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As a going away gift for my first backpacking trip one of my comical mates gave me a travel tips book. This wasn’t your normal travel manual by any means. It included topics like how to stop a runaway camel and how to avoid dying in an airplane crash. The best way to avoid crashing in an airplane apparently according to this book is not to fly. Therefore the best place to see a whale shark is in the water! Most are unsure whether to laugh at my flippant answer, but it’s true, you have to be in it to win it.
So given that you are now in the water, what next? The favourite hang outs of whale sharks on Ko Tao seem to be Southwest Pinnacle and Chumphon Pinnacle. These sites lie around 45 minutes by boat from Ko Tao in almost opposite north and south directions. You must be a certified open water diver at a minimum to dive here yet these sites are best enjoyed as an advanced diver. This will give you the flexibility of depth and enable you to fully enjoy the sites and its inhabitants regardless of whether one of those big spotty leviathans appears out of the blue.
Next on the hit list would be the appropriately named Shark Island and Hin Wong Pinnacle. Both are good turtle-spotting sites too and lie closer to shore. Hin Wong Pinnacle lies off the east coast of Ko Tao, around the headland to the north from Hin Wong Bay. Shark Island lies just off the southern end of Ko Tao. Again, an advanced certification would be best for Hin Wong Pinnacle, but open water level is fine for Shark Island. Both of these sites are accessed by boat. Very occasionally whale sharks glide past White Rock and Twins too. These sites are perfect for open water divers and lie off the west cost of Ko Tao and Ko Nang Yuan respectively.
As another of my comical friends once said to me, “Ayesha, whale sharks are spotted wherever they are seen!” Indeed they are in fact spotted and your best time to spot one would be during the months of March, April, May, September and October. However you can be lucky at any time of year, these graceful harmless filter feeders do not have diaries. Be warned that they don’t congregate around Ko Tao in the numbers that some locations are famed for and seem to pass through one or two at a time. While they can grow up to 12 metres long, the average size of the fish that we see here is five to six metres.
Clearly you also need a large portion of luck, too. I have taught people to dive and seen whale sharks with them on the first dive of their advanced course. I have filmed students on their fourth ever dive with whale sharks swimming around them. I’ve also commiserated over a few cold beers with those who after hundreds of dives here on Ko Tao are still waiting to see them. Ko Tao has therefore created its own superstitions regarding increasing your luck when it comes to seeing the whale sharks. The first rule, like Macbeth, is never to mention them by name. Refer to them as big spotty fish, never ask if one is likely, and never mention them on the way to the dive site or you will certainly jinx the dive. The next is the whale shark call, which for some bizarre reason seems to involve rubbing your nipples. Sometimes it’s best not to ask! [Ed: ok, I’m not asking.]
Regardless of nipple rubbing, you’re guaranteed to have a great time. Get in the water and enjoy the sites and maybe you’ll be blessed with one of the most awesome things you are ever likely to see.
By Ayesha Cantrell
Last updated on 11th December, 2014.