Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Did someone say Whale Sharks?

Each spring between March and May, the staff, faculty and students of KAUST frolic around the professors of the Red Sea Research Center for the chance to go on a Whale Shark diving expedition. Sadly, I was not one of them – or rather I “tried” to be one them, but by the time I heard about this amazing adventure, they were already booked up.

Whale Sharks in the Red Sea from KAUST Red Sea Research Center on Vimeo.

Here’s why the trips are so popular:
  • Whale Sharks are the largest fish in the sea and get up to 40 feet long.
  • Even though they have the word “shark” in their name, they prefer to eat plankton and not people.
  • They have super big mouths which are amazing to see. Okay, this is my own strange fascination, but really they are like the Cookie Monster of the sea. 
  • They are currently listed as a vulnerable species so if you get the chance to see them in peaceful way, then take it.
Whale Shark photo taken by another person on the boat.
Those are the basic facts, but another cool reason I wanted to go is because the area around Saudi Arabia is not a place tourists can go, the coast off the Red Sea by Al Lith and Al Qunfidhah are newly discovered “hot spots” for my massive fish friends. And because the Red Sea Research Center at KAUST is studying them, they know where to find them (they’ve also tagged a bunch of them so can track them down).

But as I mentioned, I was too late to get in on the KAUST weekend expeditions so I had to come up with Plan B, which was to find a third party company that would do it. In other words, it was Facebook to the rescue.

 I was also hoping to convince a couple friends to go with me because I’m still not confident in all the Saudi etiquette and didn’t want to be the only Western woman on the boat.

Me looking a little tired and sun burnt
That’s when I came across Nomad Arabia. I learned about this company from another newbie like me who had done a camping trip with them at some ruins. Again, I was too late to that trip as it was happening that day, but I did see they had a Whale Shark Adventure coming up in two weeks – and I was told they were a “KAUST approved” operator (so safe and reliable).

Red Sea Coral
I signed up instantly.

Then I started my preparation which included: buying a rash guard shirt to protect me from the sun and keep me “modest” (Amazon.com), motion sickness pills just in case (got some from someone who did whale sharking the week before), and finding a floaty device to borrow as I’m not really a swimmer. Yes, I’m going off to swim with Whale Sharks…in the water…in a sea…and I’m a splasher more than a swimmer. Just a small issue, but not one that was going to stop me. Thankfully, one of my girlfriend’s is also not a strong swimmer and lent me her floaty device.

And to make the adventure perfect, I was able to convince two newbies from Ireland who just got their diving license and couldn’t wait to dive on their own. Also, because they are new like me, they missed out on signing up for the KAUST trips too. They also showed me where to buy my snorkel, mask and fins.

So did we see a Whale Shark? Yes!!! We spotted one just as it came to the surface and instantly everyone hopped off the boat to try to touch it. It tried to be patient with us and then I think it just gave up and swam away. Frankly, I would too if 10 splashing humans were trying to catch me.

Dawn on the Red Sea
The tour guides also brought us to two other places to dive/snorkel in the Red Sea too check out the sea life living in the coral. It was absolutely amazing. And the water is so warm here. There isn’t that 30 seconds of “burrrr” that you get when swimming in other places.

The other thing that was interesting was that all 9 people on the trip were ex-pats like us. They had come from Australia, Portugal and Poland. It was my first time meeting other Westerners who weren’t from KAUST and it was kind of nice. Made me feel like the world is less small knowing others were living just an hour away and adjusting to Saudi life just like me.

One of women even had her own Jeddah blog: LivinginJeddah.com

Friday, April 11, 2014

VIDEO MOMENT: Camels!!!!

Yes, I'm a tourist. I can't resist getting out my camera when I see a camel just wandering the desert.