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When a Jellyfish Met a Whale Shark

It’s another deskbound rainy day here in Puerto Princesa, Palawan. As I mentioned in a recent post I would usually be going on the whale shark trips to Honda Bay at this time of year, but I have moved on from that way of doing it now to do it differently, and there are also whale sharks awaiting me in West Papua when I go kayaking there later this year. There were oceanic manta rays and spinetail devil rays seen feeding in Honda Bay a few days ago to remind me that I have to find my own way of doing it soon, which will entail kayaking with a friend, possibly hiring a small tuna fishing banca boat to get us out there quickly and maybe finding a base to camp on one of the islands.

In the meantime I want to continue posting about some of the best whale shark experiences of the last two or three years, which have become increasingly intense for their feeding activity and presence in Honda Bay. It used to be that their appearances could be consistently predicted according to the phase of the moon: they would usually arrive just over a week before the full moon and depart just over a week after. Of course there are other variables such as the water temperature and weather conditions that can affect the food supply that attracts them in the first place, and sometimes they can’t be found because they are feeding at deeper depths.

I have experienced whale sharks so many times now over the last ten years that many of the encounters just merge into each other in the dark depths of my memory, but there are days that still sparkle because of the exceptionally good conditions and extra bonuses like two or more whale sharks together or rays. Those bonuses also included the guests onboard who often provided the icing on the cake, and I’m happy to say that I’m still connected to some of them on Facebook. But of course my primary objective on those trips was to keep seeking new photos that could capture another facet of those beautiful creatures in their exquisite underwater world, and also the other marine life which is magnetised by them even if out of fear as I described in my last whale shark post.

The best photo opportunities quite often involve a rare or unusual conjunction and such was the case last year when a good whale shark encounter that provided some very good photos became even better when a beautiful jellyfish was spotted near our boat. But I couldn’t have imagined that my luck would be consummated when those two players at opposite ends of the size spectrum would pass each other like ships in the night, and ships that each had their own passengers. The trip had started in an unusual fashion when I was informed that there would be some models from a well-known TV travel show onboard and I was asked if I could photograph them for their magazine. I was quite used to having the distraction of rather attractive guests in bikinis onboard so why not have an official assignment this time, but unfortunately to my slight disappointment they were male models. But any disappointment was dissipated by their endearing ebullient nature. Although after ten years I still got excited about every new whale shark encounter it was always good for that privileged opportunity to be given a fresh gloss of magic and enthusiasm by those anticipating it for the first time like little kids waiting for Santa to come down the chimney.














The whale shark we encountered that day was just a small juvenile male but their relative size isn’t an issue for anybody encountering a whale shark for the first time; they’re still bigger than anything else that they’ve experienced in the water, and they’re still sharks even if they only feed on the smallest of prey by filtration. He swam around in the vicinity of the boat for a long time giving everyone a good opportunity to be wowed for the first time. Like a lot of whale sharks he had quite a few copepod parasites that were clustered in a streak running up the middle of his head and along his back. As a perfectionist photographer I preferred the individuals that had an entourage swimming with them rather than clustered on them like ugly brown scabs. But visual complaints aside it’s another fascinating example of commensalism or symbiosis in the animal kingdom that this species of the genus Pandarus, which currently has 17 recognized species, Pandarus rhincodonicus is noteworthy as it is appears to be associated exclusively with the whale shark, where it is also found on the leading and trailing edges of fins and on the lips. It is thought to be a commensal that feeds off bacteria and other microorganisms on the skin of the shark. During my many years kayaking with humpack whales it always intrigued me that they have their very own exclusive species of whale louse. I know that we have plenty of our own parasites but as far as I know I don’t think that there are any that are exclusively found in or on us, but I may be wrong.




I was already satisfied with my catch of photos that day when Andy, the regular guide onboard proclaimed that there was an amazing jellyfish to photograph as well. I know how photogenic those alien angels of the deep are with their translucent opalescent crowns and frilly petticoats with deadly stinging tentacles dangling below that belie their seductive beauty. This one certainly didn’t disappoint with it’s striking head coloured purple and amber like a partially ripe plum. But the most instantly striking things about it was its tentacles, which to me looked like churros as my memories of those scrumptious treats are still freshly dipped in melted hot chocolate. I later found out that it’s a species, Thysanostoma loriferum, which is known as the rasta jelly in Australia. Dreadlocks are also a good comparison but I can only think that whoever came up with that name hadn’t partaken of the orgasmic sensation of freshly fried, crispy golden churros dipped in melted chocolate…..and you haven’t lived until you have!












Like many jellyfish this one had a flotilla of small fish hanging around it for protection including some golden trevally that are often seen swimming around the mouths of whale sharks. I proceeded to take an infinite number of photos of this delectable beauty – I’m not referring to the churros now – from every conceivable angle. Apparently the whale shark was still in the vicinity but I only had eyes for this jelly maiden now. Then I could see that Andy was trying to get my attention and then I could see why: the whale shark had reappeared and was heading right at us including the jellyfish! My good photographic day was about to be consummated with heaps of icing on top of the cake but I had to move quickly to get into just the right position to capture them at the right angle in the same frame. It’s at fluky moments like that that you are always afraid that sod’s law is going to rear its ugly head and throw a spanner in the works like your battery suddenly dying; I remember that happening for the first time with whale sharks when I was with the largest assembly of them that I had ever encountered! But this time the whale shark made his entry on stage at just the right moment and position as I clicked away at the big ship and little ship passing in the night, well actually on a beautiful calm sunny day with very good underwater visibility, so fortunately on this occasion Sod or Murphy didn’t show up as well to spoil the visual feast.









I knew that I had captured a winner but unfortunately I blew it at this year’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition because apparently I did a little too much unpermitted editing even though I did it on the basis of a misleading ambiguous reply to my question from one of the competition team. I was told that the judges really liked it but they had no choice but to disqualify it, even though the visual difference to the photos is so negligible. Oh well that’s my punishment for being a hyper-perfectionist Virgo; sometimes it helps me win and sometimes it makes me lose; but I can enter it again next time, although that’s scant consolation at the moment. I suppose that I shouldn’t be greedy because one of my spinetail devil ray photos won the fish behaviour category in the Ocean Geographic Pictures of the Year Competition but two wins would have really turbo-charged my work this year. A photographer’s curse is that at first he or she is either enraptured or disappointed with the photographic results of an encounter, and blinded to the unassailable purity of the moment…. but we get over it and live for the next celestial conjunction fallen from the stars.



A feast of a day was capped off with a pod of spinner dolphins for dessert.




Yes, these young male models from Mainila get paid to do this!


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