As the foamy waves formed interesting, abstract designs on the calm surface of the Arabian Sea, off Damaniyat Island, and warm whiffs of marine odour abounded around, we waited patiently in a speedboat provided by Qantab Tourism for the sight of our lifetime…whale sharks!
“You have to be alert every second…it can happen any instant!” said the skipper of the boat who seemed to be saturated with the sight of whale sharks breaching over the surface of the ocean amid a majestic shower of water. And though, he has seen it umpteen times in the past, the excitement on his face seemed as real as our own racing pulse.
The sudden pop-up of a dolphin or the sight of a turtle hurrying by startled us every now and then. But we waited patiently until it happened much to our delight…once, twice, thrice – a huge whale shark breaching over the water, leaving behind a trail of awe and disbelief among revellers seated in boats around. (A whale’s leap out of the water is called a breach, when more than 40% of the animal’s body makes it above the water’s surface.)
The magical sight was over in a few minutes as everyone aimed their cameras at the awesome whale shark, close to 30 feet in length, and with a shimmering, grey hide that could pass off as an intricate carpet print.
“Whale sharks are calm mammals. They make no noise and swim peacefully. You can swim next to them safely and never be harmed,” said Yousuf Mohammed al Hasni, CEO of Qantab Tourism and also an expert on whales in Oman.
The seas of Oman are home to various species of whales, he said, adding that these include Bryde’s Whales or Tropical Whales, Blue Whales, Humpback Whales, Sperm Whales, Dwarf Sperm Whales, Cuvier’s Beaked Whale, Pygmy Killer Whales, Killer Whales, Melon-Headed Whales and False Killer Whales. “The more rare sight, however, is of whale sharks which can be seen only during this time of the year.
Pointing out that they have been depicted at cruel and dangerous on celluloid, Yusuf said, “These gigantic fish hardly attack humans. Even when in danger, by way of provocation by divers, they choose to swim away. It is mostly environmental issues (pollutants) and human attacks on their habitat that often leave them vulnerable and under threat for extinction.”
He further said, “Most species of whales are friendly and generally curious. In some cases, they also approach boats, curious to understand the real nature of intrusion.” However, he cautioned that one needs to maintain a safe distance from them under water – at least 3m from the head and 4m from the tail. “If the whale shark comes directly towards you, do not block their path. One must simply remain calm, while a group of individuals must split into two groups, so that the shark can swim away from between.”
Come September and whale watching trips around Damaniyat Island are common to sight whale sharks. And with restrictions regarding the pandemic slowly subsiding in Oman, people have now started heading out for ocean-bound trips like these to witness a few ‘once in a lifetime’ sights which the sultanate offers within close reach.
According to the Whale Watching Handbook designed by the International Whaling Commission to support managers, regulators, operators and anyone interested in whale watching, in the Muscat area, spinner dolphins (Stenella longirostris) are targeted year-round. These are often found in mixed groups with common dolphins that form a secondary target in Muscat and Ras al Hadd.
Several other species are encountered opportunistically, including common bottlenose dolphins, Risso’s dolphins, Bryde’s whales, false killer whales, sperm whales, and more rarely, killer whales, blue whales, and Arabian Sea humpback whales.
Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins and Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins are year-round targets in shallow water inlets of the Musandam peninsula in northern Oman and either or both species are a seasonal (September to May) target along the shores of mainland Dhofar, especially Ras Nuss, Taqa, Salalah and Mughsayl. Arabian Sea humpback whales are opportunistically encountered almost exclusively in Dhofar, and are a target of a small-scale marine tourism business in the Hallaniyat Islands.
Guidelines for whale and dolphin watching in Oman were developed in 2014 as part of an IWC-supported project that also included awareness-raising and initial training of tour operators and vessel captains in Muscat and Dhofar.
The draft guidelines include speed restrictions (maximum 4knots) in the presence of whales or dolphins, approach guidelines (depicted in the diagram here); minimum approach distances (50m for dolphins and 100m for whales), and a maximum time limit of 30 minutes for interactions.
These guidelines are of the utmost importance for any emerging or future operations focusing on Arabian Sea humpback whales, as the population along the coast of Oman has been determined to number fewer than 100 and is designated as Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species1. It is, therefore, important that whale watching activities do not contribute to the threats facing this population.