Nudibranchs are beautiful but some of these tiny sea slugs are also highly poisonous, as this superb video of “when nudis attack” from Jean Michel Cousteau demonstrates
Thanks to @goosecross for sharing the link
Nudibranchs are beautiful but some of these tiny sea slugs are also highly poisonous, as this superb video of “when nudis attack” from Jean Michel Cousteau demonstrates
Thanks to @goosecross for sharing the link
“Whale Sharks: The Giants Of Ningaloo Reef” is a unique book by Geoff Taylor that provides an amazing photographic and text document about the whale sharks of Western Australia
This is, in every sense, a magnificent book – a hefty, oversized hardback chock full of spectacular photographs as befits its subject matter, the biggest fish in the world: the whale shark. Weighing in at several tons and measuring up to a staggering 12 metres in length, whale sharks remain an enigma to even the most expert marine scientists. Little is known about them – where they come from, where they go, how they breed – or even how many of them are still in the oceans. What is known about them is due in no small part to the book’s author Geoff Taylor, an English doctor who emigrated to Western Australia in the 1970s. Dr Taylor heard about the mysterious creatures passing by Ningaloo Reef, a vast coral reef system half way up the West Coast, over a thousand miles away from Western Australia’s capital city Perth, itself officially the most remote capital city in the world. Taylor’s fascination for finding out more about the whale sharks led him to live in Exmouth, a tiny coastal town perched next to Ningaloo surrounded by thousands of desolate square miles of the outback.
Being so close to Ningaloo and able to observe its monthly changes, Taylor realised that the whale sharks’ arrival at the reef seemed to correspond with the coral’s annual spawning – the reef’s reproductive frenzy which leaves the water thick with secreted eggs and sperm. Despite their fearsome size, whale sharks eat only plankton, hoovering in huge quantities of water through toothless mouths the size of a sofa to feed – for them, the spawning is a gastronomic delight which draws them back year after year. This realisation is straightforward enough to recount, but less than twenty years ago it was still a completely unheard of theory – and sighting whale sharks around Exmouth’s coast was still a definitively rare event.
Once the connection was made between the coral spawning and the whale sharks’ migration, word quickly spread of whale shark sightings and the beginning of the 1990s saw a flurry of film makers for the likes of National Geographic heading for Western Australia to capture footage of these amazing creatures. Taylor himself was caught up in that first wave of documenting the whale sharks and his book is a visual testament to his success in doing so. Besides capturing spectacular photos and video footage, a program of tagging the sharks was also set in place to try and learn more about them.
That the text in “Whale Sharks” is as good as the truly double-take inducing photographs gives me particular pleasure. Too often a book that has great images is lessened by will-this-do text slung in around it. What’s often forgotten is that whilst images capture the attention, words are what stimulate the imagination – they provide the context and the passion of how these photos came to exist in the first place and, in recounting just how difficult it was to take photos of the whale shark in its natural habitat, provide a unique insight into man’s discovery, interaction and, some would argue, exploitation of these creatures.
Go to Exmouth now, 15 years on, and you’ll find a burgeoning whale shark industry – spotter planes go out every morning to locate the whale sharks and radio their position to boats full of eager snorkellers. So popular has swimming with whale sharks become that the Australian authorities have imposed thoughtful and strictly enforced limits on human encounters with them: no more than 8 people in the water at a time, no touching and no scuba diving around them. Even so, there are concerns about the whale sharks and the state of aquatic life in general around Exmouth.Taylor’s book indicates there has been a marked decline in the fish stocks around Ningaloo Reef in the last 20 years and he is distinctly ambivalent about the consequences of the publicity he helped bring to bear on the whale sharks. The sheer popularity of encounters with them seems to be damaging the marine environment and, of course, no one is quite sure what it is doing to the sharks. There is a lot of money being made around the whale sharks, but selling the message of looking after them and their habitat is in danger of being neglected. Taylor’s book captures the beauty of these unique creatures and also sounds a distinct warning about their future, all the more effective and convincing for being phrased with the calm, rational logic of a doctor.
