Wikipedia defines The whale shark (Rhincodon typus) as a slow-moving, filter feeding carpet shark and the largest known extant fish species. The largest confirmed individual had a length of 18.8 m (61.7 ft)

Volunteering as a diver for any marine conservation project is an wonderous opportunity for passionate divers.

Whale shark
Whale shark, Rhincodon typus, by Chloe Winn of MWSRP

I spent 10 days on the MV Felicity Dive boat with an exceptional group of ocean lovers. We spent that time studying, surveying, taking photos, observing, and identifying whale sharks in South Ari Atoll Maldives with Maldives Whaleshark Research Program (MWSRP). 

The Maldives Whale Shark Research Program is a research-based conservation charity dedicated to studying the whale shark and fostering community-focused conservation initiatives in the Maldives and the greater Indian Ocean.  They offer a citizen science volunteer program which I signed up for. 

Photo taken as part of the Maldives Whale Shark Research Program by  Chloe Winn of MWSRP

To enter this program, volunteers must fill out an application and be accepted.  MWSRP analyzes applications for interest in whale sharks, previous experience and/or training.  Many of the folks who are volunteers have marine science backgrounds and everyone is passionate about whale sharks. Dive certifications are not necessary, experience in free diving is helpful. 

First, this program is all free diving in South Ari Atoll area; one can choose to scuba dive during time off, usually 1 day-2 days, during your volunteer period.  Whenever one dives with whale sharks it is best to free dive, bubbles from scuba tanks tend to stress the shark and cause him to dive deep.  There are specific steps in approaching a whale shark, including avoiding physical contact with the shark. They are not tactile creatures, touching whales sharks may cause them to dive.  The protocol at MSWRP is to keep a distance of 3-4 meters while observing. Never block a whale shark’s path. This means avoid swimming directly in front of a whale shark as well as on top of one, which may prevent it surfacing. For the safety of both diver and whale shark, stay away from the tail fin area.  A sudden movement may cause a severe injury if hit by a whale shark fin. 

Photo:  Chloe Winn of MWSRP

The Program:                                               

Working as a volunteer with MSWRP is an experience like no other. It is fun and interesting but it is still working.  As a “citizen scientist, volunteers are instructed in and involved with research, data collection, and increasing knowledge of marine conservation   volunteers spend long days on a boat watching for whale sharks.  When one is located, it is an all-out rush of adrenaline.  Everyone puts their fins on and swims to the shark to begin their survey. 

WhalesharkImage: Deposit Photos
Whaleshark. Photo: DepositPhotos

Every day is different, but a typical research day starts with Breakfast 7:30-8:30, Getting on the dive dhoni (smaller boat) and looking for sharks. Surveys are done in the South Ari Marine Protected Area (SAMPA).  Volunteers not only record whale shark sightings, but also include megafauna such as sea turtles, mantas, other rays and dolphins.

Manta Ray. DepositPhotos

In the evening we input our information into the MWSRP laptop computers, this data goes into a worldwide network studying the movement, behavior, and threats, to whale shark population. 

We all work as a team, in that everyone usually has a role such as: observation, data collection and entry, identification by photographing the left and right flanks at the lateral fin. Whale sharks have a unique spot pattern and can be identified by them.   Also photographing the tail fin as many whale sharks can be identified by damage to the fin.  We record the wind direction, current movement, visibility, and water temperature.  We note the whale shark behavior and the behavior of people around them.

MWSRP charters the MV Felicity.  A traditional Turkish gulet, the Felicity is full of character. There are 7 cabins with private en-suite bathrooms and air-conditioning for 10-14 guests, MWSRP has a maximum of 11 volunteers. The large open deck has ample space for relaxing. There is a covered outdoor dining area where meals are served family-style and an outdoor lounge. The boat’s bow has loungers for sun lovers to soak up the rays. Indoors is an air-conditioned lounge and dining area.   Our Chief, Roy worked professionally as a chef in Siri Lanka prior to his job on the Felicity. 

Being part of a volunteer dive trip is not for everyone.   This is not a scuba diving trip, there are not 4 dives per day then relaxing with cocktails in the evening.   Volunteering is work, it is fun and interesting but still work.  Unlike more expensive charters, there is no internet service.  However, most volunteers bought local sim cards and used their phones as “hot spots” for their laptops.   The Maldives is a Muslim country, alcohol is only served on resort owned islands and private liveaboards. Women should dress conservatively when on populated islands. 

 The ten days I spent on the MV Felicity with the other volunteers was an extraordinary experience for me. Our leaders, Chloe and Clara, were patient and kind mentors.  I met many new friends.   Being part of this cause brought together people from around the world with diverse backgrounds, all with a similar bond; the love of Sharks.

Volunteers on the Maldives Whale Shark Research Program

To become a volunteer, one does not need to be a scientist or marine biologist! MWSRP welcomes people of all ages, talents, and nationalities. If you love whale sharks and you are not afraid of hard work get in touch!

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  1. For the record, 3 of the whale shark photos in the article were taken by Chloe Winn of MWSRP, Bill Mashek photos were not included in the article photos.


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