How to see the whale sharks of Qatar

A new luxury expedition cruise promises to unlock the secrets of Qatar’s storied coastline and rich marine biology, offering zodiac rides among a rare congregation of up to 500 whale sharks. In this interview, we discuss some of the tour’s highlights.

By Discover Qatar
Published 10 Mar 2021, 17:00 GMT
The whale sharks of Qatar.

Each year, hundreds of whale sharks congregate in the north east coast of Qatar from April to September.

Photograph by Getty Images

Elusive and migratory, whale sharks are mysterious creatures. Catching a glimpse of their dotted fins is no easy task, but Discover Qatar’s first expedition cruise is about to change this: as part of a unique itinerary, travellers will have the chance to visit a marine zone in the north east part of the country, which is usually closed-off to the public, and see the world’s largest gathering of these gentle giants. We talk to Angus Tandy, head of product at Discover Qatar, to find out more about the experience.

What prompted the launch of Discover Qatar’s first expedition cruise?

The Qatar peninsula offers amazing attractions on land, but experiencing the riches of the sea is something unique and new for the region. The major attraction within that is the congregation of whale sharks, and the only way to experience it properly is via an expedition cruise. But, by bringing an expedition cruise here, we also have the ability to take guests into Khor Al Udaid — or the Inland Sea, as it's commonly referred to — one of the few places where sand dunes from the desert dissolve into the water. There are also a number of islands along the coast that lend themselves to exploration focused around migratory birds, taking in migration routes and nesting sites, and coral reefs. The north of Qatar was a major coastal trading hub in the 1800s and there are incredible places there, particularly around the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Al Zubarah. There are so many stories from our waters that are not often told.

What will people experience when meeting the whale sharks?

Brigadier General Mohamed Al Jaidah, the lead whale shark research scientist in Qatar for the past 15 years, will host sessions as we’re cruising to the north east coast of Qatar, and we’ll also be hearing from marine biologists. The following morning, guests will head out on Zodiac rigid inflatable boats to explore. We won’t be swimming with the whale sharks; we’re there to protect them and tell their story, not to invade their space. It’s going to be really important we keep a distance and adhere to some of the strictest protocols when it comes to working with wildlife in an expedition setting. In this particular environment, you can see up to 500 whale sharks in one location, so you’ll see the fins, you’ll see the tails — they’ll be under the boat, they’ll be swimming next to you; they’ll be in all sorts of different locations.

How will your particular expedition vessel enhance this experience?

We chose to partner with Ponant for two reasons. One, it’s a world leader in expedition cruising, and particularly in interacting with wildlife. Also, it provides exceptional five-star services and luxurious facilities on board. Every cabin has a private balcony, which means guests will be able to see the whale sharks from their own rooms, as well as from the main decks and the viewing platforms. The last experience will be the underwater Blue Eye Lounge, which features a see-through glass hull. There’s a lot of recording and sonar taken, and the sound of what’s happening underwater within a three-mile radius is then reverberated in this particular lounge. Guests will be able to see through the bottom of the hull and hopefully glimpse whale sharks, but they’ll certainly be able to hear them and get a better understating of what actually happens below the water.

Ponant's Le Champlain expedition vessel. Each of the ship's 92 staterooms and suites has a private balcony.

Photograph by Philip Plisson

Whale sharks are an endangered species. What do you want people to take away from this experience with regard to the importance of preserving wildlife?

We would like them to understand more about the whale sharks and what’s important for their habitat. Despite all the research programmes in recent years, the body of knowledge concerning whale sharks is still limited compared to that around more ‘mainstream’ animals. We’d like to tell their story, why it’s so important and why they aggregate in the hundreds in this particular area. The water temperature is perfect, hovering around 27C for around six months of the year, and that creates a flourishing ecosystem. There’ll be exposure to dolphins, a lot of sharks, reef fish — it’s a really varied selection of animals that people will encounter out there because of that richness in the ecosystem.

Why is seeing the whale sharks a unique experience?

This is the first time any sort of conventional tourism operator has done anything like this and made the area where the whale sharks are found accessible. There have been some private boats, but certainly nothing offered at this standard and in a controlled environment. The other really important part to us is actually working with the Qatar National Tourism Council to regulate visitation in this area while also making it more accessible. 

What makes Qatar a great destination to explore?

I think Qatar is wrongly stereotyped. The overwhelming image is probably of a whole lot of desert, and that’s about it. And certainly, coming from the Australian Outback, I was very surprised about how diverse Qatar actually is, from what happens around Al Zubarah, to the amazing locations around Zakreet and East-West/West-East, to the history around the sea life and the fishing — and that’s just the northern part of Qatar. It offers a really multisensory experience.

Aerial shot of Khor Al Udaid, also known as the Inland Sea, one of the few places on the planet where the desert meets the sea.

Photograph by Qatar National Tourism Council

Essentials

The limited-edition Whale Sharks of Qatar expedition cruise offers a nine-day all-inclusive package on board Ponant’s Le Champlain expedition vessel for a maximum of 170 guests, with the opportunity to extend the experience to an 11-day package, including three nights in Doha. Facilities include a spa, two restaurants, a theatre room and fitness centre and elegant accommodation, plus five-star services and lectures by experts. The cruise has been postponed for 2021 due to the global covid-19 outbreak and is planned to operate in 2022.

For more information and for the full itinerary, visit discoverqatar.qa/whale-sharks-of-qatar

A shorter version of this Q&A was published in the April 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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