Thailand’s Similan Islands remain a spectacular – and cheap – place to scuba dive, with liveaboards offering the chance of close encounters with manta rays and a host of other amazing underwater creatures
Just back from two back to back 4 day liveaboards in the Similan Islands. These were my fourth and fifth liveaboard trips in the Similans, and I’m happy to report that the diving there is as spectacular as ever. I’ve dived quite a few other places in Asia and elsewhere, but I have to say that the Similans offer the best consistent dive experience I’ve had. I think it’s the combination of a four day liveaboard with a variety of great sites with good visibility – reefs, big boulders, and ocean pinnacles – a plethora of amazing underwater creatures, from seahorses to manta rays, and, of course, reasonable prices. A liveaboard with my friends at Phuket-Diving-Safaris.com will cost 17800 Thai Baht, which is less than $500 US – it’s difficult to think of anywhere else you could enjoy such great diving for such a low price without cutting corners.
One of the reasons why diving the Similans is such a great experience is because there’s a natural sense of build up over the four days of the liveaboard . You start off in the Similan Islands proper, doing some easy reef dives that offer spectacular bommies like East Of Eden, which is so covered in fan and soft corals and alive with different fish species that it’s been regularly filmed and photographed by the likes of National Geographic. By the second day, you get to dive the more challenging big boulder sites like Elephant Head Rock and North Point, where truly huge rocks several storeys high have rolled together to create a labyrinth of swimthoughs and shelter for the fish. There’s something exhilarating about being at 20 metres passing over the top of one of these rocks – and then watch it drop away another 30 metres below you as you fly off the side. Turtles chewing on coral hide around them, and within the canyons formed by the rocks you can find clown triggerfish, probably my favourite fish of all.
By the afternoon of the second day the liveaboard heads north from the Similan Islands and arrived at Koh Bon, “The Island Of Hope”, and where most divers hope they’ll get to see Koh Bon’s resident manta rays. It’s not guaranteed but if you get lucky, you’ll be finning along Koh Bon’s sheer wall and suddenly see a manta coming towards you out of the blue. As you can imagine, for many divers on the boat, the expectation of seeing mantas is the highlight of the trip, and if it actually happens, the sense of collective euphoria after the dive is palpable.
On the third day the boat reaches Richelieu Rock, possibly the finest dive site in all of Thailand, an ocean pinnacle ina horseshoe shape that has a plethora of creatures living around it. When my dive buddy Clive and I dropped in first thing at the morning – just before 7 am and before any other divers – we were lucky enough to see a manta ray circling the rock’s apex. We simply hovered there at 10 metres, watching the manta swing round us and pass over our heads, unbothered by our presence. It’s hard to articulate just how mesmerising these creatures are to watch – they move with an unearthly grace that is incredibly difficult to tear your eyes away from.
There’s two more dives on the way home on the fourth day, the final dive being at Koh Bon again if you’re lucky – given you are in the open ocean, it’s up to the boat captain which sites you go to as he has to ensure it’s safe.
During my two trips, we enjoyed the Similans’ usual excellent visibility – a minimum of 15 metres viz on each dive, usually more. The journey out for the second liveaboard was uncharacteristically rough due to a cyclone crossing over Thailand and Burma – usually conditions are pretty calm, although if take seasickness tablets if you’re susceptible.
Sadly the cyclone meant that it was too rough for us to go to Richelieu Rock on the second liveaboard, but to be honest, I don’t think anyone was particularly bothered as the dive at Koh Bon had been truly amazing. There were five manta rays present and we were the only dive boat there. I was guiding my two friends Rachel and Paul and was furthest along the wall when a manta simply appeared out of the blue, coming in and circling right around us – it couldn’t have got any closer. It was joined by a second one, so as the first left us the second came if for a look as well. I heard every other guide frantically banging their tank to signal the arrival of the mantas – a little later we went and sat in the blue at 10 metres or so and watch the mantas wheel around us below – two of them seemed to be courting or simply playing around. When I got back on the boat, I was followed by a German girl with the biggest grin on her face who looked at me and simply said: “Unbelievable!”
Far from satiating my desire to dive the Similans, doing these two liveaboards made me want to definitely go back again next year. After the relief of discovering that most of the sites were undamaged by the tsunami – see my original article about diving the Similan Islands six weeks after the tsunami – it’s great to return to the Similans and find that everything is the same, only better. These sites are so rich in their marine diversity and topography that they repay repeated diving.
The dive season for the Similans is drawing to a close at the moment due to the monsoon season, which makes the seas too rough for safe diving. The dive season begins again in mid-October 2006 and runs through to May 2007. So you’ve got plenty of time to plan out a visit to the Similans, which to my mind still live up to their reputation as one of the best dive destinations in the world.
