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Searching for Whale Sharks in Djibouti: Part 2

In Part I of Searching for Whale Sharks in Djibouti, I wrote about our first wedding anniversary trip to Djibouti to snorkel with whale sharks, the largest fish in the world. When I left off, we’d just arrived back in Djibouti City for our boat trip the next day, only to find it cancelled (the second cancellation, in fact). Despite having had an excellent actual wedding anniversary day, we were frustrated and worried that we would leave the country without actually having seen whale sharks at all!

We didn’t want to be in Djibouti City. It was hot and humid, overcrowded, and had no real accommodation for campers. Thankfully, our first time in town, Bertrand, the French vet running the Decan Animal Refuge, had taken pity on us and let us sleep in his parking lot just outside of town. We’d felt fortunate to fall asleep to the chesty roar of the lion and the responding whoop of the hyena sleeping just next to our vehicle.

The outskirts of Djibouti City.

The outskirts of Djibouti City.

Our car parked next to the hyena pen.

Our car parked next to the hyena pen.

Visiting the Decan Animal Refuge, something that every visitor to Djibouti should do.

Visiting the Decan Animal Refuge, something that every visitor to Djibouti should do.

Now, we headed back to the refuge that had become more than just a soothing place to sleep – it had become a refuge for us as well, and we’d become honorary members of the Decan family. The refuge is full of passionate volunteers – kind French military men and wives, young French ecologists getting field experience, and even a woman from Somaliland working against poaching in her home country.

According to Naju, Somaliland is the transit point for animals captured in the entire region before being shipped abroad. I didn’t know that baby cheetahs, for example, are captured all over the Horn of Africa to be sent to Asia and the Middle East and purchased as pets. The Somali government is working against the trafficking of wild animals, and Naju had recently come to Decan Refuge with five, very traumatized baby cheetahs. We’d even gotten to see them.

One of the traumatized baby cheetahs that Naju is nursing back to health.

One of the traumatized baby cheetahs that Naju is nursing back to health.

A retired French military man-cum Decan volunteer taking care of the baby lion, birthed by the two adult lions in captivity.

A retired French military man-cum Decan volunteer taking care of the baby lion, birthed by the two adult lions in captivity.

But on our return to Decan, we were grieving over our second failed whale shark snorkelling trip. And that’s when our new friends offered to have us join their boat trip to nearby Moucha Island the next day. A sort of cancelation prize, you could say. We took them up on the offer – me feeling it was fate throwing us this bone – and had an enjoyable day walking along the beach, swimming in the warm waters, visiting the mangroves, and especially getting to know this lovely group of likeminded people.

Arriving at Moucha Island by boat.

Arriving at Moucha Island by boat.

A boat ride to Moucha Island is a good cancellation prize in lieu of whale shark snorkelling.

A boat ride to Moucha Island is a good cancellation prize in lieu of whale shark snorkelling.

Picnic time with the lovely Decan volunteers!

Picnic time with the lovely Decan volunteers!

Walking in the mangrove forest on Moucha Island.

Walking in the mangrove forest on Moucha Island.

It was on the boat ride back to the mainland that Mohamed, one of the French militarymen/Decan volunteers, told us he was going whale shark snorkelling the very next day and would we like to join him? The answer was an unhesitating yes! Finally, this was the opportunity we’d been looking for! We were going to see whale sharks! I knew we’d been meant to go to Moucha Island that day!

The next morning, as we drove to the fishing pier, the clouds were thick and dark. The six of us settled onto the boat, but just as the motor roared to life, the coast guard told us we’d have to wait out the oncoming storm at the pier. We waited, laughing nervously. But the storm didn’t pass. It drenched us, mocking us, daring us to go out onto the sea anyway. Eventually, we gave up and decided to reschedule for the next day.

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I.AM.SOAKED.

Back at shore, we learned that we’d experienced the storm of the decade. Expats that had been living in Djibouti for years marvelled at the amount of water the skies had released that morning. As the rain continued well into the afternoon – a sheer rarity in such a rain-starved country – we concluded that the roads would be too wet to head back to Decan. So we hid from the rain at the Sheridan Hotel, taking advantage of a rare wifi connection. We checked our very full inboxes and began replying to long-awaited emails.

My phone rang. Mohamed. Checked the forecast. Rain for the next few days. Snorkel trip postponed indefinitely.

And that’s when it became clear to us. That for some reason, we weren’t meant to snorkel with whale sharks. At least not on this trip.

It was time to leave Djibouti. I checked a few last emails, and then I googled “whale sharks,” to say goodbye, I guess. In the pictures, their bodies were covered in whitish specks. Their dorsal fins were more rounded than regular sharks.

And that’s when it clicked. The sharks we’d seen on our anniversary. They’d been whale sharks. Juvenile whale sharks feeding on the plankton and krill that were plentiful in the Bay of Goubet at that time of year.

So we had seen whale sharks on our anniversary, after all! We hadn’t swam with them, but we’d had a private up-close encounter that had lasted several special hours. It had been the highlight of the trip, even before I’d known they were whale sharks!

They were whale sharks after all!

They were whale sharks after all!

We drove out of Djibouti City toward Ethiopia, our hearts full. Full of whale sharks, of course, but full of so much else that we hadn’t hoped to get from Djibouti. Full of mountain treks and salt lakes, of stunning landscapes and rescued cheetahs, full of snorkelling, special wildlife, and new friends. And full of newfound love for a fingernail of a country that packs a handful of a punch!

Thank you, Djibouti, for showing us your whale sharks and so much else. And thank you, again, to those of you whose wedding gifts made this unforgettable 12-day first anniversary trip possible. We love you!

Hamadryas baboons, endemic to the Horn of Africa.

Hamadryas baboons, endemic to the Horn of Africa.

Beautiful landscapes.

Beautiful landscapes.

Leaving Djibouti.  Goda Mountains, palmerais, and a bit of salt, all thrown into a single landscape!

Leaving Djibouti. Goda Mountains, palmerais, and a bit of salt, all thrown into a single landscape!

Celebrating

Celebrating