Diving with whales sharks of the Maldives

During the month of March in 2023, I was very lucky to have journeyed across the globe to the tropical Maldives. Going to the Maldives, was a treat in itself but this journey was even more special; not a typical tropical trip, this was one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences where lifelong memories and friends are formed and made.

This blog captures my experience free diving with the gracious, gentle giants of the deep - whale sharks - with the Maldives Whale Shark Research Program. 

I've included some key memories from the trip to outline milestone activities of the day. Fellow volunteers have been kind enough to contribute to the blog by writing about their memories, all in the hope of capturing what was one of the most magical times of my life so far.

I hope this blog and our experience inspires more people to engage in conservation activity, if not for whale sharks for any creature and cause - every little action taken for the purpose of conservation helps.

Keep checking back, more memories to come.


Day 1 19/03/23

Written by: Liya

  • Arrived at the Male airport
  • All participants congregated at meeting point and met each other for the first time
  • Boarded the Dhoni to head towards the main boat Felicity
  • Tour the boat, got our rooms, had lunch, 5 hour journey on Felicity to Dhigurah
  • Arrived at Dhigurah at 5pm–ish.
  • Chilled on the boat.
  • Briefing of rules, guidelines and general expectations of participants
  • Sunset swim
  • Lights turned on at the back of the boat
  • Fishing for Markel: Theo proved to be very good at this catching 3 - 4 fish


Day 6 24/03/23 – Day off

Written by: Grace

This was our one day off from surveying on the trip. For those that were dive certified, a 7:30 dive was arranged at Kudarah Thila and Randhi Wreck dive sites. The rest of us who had never dived before were given the option to go for a nice snorkel along a very healthy reef on the shores of Dhigurah. I would say, of all the reefs we snorkelled over during the trip, this was the one most abundant with ocean life. I saw so many beautiful and unusual fish along this reef. Of note, Groupers, Long-nosed butterfly fish, Porcupine fish, Giant moray eels, the odd octopus, and my personal favourite, the unicorn fish (I had never seen or heard of one before and I thought their little faces were quite sweet in a funny way).


During this particular snorkel, we saw both black and white tip reef sharks as a group, just on the edge of the drop off the reef into the deep sea. There were often points during a snorkel where one or two of us might find ourselves a little further along the reef than the rest of the group. I must have been watching the fish beneath me for a little longer than I realised because when I popped my head up, I saw I had some catching up to do - no worries, it never took long to rejoin the group, especially when moving with the current.

As I was beginning to swim towards everyone, I saw something very large come up from the drop, barely 10m away from me. It was a fully grown grey reef shark. So far the sharks we had seen on the reefs were relatively small, so I did not expect the size of this adult shark to be so intimidating. The other sharks had also stayed in deeper waters close to the drop off the reef, however this shark came up onto the reef, relatively close to the surface. It was clearly looking at me, likely curious, as it swam parallel to me for a while. It was easily over 6ft long. It took me a couple of seconds to come out of the initial shock of a real, classic, hollywood shark approaching like that, but I reminded myself that sharks pose no threat to humans, and got to enjoy the lovely close encounter before it decided it had seen enough and went back down into deeper waters.

Alone again, I quickly caught up to the rest of the group just in time to see a pod of dolphins swim past the reef in the blue. Seeing them swimming under the sea really displayed how much grace we miss when seeing them from above on the Dhoni. So this swim was certainly one of the most memorable of the trip for me.


Back on the boat, we met up with those who had gone diving that morning. They showed us great pictures, some of colourful nudibranchs which looked amazing. We all took some time to chill and had some amazing daal for lunch. Later that day we had a brief visit to Dhigurah for ice cream, coffees and smoothies. It was great to have something cool and fresh to drink in the heat. After our drinks, we had a wander around the island. It is a burst of colour there. There were so many flowering plants and large colourful shrubs that it really was a tropical paradise [insert island photos]. A couple of times during that walk, we would look up and see large fruit bats flying overhead from tree to tree - something I forgot I would see there - I had always thought flying foxes had cute faces so it was lovely to see some in the wild.


One thing they don't often tell you is how hard the mosquitos bite over in the tropics. I had been so diligent with suncream after being badly burnt on the first day of surveying, that adding bug spray when on land would often fly over my head, and I paid the price for it. Walking on this island gave those insects plenty of chances to 'eat us alive' as fellow volunteer, Brandt, phrased it. I will not forget my insect repellent so easily next time I visit a hot country. We stopped off at a local souvenir shop before rejoining everyone for the evening on Felicity.


Day 8 26/03/23

Written by: Rebecca :)

It was another early, but beautiful morning. The sky was a mix of dark and light with all the scattered rain clouds. I felt like everything was falling into a routine now. Marilyn doing morning yoga, Pun out swimming to his spot and everyone slowly trickling in for breakfast. I was seated at the end of the table, and pun had just emerged from the waters, when we spotted a pod of dolphins right next to the boat. We watched them play (photos?) while we ate breakfast, they gave us hopes of seeing a whale shark.

After breakfast, we got ready to get on the dahoni and do our daily survey. As we began the survey, I noticed that the glass ocean was different today, it had large calm swells. The dhoni was not able to get as close to shore as we usually are, but since there were waves we could see through them. We travel up the MPA watching and looking and enjoying each other's company. The heat burning us all but the patches of dark clouds cooled us down. (Did we jump into the water on this day for a cool off type thing… I can't remember and it could have been a different day we did that lol…?)

