Looking for Whale Sharks: A Weekend on the Red Sea
In 2016, we had an amazing chance to swim with whale sharks with Red Sea Safaris, a research group based out of KAUST. It is still probably the coolest thing we’ve done in Saudi Arabia, so when registration for the 2017 trips opened up, we decided that we probably didn’t need to go back this year knowing last year would be hard to beat.
However, a few of our friends were really hoping to give it a go, so as a group we came up with a fun idea: what if we chartered our own boat and organized the trip ourselves? We connected with Dream Divers in Jeddah, and before long we had a boat reserved that slept 25 people. To make things even easier, we also hired a charter bus to take us the 3-4 hours down to Al-Lith so no one even had to drive!
This itinerary was similar to last year with a few small differences since we opted for a liveaboard boat (term for a boat you live on – get it?) rather than returning to a hotel each evening.
- We left KAUST after work and drove south to Al-Lith (stopping on the way for fried chicken at Al-Baik).
- Once we arrived in Al-Lith, we boarded the boat, had a quick safety talk, and then slept on board in the marina.
- We had an early morning departure from Al-Lith, but as we were already on the boat we kept sleeping.
- We spent several hours looking for whale sharks. You can read more about the signs you look for here, but it was a bit choppy and we didn’t spot any sharks.
- Our group spent the afternoon snorkeling, diving, and exploring a small island. Ashley and I even did our first night dive since the one during our Advanced Open Water Certification! The water was clear and calm, and the reef wall we dove on provided the perfect location for an easy, enjoyable, and stress free dive in the dark. Ashley had sworn off night diving before this trip, but I think we may have actually convinced her that it’s not too bad!
- This was another early morning, but this time we rose early to scuba dive!
- After two more dives (and more playing on the island by some of our group), we began to make our way back to Al-Lith. We left the reef in the early afternoon, hoping to find whale sharks on the way back.
- By about 4:30pm, we were on the charter bus headed back to KAUST to get ready for work on Sunday.
Pros to booking our own trip:
- By booking the boat on our own we had more flexibility in terms of where we went and what we did.
- Because our group was in charge of filling up the boat, we got to spend the weekend with friends and friends-of-friends.
- The diving was different than what we usually see. By staying on the liveaboard, we were able to go further out and hit some reefs that are even more amazing than the ones we could reach on day trips last year. One reef in particular, Aramco Reef, had some amazing tower corals that basically created a beautiful alley to swim through with coral on both sides.
- The price was great. DIY is usually cheaper, and in this case that proved true. Even with hiring a charter bus to drive us, we ended up spending less than we would have with Red Sea Safaris.
- Ashley and I took our hammocks and slept out on the top deck the second night!
Pros to going with Red Sea Safaris:
- The team that runs Red Sea Safaris is great. Last year it was really interesting to have the researchers on board to share about their work and answer any questions we had about the whale sharks or other marine life.
- Because we spent the night out on the water this year, we were further away from the reef the whale sharks usually congregate at, and therefore we didn’t spend as much time looking for the sharks. With Red Sea Safaris you stay on land, so they pass that reef both mornings and afternoons. We only passed it the first morning as we went out and the second afternoon as we came back in.
- Ashley was bummed that our boat this year didn’t have as many good tanning spots as the boat last year.
So which way would we recommend? Both! I think that if your main goal is to see whale sharks, then Red Sea Safaris does everything they can to make that happen. They haven’t been super lucky this year (they’ve only spotted sharks one weekend so far this year), but they still spend more time at the reef where they’re most likely to find them.
If you’re lucky enough to have experienced whale sharks before, but you’d still like a chance to see them along with perhaps even more amazing scuba diving or you’ve got a big group of friends who want to go together, hiring your own boat might be a fun, cost effective alternative.
While we were disappointed that we didn’t see any whale sharks this year, it was still a great weekend hanging out with friends, diving, and enjoying the great weather before the temperature really starts rising around here.
Feel free to check out pictures from the weekend in our Amazon Photos album.