Whale sharks appear every year at Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia, one of the most pristine and important coral reef systems in the world
How can you not want to go somewhere called Ningaloo Reef?
I first heard about this irresistably named place reading my Lonely Planet Australia in rainy England while I was preparing to go backpacking around Oz in 2003. Just saying the word brought a smile to my face. It was also the first time I’d heard about whale sharks, the biggest fish in the world, gentle giants who feed on krill and come to Ningaloo Reef every year between April and June to feed on the coral spawning there. When I read about the whale sharks, I just knew I had to go to Ningaloo.
Easier said than done. Ningaloo Reef is located in one of the most remote places in Australia – half way up the Western Australian coast, over a 1000 miles away from Perth, itself the most remote capital city in the world. (It’s the capital of the state, not the country). Getting to Perth is a five hour plane trip just from Sydney, and then getting to Exmouth, the tiny town nearest to Ningaloo, is another hour or so in a small plane or a three day bus trip up the coast, stopping off at other places of interest along the way. (There’s a great company called Easy Riders who run these buses who I’d thoroughly recommend). Whichever way you cut it, you’re going to spending considerable effort to get there.
Once you do arrive in Exmouth, it can be quite a system shock. It’s the archetypal one-horse town. There’s two pubs, both owned by the same guy, and their opening days alternate. There’s a supermarket and couple of shops. There’s a burger van on some nights who do cracking burgers. There’s a few hotels. And that’s about it. There were plans to build a huge marina project but the locals got it stopped, concerned about the environmental impact. I remember overhearing a classic conversation between a tourist and a resident:
“So where’s the town centre?”
“You’re standing in it, mate”.
Exmouth is perched on the edge of the vast West Australian desert, looking out into the Gulf Of Exmouth. The sky is perpetually vast and blue, the sun baking the red brown earth below which stretches out in a unbroken flat plain to meet it at the horizon. The town itself has a temporary feel, like everything has been cobbled together and could be taken down and removed overnight – maybe a legacy of most of Exmouth being flattened by a typhoon a few years ago. If you want to live out the cliche of feeling very small in the vastness of the desert, this is the place to do it. The desert and the sky are so huge they make not only you but the town around you feel like an imposition. As Nick Cave recently said in an interview, “”We kind of cling to the edges of the country and build our houses facing out to the sea. We don’t want to know about that huge, vast, mysterious, terrifying expanse that is the middle of Australia.”
Diving on Ningaloo Reef
Underwater, the barreness of the desert gives away to an overwhelming panoply of marine life. The waters around Ningaloo Reef are gin clear, with 20 metre visibility letting you drop in and see swathes of pristine coral reef stretching away beneath you. Reef sharks lazily hang around on the sandy bottom, turtles slowly munch coral, octopus pop in and out of their hidey-holes, great clouds of fish flit around out in the blue… it’s truly breathtaking. The dives are all fairly shallow as well, no more than 18 metres and there’s little current – in short, there’s little to distract you from looking at the amazing life on the reef. It’s easy to get in and out to the dive sites too – generally it’s less than 20 minutes in a small rib to get out to them from the shore.
Exmouth Navy Pier dive
Besides the reefs themselves, there’s also the fabled Exmouth Navy Pier dive, rated as one of the best dives in Australia and maybe the world. There’s certainly a lot of life amongst the girders of the Navy Pier, but on the two dives I did there, it was pretty murky viz and the amount of other dives in the water made me feel a bit claustrophobic. You may see more species per cubic inch here, but I much prefer the wide open space of the reef itself. The Pier dive is one of those dives you simply have to do if you come to Exmouth because you hear so much about it – everyone else seemed to find a lot more exciting than me. For my money, I much preferred my dive under Busselton Jetty, further down the Western Australian coast.
Ningaloo Reef is not as big as the Great Barrier Reef over on the east coast of Australia – but at 280 kilometres long, Ningaloo is one of the largest and most significant coral eco systems in the world. It’s also still one of the most pristine coral reefs in the world, which is why it still attracts the star attraction of Ningaloo – the whale sharks.