Chloe decided to send the drone out to find some sign of a whale shark, but instead she spotted 2 oceanic manta rays. We quickly went down to gear up, but ended up not being able to keep up with them in the boat so we didn't go in. [Insert pic].

The rest of the day was uneventful, and so we voted on drag snorkeling to see if we would get a better look. Everyone went down to prepare but Aida and I stayed on top and help Chloe with the logs. We watched as Pun and Marilyn got in the water. And now at a slower speed we could really feel the waves of the water. After they were done, it was time for the next set of people; Rayan and Grace and Liya.

Soon it was time, we didn't find anything the waves were rocking, the sun was hot and tea time was calling. The boat sped now we were hitting the waves instead of going with them. Aida and I decided to play last standing and we both won, but it was very challenging.

Once we got back to the mothership Theo, Kammey, Brandt, and rayan wanted to explore the near by reef. And SLPASH! Theo's pushed by Brandt and I hear Chloe ask Kammey to help him get his flippers. They swam around as the pink sun set  and saw a black tip reef shark and a big lobster. [I think Theo might have a picture of the boat while he was out on this swim?] They got out of the water and with another big splash Theo got his revenge. :D


Day 10 28/03/23

Written by: Grace

That morning was a particularly early one. Before we got going on our usual surveying route across the South Ari MPA, we stopped at Dhigurah Island, to pick up two of Chloe's friends, one quite a successful nature photographer, whose instagram was a joy to scroll through (https://www.instagram.com/sujugasim/). Chloe had told us Suju was quite a good spotter, so we set out that day extra optimistic that we would have some great encounters.


The sea and sky were beautiful as usual, and we were not long into our survey when a whale shark, Mirayam, was spotted at the surface of the water. It was the first shark of our trip I had seen swimming so close to the surface of the water that their dorsal and tail fins were visible. The volunteers jumped in to get some time with the shark as well as those all important ID photos. As I was preparing myself to get into the water, my snorkel mask unfortunately broke at the strap, meaning I could not join the encounter - I had had that mask for years before, I should have expected it might not be as fresh as it once was (an important reminder for any prospective volunteers to test their equipment well before travel).

Everyone returned to the boat in high spirits, and it was still nice to see the videos captured on everyone's cameras. We got straight to recording the environmental variables of the encounter.  Kamey took a look at my mask and dove into a basket of spare masks they had onboard, finding me quite a high quality one which he said had taken him through 2 years worth of freediving. With my snorkelling kit now all in order, we set off again along the MPA. 


I got my chance to try out the new mask sooner than I expected when a pair of Manta rays were spotted in some open water on the drone. Up until that point, I had been quite terrified of swimming in the open ocean, but the exciting prospect of seeing a manta ray made that fear rush away. Once I had my gear on, I was one of the last ones out of the boat and into the water. I swam over to the patch of sea the others were floating over, looking down to blue nothing through a light mist of zooplankton. At first I was worried I had come too late and had missed another encounter. I kept my head down in hope something would emerge and to my joy I saw it. I had always seen videos of manta rays and thought they were such graceful creatures, but that could never compare to having one swimming beneath me. It was feeding, swirling around and around, appearing and reappearing. There were times I felt it was swimming right at me, getting quite close to our group. I tried to readjust my position in the water, feeling I did not want to obstruct the manta by being directly above it. Eventually it stopped feeding so close to the surface, and we made our way back to the boat, me, very happy I got to tick another animal off my list; seeing a whale shark was the main hope of the trip, but seeing a manta ray had also always been a bucket list animal encounter for me.


Back on the boat and on the move, I was not sure the day could get any better, but it could. Suju spotted a pod of pilot whales far off in the ocean away from the reef. As we got closer, we realised it was very likely the same pod of whales we had seen a couple of days prior. They were highly curious and even playful. We were blessed with some lovely displays, with the whales actively following our boat, getting close enough for us to fully appreciate their size and beauty. A couple of individuals were enjoying their time bow riding, us being able to identify them by small scratches and other injuries revealed on their backs each time they came up to breathe. There was also a mother and young calf among the group, who also participated in the activity. Some whales also spyhopped which was a treat to see. They stayed with our boat for well over 20 mins, ending the encounter with each of them raising their tail fins high before diving down into the deep.

Everyone on board enjoyed the time we had with the whales, with even the long running staff excited, pilot whales apparently not being well known for the sort of playful, interactive encounters we were lucky enough to witness.


The drive back to the mothership that day was lovely, all of us happy and reliving the fantastic encounters we had experienced.


Day 12 30/03/23

Written by: Liya

  • Breakfast at 7am
  • Start survey at 8am
  • Sport Fernando at 11:30 am but only 4 people encounter due to the number of tourists already on site (Chloe, Theo, Pun & Marilyn). Obtained data, got out.
  • Best encounter of the trip!! Liya spots Fernando again at 2:00pm and everyone jumps in to have a 15 min encounter. We also bump into 5 black tip reef sharks whilst swimming next to Fernando. We’re the only ones there until boats turn up from nowhere. Again, overwhelmed by too many tourists, we exit the encounter.
  • The group is so happy to celebrate with dancing, photos and general merriment on top of the dhoni.
  • We put on our MWSRP t-shirts and enshrine our experience with what feels like hundreds of photos.
  • Back to the mothership at 3:30 pm.
  • Everyone jumps off the top of the dhoni in further celebration. Liya almost loses her top and Marilyn jumps off like a kawaiI anime girl.
  • We all head to Dhangethi island for a walkabout, souvenir shop and drink colourful syrup/drinks.
  • Back at the boat for dinner at 7:30pm

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