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The best defence – Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer……. especially if it’s a whale shark!

I would normally be photographing the whale sharks in Honda Bay, Palawan at this time of the year, but after ten years that particular episode of my life, or that way of doing things on an increasingly crowded tour boat has come to an end……I’m glad to say. I’m not sure when I will be back in the water again with those majestic creatures – perhaps not until I’m kayaking in Cenderawasih Bay in West Papua later this year.

For now I want to recall some of my most memorable recent memories with them, and photographically this was probably the best encounter in the last three years. One of the things that I have loved the most about observing and photographing the whale sharks in Honda Bay is their feeding behaviour and the varied entourage of other fish associated with them; like many large creatures they are the hub of a mini ecosystem created by them; some of the fish depend upon them for transport, protection and food as with the remora, or specifically for protection as with the golden trevally that can often be seen swimming around their jaws; some feed on the parasites or rely on the whale shark to herd their prey as the skipjack tuna do in Honda Bay; some just want to be close to avoid being eaten by the whale shark and this particular occasion in July 2016 was the best example that I’ve experienced.


This was our first encounter with a smaller shoal of laventadors evading predation by a whale shark.





The large shoal of fish involved, locally known as laventador, were a vivid red, which made the encounter even more spectacular and great for photos. We first encountered a smaller shoal with a whale shark the day before, but the visibility was quite poor. I swam along with the whale shark near the surface in among the bonnet of fish wrapped around its head. I was hoping to see some more the next day but couldn’t have imagined how much better it would be. We had just stopped for a break at the southern end of Honda Bay and when we got into the water we were immediately surrounded by some panicked fish that were seeking protection from a whale shark circling below the boat. We were a magnetic attraction to them and every person in the water had their own halo of red fish. I could envisage some great photo opportunities but unfortunately there were a lot of people in the water, and half of them were Korean students who couldn’t swim and were wearing bright orange lifejackets. That wasn’t a problem until I was presented with the ultimate feeding photo with one of them floating right next to the baitball of fish that the whale shark had driven to the surface that I had been hoping and waiting patiently for!






Leading up to that moment the action below was a visual feast as the red fish swirled around the whale shark like a mercurial dragon and sometimes completely engulfed it. The whale shark cruised around with the flaming fish flickering around it until that one opportunity to herd a compact baitball on the surface and suck some into its cavernous mouth.












This fantastic encounter and photo opportunity culminated with the very bizarre sight of the entire shoal assembled directly behind the whale shark in the shape of a fish as large as the whale shark.

A whale shark probably isn’t the most difficult predator to avoid because of its poor eyesight and lack of swift manoeuvrability. By comparison I remember seeing dramatic footage of some sea lions following a great white shark for the same reason as that shoal of fish following the whale shark, but they were up against a much more lethal predator. The great white shark was aware of their presence and in a flash it turned around and caught one of the sea lions. But it was still their best chance of survival by swimming in a group behind the shark, and natural selection ensured that the slowest one to react and evade the shark was caught.

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