Whale Sharks are the largest fish (and shark) in the world, and although I've been told they only eat plankton and have seen them interact with divers at the Churaumi Aquarium here on the island, I almost didn't go on this dive. Matt and Don had wanted to go from the beginning. It took me a little convincing, but I ultimately decided to go for it, and I'm really glad I did! Apparently, there is one other known place in the world that you can swim with Whale Sharks beside Okinawa, and that is in Australia. We've been told by a reliable source (another guy we dove with was actually from Australia) that it costs thousands of dollars, and they are not in an enclosed area, so you are lucky if you even get to see one passing by. I'm sorry, but if I'm going to do this, I would like to spend the whole time with the Whale Sharks, and I don't want to have to chase them around in the open ocean! Needless to say, the experience that Okinawa offers you is really unlike any other!
The tour is given by a few local Japanese dive masters out of Torii Station, so after paying, we met the Australian guy who would be joining our tiny group of Americans, got a briefing on the rules, and then watched a video about what to expect out there. The two sharks we would dive with were both males - one 18 feet, the other 22 feet long. The netted area we would swim in was completely enclosed on all sides, top and bottom.
This is an exert from the "Whale Shark Overview" we all received before going out:
"The East China Sea off of Yomitan Village's coast is the only place in the world where you are sure to meet with the elusive whale shark. The whale shark net cage is owned and operated by the Yomitan Fishermen's Association. The net cage is located 1/2 mile offshore in 130 feet of water."
After getting our gear down to the dive boat, we started to realize that it would be more than just a few extra people with us. Beside us four, the rest of the tiny dive boat was PACKED with Japanese divers and snorkelers.... think sardines in a can - we could barely move let alone get our gear on!
On our way to the boat (no, Don is not driving LOL)
Tanks ready to go
Our boat (I don't think we could've fit one more person on)
It was only about a 5 minute boat ride out to the site of the net - this is what it looked like from the surface
Matt and Don getting ready to enter the water (we used the back-roll entrance technique off the side of the boat - first time for all of us!)
After entering the water, we stuck close to our Japanese dive master who actually spoke English. He led us down to the top of the net enclosure where there was a hole just large enough for one person to enter at a time. enterance into the net was at about 15 feet below the surface, and the bottom was about 70 feet down. Once we entered, we each held onto the net "wall" while the dive masters fed the Whale Sharks large amounts of krill. Once they signaled that it was okay for us to enter, we all swam free for the next 30 minutes. You aren't supposed to touch the sharks, but they have a tendency to swim right at you with their giant mouths open looking for some plankton, in which case, you are free to push them away! We intentionally didn't wear gloves on this dive, because we wanted to feel their skin. I got to a few times when they passed me by and hit me with their large tails!
First view of one of the sharks inside the net with us
Matt getting hit in the head with one of their tails
One of them coming right up to Matt
A Whale Shark coming right up to Don and Matt looking for some food
Me swimming on top of one of the sharks - I got to ride along the top for probably about 15 seconds (seems like a long time when you're doing it!)
Don reaching out to touch one
Check out this video clip of Matt coming face to face with the sharks:
After all was said and done, I am SO glad that I did this! I'm also grateful that Don was able to experience this with us as well! I wasn't at all scared of the sharks once I got into the net like I thought I'd be - they really are like giant puppy dogs! This was an incredible experience of a lifetime - something that very, very few people in this world will ever get to experience, and one that I will never forget!
More adventures to come from Don & Leanne's visit!