We had departed on a boat trip to view dolphins and whales off the coast of Kwa Zulu Natal’s coastal town, Ballito; but what we got was far more than we could ever have hoped or wished for.

Image by Linda Greyling

The sun was out and the water was still – perfect conditions for a morning at sea and a fairly typical summer’s day in this part of South Africa. With a number of us on board our skipper steered us away from the coast whilst he imparted interesting facts about marine life along the east coast.

South Africa is one of the best destinations in the world for whale watching and enormous pods of dolphins can be seen year round off the 2,500 km’s of coastline.

Being the first trip out for the day it was our job to locate the movement of the dolphins and in doing so get close-up encounters of these beautiful mammals.

There are plenty of land-based viewpoints in South Africa for those who aren’t born with sea legs and these sightings are just as special – the coastal town of Hermanus, in the Cape, is possibly the best land-based whale watching destination in the world and has been dubbed the whale capital of South Africa.

So much so, the town holds a whale watching festival every year around September.

Image by Southern Right Charters

Once we were quite far out at sea our skipper spotted a large shadow in the distance heading in our direction. Rather than driving towards it, he chose to switch the engine off whilst we waited. As the shadow got closer it became apparent that it was almost double the length of the rubber duck that we were perched in and its compass was directing it straight for our boat.

Fortunately fear did not show on the face of our skipper as he announced that what we were seeing was a whale shark.

The whale shark is the largest known fish species in the world originating about 60 million years ago.  Despite its name it not a whale but rather a fish/ shark species. Its life span can range between 70 and 100 years and this may be due to its lack of natural predators. Sightings of individuals over 14 meters long are not uncommon but despite their large exterior whale sharks are known to be amongst the friendliest of marine wildlife. Feeding off tiny organisms this massive underwater creature is considered a gentle giant of the ocean and a very photogenic one at that.

Image by Africa Geographic

His next instruction came as a surprise, to put it mildly.

“Jump off the boat and swim with it; hold onto its fin.”

We all gave a laugh until we realised his face matched his instructions.

If you’ve ever had to contemplate jumping out of a boat onto the back of a whale shark within the space of ten seconds then you will know one of two things; you are either part of the group that said “no thank you” or you have found yourself clinging onto the hands of your companions with your heart racing at a million miles as you wait for your lift to swim past you.

         Image by Lonely Planet

And just like that, for about 20 seconds of our lives, the few of us who chose to jump glided along the ocean holding lightly onto the fin of a whale shark, leaving a memory imprinted in our hearts and minds forever.