Djibouti 2009

feeding whalesharkI knew when we booked this trip that it would be a bit different from others we have done. "Djibouti, where's that?" everyone asked. For those of you who aren't familiar with it, Djibouti is on the East Coast of Africa, bordering Somalia to the South, Ethiopia to the West and Eritrea to the North with its East coast facing into the Gulf of Tadjoura. The country has a population the size of Sheffield and virtually no tourism. Our journey wasn't straightforward with the original tour operator cancelling, a riot at Addis Ababa airport, a 12 hour delay and a chaotic arrival in Djibouti. However, that is another story and we eventually arrived at our boat for a 6 night stay.

The MY Deli is a Schooner – all wood, no plastic panels in sight, and with some love and care could have been quite glorious but was in fact very basic and unloved. We had done our research and knew not to expect the plush liveaboards of the Red Sea, therefore, it wasn't a disappointment. The crew were great. Vincent is an excellent skipper and has a genuine desire to look after the Whale Sharks and the reef. The food, like the boat is rather basic but sufficient and plentiful and no dodgy tummies.

We awoke to a new day and ready to put our travels behind us. However, we were not so pleased to find that it was dark, raining and windy – in fact quite miserable. We were about 50 miles from one of the hottest driest places on earth (Lake Assal) and it was raining!! After breakfast we got our kit ready for our first Whale Shark encounter. Two 'annexes' with 6 snorkelers on each. We headed along the coast to Arta Beach. The coastline is barren with the exception of a cluster of buildings which reminded me of Nick's X-Box game, 'Call of Duty', and the comparison was well founded as I will explain later.

The wind was strong and the swell about 4ft. The rain was stinging our faces. After half an hour up and down the coastline at Arta Beach, without spotting a single Whale Shark I was feeling despondent. Just as we were giving up hope we spotted one and all jumped in for our first glimpse. There she was, my first Whale Shark. She was beautiful, approx 4m long, gliding through the water just below the surface. There were 4 other snorkelers with me – but it didn't spoil it too much, I had still seen her. We swam alongside her in awe. She was swimming quite fast and we managed to stay with her for a couple of minutes, and that was it, she was gone.

The annexe saw us dropping back and came to pick us up and soon we were speeding off again. We drove round ahead of the Whale Shark and were dropped in again. I was starting to understand how this worked. Soon there were cries of 'Whale Shark' from the boat as a couple more were spotted. Each one spotted meant less snorkelers racing after it. Some stayed at the surface for longer than others. Some were swimming faster than others. We hadn't noticed that the rain had stopped and the sun was shining. We were all so engrossed with these beautiful creatures. On this first excursion I was lucky enough to see 5 Whale Sharks ranging from 4m to 7m in length.

The afternoon excursion started in the sunshine and with higher expectations having seen our first few Whale Sharks. We were not disappointed – numbers 6 to 10 arrived shortly after we got to the site. Numbers 10 to 20 over the next hour or so. It was truly wonderful as we got closer and closer to these magnificent creatures and spent more and more time alone with them. We started to identify individuals by size and markings. One tagged one, one with a bent dorsal fin, one with a fresh mark from a boat propeller, big spots/little spots, dark marks on the tail. Although I estimate that on this first day I had seen 20 individuals, it is very hard to tell as some returned time and again. I did have at least 50 encounters on this first day. This had far exceeded my expectations. There was so much excitement on the boat that evening – how could it possibly get better?

whalesharkHowever, it did get better. On day two there were just 4 of us aboard and the cry of 'Requin Baleine' (Whale Shark) from our boat handler saw all of us jump straight in. No sooner had we got in the water than another was spotted, and then another. We were all heading in different directions and I was on my own with a 7m Whale Shark. She was swimming very slowly. I had two in view at the same time, then three, four, five – in view at one time. We were surrounded. There were about 20 Whale Sharks all in this concentrated area and they were feeding, mouths open wide moving slowly through the water. I followed the 7m Whale Shark, from time to time another one or two passed by. She was swimming so slowly as she fed I was able to really study her. Her gills were opening and closing, I could see her underside clearly and the muscles moving as she fed. She was becoming more and more upright in the water, now almost vertical and she was turning in a slow circle. We had read about the Whale Sharks feeding in this manner and it was quite different to chasing after them. The four of us spent about 90 minutes in the water with the 20 or so feeding Whale Sharks before eventually heading back for a very late lunch.

Snorkeling with whalesharksThe first dive in the Gulf of Tadjoura really surprised me. The visibility wasn't good at 10-15m, but I had expected this, it was Whale Shark season and there was a lot of plankton in the water. However, I was completely taken aback at the variety, colour and size of the coral. It was in excellent condition and the variety of fish on the reef was immense. The reports I had read had not prepared me for this and I believe they had completely understated its beauty. So few dive boats operate in Djibouti and it is completely unspoilt. From leaving harbour on Saturday morning and returning on Wednesday afternoon we saw only 3 other boats.

And so it continued. Each day two or 3 dives, each with vis up to 20m, each with beautiful Coral Gardens. I only wished I knew more about the types of Corals and Sponges to describe it better. I enjoyed every dive. The diving was very easy. All but one dive had no current. Maximum depth usually 25m but the majority of life was seen at 10m or less. For those that are really seeking the 'big stuff', Djibouti may be disappointing – apart from the Whale Sharks of course. Only 1 large Grey Reef Shark and some very large Grouper spotted all week. Surprisingly, no Manta Rays despite the abundance of plankton. For those who appreciate the diversity of a reef this is an excellent choice. A typical dive included Moray Eels, Lionfish, Blue Spotted Rays, Turtles, Nudibranchs, Napoleon Wrasse and occasionally Octopus, Eagle Rays and large Grouper.

Whaleshark photoThere were two dives that differed from the rest and are worth mentioning. The first was to 'The Great Rift' in Ghoubbet El Karab (The Devil's Cauldron). I had seen this dive on the BBC 'Oceans' programme. The visibility was poor – about 3m, due to the Algae in the water. There was much less life at this location, but it was fascinating to see the point at 35m that the plates had started to part and to follow this up to about 25m where we were able to swim between Africa and Asia and touch both continents at the same time. The other dive was a wreck dive in the middle of the Gulf of Tadjoura at the Isles of Moucha. The wreck is a 135m Cargo Ship named the Ocean Reefer, lying on her side at 25m with the highest point at 10m. The vis here wasn't too bad, although there was much more current and a rough ride out. Lots and lots of fish – schools of Mackerel and Trevally and an absolutely gigantic Grouper.

Amongst all of this tranquillity of beautiful coral reefs, majestic Whale Sharks and relaxing on the deck of the MY Deli in a sheltered cove there were occasional distractions. For example, mortar bombs, machine guns fire, fighter jets and helicopter gunships!! I was right to compare the cluster of buildings to 'Call of Duty' as they turned out to be the training camp for the French Foreign Legion and the bombs and gunfire came from there at fairly frequent intervals. I'm told the jets were an F16 being chased by a MiG and the helicopters were from the French military base nearby.

Would I recommend this trip? Yes definitely, to anyone with a desire to swim with Whale Sharks – this must be the best place on earth. Even on our short trip we have seen more than 50 individual Whale Sharks and had hundreds of encounters. I would also recommend the trip to anyone who wants to see (dive or snorkel) beautiful coral reef and the fish that live on the reef.

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