Whale Sharks at Ningaloo Reef
There are only a couple of dive operations in Exmouth, but they both operate whale shark expeditions in the same way. They use spotter planes to find the whale sharks as they come in to the reef and then send the diveboat after them. They are so confident they can find the sharks that they will take you on a second trip for free if they don’t find one the first time. Australia has a strict policy about “interacting” with whale sharks – no more than 8 people in the water at a time with whale shark, no touching, keep out of its way…and no scuba diving either. You’re only allowed to snorkel with whale sharks on these expeditions.
Of course, if you are scuba diving on the reef and a whale shark turns up while you’re there, then no one can do anything about that. But scuba diving is not allowed with these spotting expeditions, and it’s a good rule in my book. I can imagine the chaos of 8 divers jumping in to go see the whale shark – not only would the poor thing be frightened to death by being crowded, divers themselves could get a bit carried away and not watch their depth and air.
Besides, snorkelling is quite enough with whale sharks. When I went out on an expedition, we saw two sharks – the divemaster goes in first and everyone follows once she’s positioned herself so the group doesn’t slam into the whale shark itself. What happens next is just spectacular. Dip your head under the water with the mask and snorkel, realise the viz is easily 30 metres, look around…and there it is, the biggest fish in the world, moving slowly and with consumate grace through the water with a whole entourage of cleaner fish…straight towards you. It really is like watching a Star Destroyer move through the blue – the sense of space and the sheer size of this creature is mesmerising. As it gets closer, you realise that a) it’s actually moving quite fast and b) it’s really bloody big. Six metres long easily. Six metres! Three times my height!
The whale shark continued to unconcernedly come straight at us – they’re renown for being curious about other creatures in the water, but despite their size, they are easily scared off. Our group frantically finned backwards so the shark could pass between two clusters of us – it passed straight through us, its huge, powerful tail less than a metre away from me. If I’d wanted to, I could have reach out and touched it. The group tentatively paddled with the whale shark as it moved along the surface for a few minutes, getting faster and leaving most of us straggling behind. Then it was gone. I could see it disappearing into the depths when I put my mask back into the water. The whole encounter for which I’d travelled half way around the world lasted no more than 10 minutes. And I felt absolutely elated.
Snorkelling back to the boat which was a couple hundred yards away, I suddenly realised we weren’t alone in the water. Looking down, there were two large grey shapes about 20 metres below us. It turned out they were minke whales, gliding together seemingly without being bothered by us splashing around above. At the time, I didn’t know they were minke whales, so my first thought was not “I am privileged once again to witness these amazing creatures in their natural habitat”, but more “What the fuck is that?” I’d been told tales by the divemasters the night before that every so often the spotter plane gets it wrong and the big shape in the water below to which the expedition boat is directed turns out to not be a whale shark but actually the far more aggressive tiger shark. Hence why the DMs jump in first to check before the customers get in. Which seems wholly reasonable to me.
Whale Sharks In Danger?
Joking aside, my trip to Ningaloo really caught my imagination. I’ve subsequently become fascinated by whale sharks and read up quite a lot about them as well as enjoying a couple more magical encounters with them in Thailand. (See my posts about Geoff Taylor’s amazing book Whale Sharks: The Giants Of Ningaloo Reef; The Best Places To See Whale Sharks in Thailand; and my article about diving off Koh Lanta, where I saw a whale shark and five manta rays in one dive).
Going to Exmouth also opened my eyes to the burgeoning ecological and pollution problems that have to be constantly battled to try and keep the oceans in a decent state. While I was in the town there was a big protest movement, which was ultimately successful, to stop the development of a marina in the town, because Exmouth and the reef just couldn’t cope with such an influx of visitors. I think these issues are always complex – but it’s important to get involved and try and understand them and to speak up about the damage being done to the oceans – not in a preachy way, but simply to let people know, because it still remains largely out of sight and so out of mind.
There’s a lot of concern about the popularitty of the whale shark expeditions too, and whether it’s actually good for the sharks themselves. I think it’s important to find a way to manage it so that people still get the chance to see the whale sharks in the natural habitat without causing the sharks distress – and also to use a way to fire more people’s imaginations and suggest concrete ways of how they can help and how all of our lives, whether we can see it or not, have a huge impact on the amazing world around us. The whale sharks are a real symbol of that, a creature that is harmless to humans but inspires awe, but is endangered due to overfishing and coral reef destruction. I for one want the annual arrival of the whale sharks at Ningaloo Reef to remain as the highlight of Exmouth’s yearly calendar for many years to come.
