Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Whale Shark: A shark so large that it eats whales

Off of the coast of Mozambique where I live there occurs a yearly migration of whale sharks. They are the biggest fish in the sea, growing up to 15 meters long. There are very few in the world, and getting harder and harder to find. But you can snorkel with whale sharks right off the beach in certain areas along the coast. It was on the bucket lists of many volunteers. Though whale sharks are technically sharks they feed on krill like whales do, thus their name, and pose no danger to people.

That being said, the idea of swimming with an animal (a shark) bigger than a car and longer than a bus was terrifying to me. I had been having nightmares about hungry beasts in murky water for months in anticipation.

My friends and I met in Tofo to check off the whale shark from our bucket lists. Everyone was excited the morning of, and I acted like I was too. I’m sure that I was white as a sheet by the way my friends kept asking me if something was wrong. I said I was nervous about sea sickness.

There are no guarantees of seeing a whale shark our anything else on these “ocean safaris”. You just drive around on a boat and hope you see something. We met a group of college age guys (fooling around and giggling like kids in a ball pit) who had gone the day before for three hours and seen nothing at all.

The chance that I wouldn’t see one gave me some cowardly hope. Hope that was squelched fifteen minutes after leaving the shore when the skipper shouted, “All right get your fins on!” We scrambled to get into our fins and cram our masks onto our faces, “IT’S OVER THERE GET IN GET IN GET IN!!”

In the grip of terror I fell like a sack of potatoes into the water. I put my head under, my whole body electric with anticipation. The visibility was only a few meters, “IT’S RIGHT THERE OVER THERE LOOK!!!” The skipper screamed at us. I turned numbly in the direction he was pointing.

And out of the murkiness came the sleek, enormous head of the largest fish in the sea, coming straight for me. Every nerve in my body fired at once (no I did NOT soil myself) and I stared wide eyed and helpless. Was it going to hit me? Was it going to eat me? A childlike terror/wonder overcame me. It passed underneath, its dorsal fin cutting the water next to me.

Everyone says the same thing about seeing a whale shark. They move with an effortless grace, not seeming to rush at all as they cruise. They are majestic; despite their size they move in utter silence. I looked down at its skin—so close I could have touched it had I been capable of any motor function—which was a deep grey with white spots, which under the broken light of the surface twinkled like (give me a break here) stars.

I remember the moment when my (baseless) fear turned into wonder. As it passed I turned and swam after it. I followed as long as I could until it’s huge tail swished back and forth back out of sight.

We followed the same shark and swam with it twice more. We later saw humpback whales. Great day.

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