale shark.

An 'ID' shot
An ‘ID’ shot
A whale shark feeding
A whale shark feeding
Kev and the Whale Shark
Kev and the Whale Shark

These animals are amazing. They are truly gentle giants. They swim around opening their mouths every so often to feed on plankton. They are interesting creatures as they usually swim alone and each whale shark is different. Some are elusive, they see you or hear the boat stop and they just swim into the deep. Others, such Stephan and Fernando actually stay in the shallow waters and cruise along with very minimal tail movement. They see you, and they are just happy to swim along with you beside them (so long as you don’t FLASH them with your camera or try to touch them).

Stephan gave me an amazing experience. There were no other boats around (other boats with crazy tourists) and so it was just me, Kev, Chris and Katie. We took ID photos and then just swam with him for 10 minutes. He had this massive grand trevally swimming under it. The trevally was really possessive of its whale shark as it kept swimming into us and darting around. But Stephan was so chilled. He swam up to us and I had to swim away from him to keep a safe distance. Later on, Katie said that if they swim close to you its ok. It’s not ok if you swim up to them.

The other amazing experience occurred later that day. We jumped in the water for this whale shark, and I remember trying to get an ID shot. However, the whale shark’s behavior changed and instead of swimming flat it turned to one side as if to turn. This was unusual, as they usually display minimal movement. But since it was turning, it was getting closer to me, so I swam away from it. As I swam away to my left, I caught a large shadow coming at me, and within seconds I saw this wide mouth coming at me. I freaked out as it was another whale shark swimming right at me. I shrieked ‘shiiiiiit!‘ in my snorkel and swam back to my right and realised I was right in the middle of these two giants in the sea. Luckily Katie was also there, and she too was startled but was fully excited. She said ‘just stay still, let them swim around us, when there are two whale sharks they circle each other‘ she then shrieked ‘this is sooooo awesome, I’ve never had this happen to me before!

I stuck my head back into the water and watched. I was excited and also very weary. I didn’t want to be accidentally hit by one of them. But they knew where we were, and they knew where they were. I just kept thinking to myself… ‘geez…we are nothing compared to these giants‘.

It was a once in a lifetime experience. I do hope to have more encounters with these guys! Even though we are exhausted, sunburnt, got itchy heat rash and a sea sick I can’t wait to get back out there on Sunday!

Our footprint: http://spiked.it/nzL3tpX , http://spiked.it/ACkboWk

Advertisements

4 thoughts on “First week as a whale shark research volunteer in the Maldives

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s