Whale sharks are the biggest fish in the world, growing up to a staggering 15 metres in length. yet they are completely harmless to humans and one of the most amazing underwater sights for scuba divers in Thailand
Whales sharks are by no means only found in Thailand – the Maldives’ tiny Hanifaru Bay, Sogod Bay in the Philippines and West Australia’s Ningaloo Reef are three other big whale shark havens – but for many divers, Thailand is where they see their first whale shark.
It’s hard to express the sense of awe seeing one of these creatures for the first time – it’s like watching a spaceship come out of the blue, serenely gliding towards you with a squadron of cleaner fish flanking it on all sides. It’s only as it gets nearer, unphased by your presence, that you start to realise the speed it’s moving at and the sheer power within its immense body. Most whale sharks are around 4 to 6 metres – at minimum, twice the size of a human. It’s one of those moments when you realise that you are very much a privileged guest in another realm when you’re scuba diving.
In Thailand, there are three key dive sites for seeing whale sharks
It should be stressed that while these are whale shark hotspots, it’s still rare to see them – they are spotted perhaps 10 times maximum in a six month season. So if you go diving expecting to see a whale shark, you’re probably going to be very disappointed. If you go diving with the idea that if you get very, very lucky one might turn up when you least expect it… it probably will.
Because Hin Daeng and Richelieu Rock are in the Andaman Sea on the west coast of Thailand, dive boats only go there from November to April each year. The rest of the year – May to October – the seas are too rough to dive because of the monsoon season. The Similan marine park is also closed from 1 May to 31 October.
The Gulf Of Thailand on the east coast of Thailand is diveable pretty much all year round – they get some pretty crappy weather from September to November but it’s very variable.
Best ways to get there:
To get to Hin Daeng:
Make your way the island Koh Lanta. From there you can get daytrips that go out to Hin Daeng. Koh Lanta is a little more effort to reach – you need to get a ferry over from Phuket or go via Krabi – but to my mind it’s are far, far better place to visit than Phuket. Much more scenic, less expensive, and not so crowded.
You can go on liveaboards from Koh Lanta to Hin Daeng, and also liveaboards from Phuket visit Hin Daeng (although they tend to be more focussed on going to the Similan Islands).
Besides the occasional whale shark, manta rays visit Hin Daeng very frequently. During the last dive season (2013 – 2014), my friends who work as dive guides on Koh Lanta and who have been visiting this site twice a week say that the mantas were there almost constantly, in contrast to previous seasons when they would disappear for a week and then return.
Of course, no one can guarantee the mantas will be there, but you have very good odds of spotting them. The journey to the dive site is quite long – around three and half hours each way. It was on a dive from Koh Lanta in April 2005 that I saw a whale shark at Hin Daeng. Read the article I wrote for Asian Diver magazine about Hin Daeng.
To get to Richelieu Rock:
The only way to see Richelieu Rock is on a Similans liveaboard boat, like the one run by my friends at Phuket Diving Safaris. A liveaboard typically lasts four days and is ideal for doing a lot of diving without costing a fortune. You’ll need to get a liveaboard to the Similans either from Phuket, or from Khao Lak, which is about an hour up the coast from Phuket and geographically the nearest place on the mainland to the Similan Islands.
Richelieu is the most northern dive site on the Similan liveaboard itineraries, and it is an amazing dive site, whether or not you see whale sharks. It’s a horseshoe shaped rock in the middle of the ocean that acts a shelter and hunting ground for hundreds of different species of marine life. Read my complete trip report of a week long trip to the Similan Islands and Hin Daeng.
To get to Chumphon Pinnacle:
Chumphon Pinnacle can be reached from Koh Tao in about half an hour or from Koh Samui in a couple of hours – a lot less if you’re on a speedboat. If you’re serious about diving, don’t bother staying on Samui – go straight to Koh Tao, because it’s much nearer the better dive sites. Koh Tao is also a lot more relaxed and less crowded than Samui, mainly thanks to its remoteness. It takes four hours to get to the island from the mainland at Surat Thani by ferry.
Widely regarded as the best dive site in the Gulf of Thailand, Chumphon Pinnacle also sees whale sharks appear three or four times a year. Like the other sites mentioned here, it is a great dive site in its own right, particularly if you can find the grey reef sharks that patrol off the edge of Barracuda Rock.
Good luck with your search for the whale sharks – and if you see them, let me know!
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