The fabulous Railay West beach was the starting point of the adventure. I was having my morning coffee at 8am, observing volunteers cleaning the beach of the excess of trash that comes with the night tides, when one of the locals I had met in a local bar the night before came my way. Come on the boat with us, he shouted, full of excitement. There are whale sharks right offshore here, he added, turning and racing towards the boat.
Whale sharks? I thought. These are the largest fish in the world, rarely seen from shore. This was all the convincing I needed to grab my bag and rush to catch up with him. We got on to the slim longtail boat, the traditional mean of transport in this area of Thailand, where we we were greeted by a crew of equally exuberant faces, some local and some foreign.
Soon enough, my friend prompted a loud revving of the engine and in a quick lurch we were off into the bay. As we cut through the waves I was given the details on what was going on. Earlier that morning one of the guys had been out on his boat and had caught sight of the whale sharks feeding nearby. He had never seen such a sight in all the years he’d been riding a boat, and had quickly radioed-in the discovery.
It took about ten minutes to see what we had come to see. There were massive fins coming out of the churning waves, and they looked ominous in the sunlit water. At first it looked like there where several different sharks, but as we got closer we noticed that there were only two of them, each about 7-8 meters in length. They were so close that both their dorsal and tail fins where breaking the surface. As our boat started circling them, we saw that the majestic giants were skimming the surface with their mouths wide open, feeding on microscopic plankton.
Both sharks had a kind of white polka-dot pattern on their rough oily-looking dark blue skin, and with their broad faces and tiny black eyes, they slightly resembled two enormous catfish. It was truly amazing to watch them from the front of the boat as they gracefully swam around us and under the bow. The sharks seemed to be totally unafraid of the boats and even playful at times.
We all rushed to snap pictures and videos as we all knew this was probably the only time we were going to see something like this. Then my friend announced that he was going to swim with the sharks. Everybody stared in amazement and stammered protest as he donned his snorkel gear and plunged into the water not 3 meters from the giant creatures. I do not know much about whale sharks, but I do know that they are not man-eaters like the other giant predator of the ocean, the Great White Shark.
These gentle giants seemed to welcome my friend into their midst. We continued to follow the sharks around, trying to reach out from the bow to touch them as they slowly swam along beside us. And as one of the foreigners also climbed warily into the water, a third shark, even bigger than the first two, was spotted far in the distance.
As the morning wore on, more boats had gotten word of the spectacle and were racing out to see the beasts, which would probably put a great deal of stress on them, so we reluctantly decided our time to leave had arrived. All returned to the boat at once, and my friend turned the bow away from the rising sun and headed east back to shore.
What a spectacular adventure, which was born just out of an ordinary, unplanned day.