Diving with the whale sharks in the Maldives: the Whale Shark Research program and volunteering with Carpe Diem cruise ship

In January, when we passed through Maldives on the way to our honeymoon, I had been left disappointed by not having seen whale sharks and not having dived since I am extremely passionate about underwater life and diving. Volunteering with Whales Shark Research Program (WSX) in the Maldives, was it the it the way to encounter whales sharks in the Maldives? And at what cost?

Whale sharks: big fish little known and endangered species

Therefore, Denis looked for a solution to cheer me up – how lovely of him – and allow me to encounter these sea giants. You must know that whale sharks are an endangered species (which wild species is not nowadays…) and it’s a completely harmless shark, considered the biggest fish type in the oceans. This magnificent marine creature feeds exclusively on plankton and minuscule fish and lives deep in the oceans, only coming back up to the surface in order to warm up.

whale shark picture

The biologist who accompanied us during the Whale Shark Research Program (WSX), Alex, specialized in underwater life and particularly passionate about whale sharks, told us that this type of fish could reach a length of 13 m and could weigh more than 10 tons. Big fish indeed! In addition, she shared that not a lot is known about this giant. We don’t know how they communicate with each other, nor their mating ritual, nor the gestation period; admittedly we do know a couple of things such as the fact that the whale shark has a very good hearing, is intelligent, is incapable of surviving in captivity, is not a migratory animal but has the capacity to travel long distances, can dive up to 4km and doesn’t like the hordes of tourists that surround it when it goes to the surface to rest and warm up.

Whale shark tourism: a money machine harmful to the species?

mauvais tourisme requin baleine en danger

It is true that whale shark tourism has exploded in the past years and brings more than 9.4 million dollars to Maldives and more than 30 to other countries where it is possible to see them such as Mexico and Philippines. Tourists travel from the 4 corners of the world to encounter there magnificent animals and hope to be able to do so in order to take selfies that will give them their 15 min of fame on social media.

whale shark requin baleine blessé par hélice

Obviously, I am also one of those tourists who dream about seeing a whale shark and who has paid to get on a boat and travel to various potential spotting areas. To give you an idea of how profitable this business is, there were 22 tourist-filled boats, snorkelers, divers or other curious people where we were situated – the sad part is that we know that excessive noise scares whale sharks and we wonder why this tourism is not better regulated. There are no rules, no control. Since we know that boat propellers are the main cause of whale shark injury and that it is rather hard to spot if they were affected since they do not need to come to the surface to breathe, the risk of hurting them in order to just see them is rather high.

Whale Shark Research Program: a first in diving cruises

whale shark requin baleine whale shark research program

It was indeed my dream to see whale sharks but I wanted to do it in a way that is useful somehow to the species and help understand them better in order to protect them more efficiently. Denis knows me well so he found this expedition Whale Shark Program (WSX) that is actually a volunteer program and we subscribed. It’s one week on a boat with 18 other volunteers and 2 members of the WSX association, Remi (the cameraman) and Alex (the biologist). This association is based in the UK and in Maldives on an island close to Dhigurah, the most frequented place for whale shark watching.

carpe diem bateau carpe vita

For several years, the only volunteering possible with WSX was on the island of Dhigurah with the locals and daily boat rides in the hopes of encountering the fish. This year though, it was decided to do the volunteering work in partnership with a local business called Carpe Diem that offers regular diving cruises or surfing in the Maldives atolls. Therefore, as volunteers, we stayed for one week on the boat and we went through the atolls in order to see whale sharks and we also dived to collect information necessary for the scientific research regarding the underwater state of the Maldives.

sontek measurement ocean WSX

Amongst other, we had to collect animal excrements to determine the presence of micro plastics, submerge a device called CTD (Sontek 3005) every time we went out to the sea in order to analyze the salinity, the water temperature – the data is sent to the University of Washington to analyze the impact of climate change on the waters on the Maldives, and our last task was to take as many photos possible of sea life such as turtles, manta rays, whale sharks to identify them and analyze their trajectories. Moreover, the association has created an app for the App store (that will soon be available on Android also), called Big Fish Network that collects photos taken by people around the world of animals such as the whale sharks and the manta rays and identifies them to create a database allowing for these species to be better understood and protected.

application de recherche et base de données pour les requins baleines

If you want to participate, take a photo that allows manta rays identification and upload it onto the Big Fish network, see below the parties involved:

Photo papier recherche

A cruise that was fun but overall disappointing

croisiere WSX2018 whales shark research maldives

An expedition with a scientific purpose, but combined with a touristic stay, with full board and comfortable cabins on a yacht, daily dives (up to 3 per day) and sunbathing time during the rest of the time. It was WSX’s first try at doing such a type of cruise, so maybe that is why we felt that the trip was controlled more by the company owning the boat (Carpe Diem) than by the association itself. For example the itinerary. We knew that whale sharks are present throughout the whole year in the South Ari atoll based on statistical research. However, the cruise ship took us to atolls where we knew that the chances of seeing whale sharks were almost zero.

itineraire carpe vita

When you know that the chances of spotting an animal that you want to study are on point A on the map, what’s the point of going around to points B and C and so on and so forth? So what happened was that during a 7 days expedition at sea dedicated to seeing whale sharks we didn’t see a single one. When you pay more than 2000 euros per person for this trip, it’s quite the disappointment. We have indeed seen other animals like manta rays or turtles and we measured the salinity in the water and its temperature, we tried to collect excrements without success though. But there was no scientific work, not really a participation in an in-depth research on whale sharks, nothing that could really make it look like it was anything but a pricey cruise. Denis and I have always wanted to try volunteering, despite the high prices we knew that it was for good reasons and we were happy to be able to participate in this manner. Nevertheless, there we really had the impression that we only served to fill up the Carpe Diem boat with a so-called scientific purpose. It was disappointing and truly deceiving..

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And to top it all, the dives were also disappointing with the exception of maybe 2 or 3 nice ones as for the rest the dives were unexciting. We didn’t have visibility, we only had 1 instructor for a group of 8 people under conditions that were often dangerous with strong ocean and reef currents, people of different ages and physical conditions in the same group…it happened to us several times that we lost the divers on the route or during swimming. The dives were quite difficult and we did not really see many things. Moreover, the weather conditions were quite bad in certain parts of the country.

equipe de WSX2018 bateau de croisiere CARPE DIEM

Overall, as a first experience, with such a high price, we were incredibly disappointed. The team was nice but relatively young and rather unexperienced, the itinerary was imposed due to practical and not scientific reasons and the carbon footprint was far too high for the benefits observed during conservation or research (including the small plane and the yacht). And on top of that, out of 20 “marine lovers”, only 3 vegetarians. Do they only know what meat does to the oceans?

I had not been planning to go back to the Maldives if it hadn’t been for the purpose of conservation of whale sharks or manta rays or other marine life. This expedition was the only reason for us returning and while I do not regret the holiday, I am left with a bitter aftertaste unfortunately.

Translation & Copy Editing by Liana Marinoiu

Notre conseil éco+: and remember that if you go diving or snorkeling, always put biodegradable mineral cream to avoid poisoning the oceans!