Whale sharks are large fish that are neither whales nor sharks. They are plankton feeders. When I say large I mean really, really, really big! We have always “just” missed the opportunity to swim with the creatures, and always swore we wouldn’t let the opportunity pass in the future. Imagine our excitement when our Lonely Planet guidebook directed us to Djibouti from Nov to Feb to an almost guaranteed date to swim with the underwater behemoths. Two plane tickets from Addis Ababa in Ethiopia and a tour booked and we had ourselves our Christmas gifts!
Before I describe our encounter I think it is important to understand how I (Heather) feel about fish. I hate them. I don’t eat them, and I have some strange indescribably ridiculous fear of swimming in anything other than a pool because I am convinced the fish will eat my feet. Maybe this comes from growing up on the prairies where the only lake I really spent any time in dried up for 7 years and now spawns mutant creatures called Mud Puppies (Chilver Lake). I once took a canoe course on this lake and after dumping my canoe I came screaming in a panic out of the water to loudly proclaim to anyone who cared “THERE’S. FISH. IN. THIS. LAKE!!!” They didn’t care…but everyone laughed at me..in fact 20ish years later I still haven’t lived this one down.
Every time I find myself on the verge of swimming in “open water” this reptilian fear at the base of my skull comes flooding towards my conscious brain, but I am able to keep it at bay reminding myself I am wearing fins and there is nothing about me or my clothes the fish would want to eat anyway! This was my state of mind upon the first sighting of the whale shark.
All the other passengers on the boat quickly suited up with their mask, snorkel and fins and leapt into the water and proceeded to swim frantically after the largest living creature I have ever seen. As I followed them into the water I couldn’t help but remember the scenes from JAWS that show the calm swimmers from above and the shark’s view of their legs underneath. Somehow I thought this frantic display I was witnessing was akin to chumming the water. Fortunately the fishy dove to the deeps and I didn’t have to come face to face with it or my fears.
Until we spotted the next one. By now I had recovered sufficiently from the 12 km swim (or so it felt) in choppy waters and the fear had started to move further back in my brain. Again I became a part of the chumming experience and followed the crowd. This time I saw actual fish swimming by me…my inner dialogue sounded like this: “they can’t eat your feet, they can’t eat your feet….” I stopped swimming for a minute to orient myself to the other food swimmers and noticed one of them point to my left. I put my head into the water and saw the biggest set of lips I had ever seen……heading straight towards me!
A large 6 meter long whale shark was ascending from the depths and I knew with certainty that he couldn’t see me through his pin hole eyes. Matt had described earlier how he had seen one of the creatures open it’s mouth to hover in vast quantities of water to get the plankton suspended there. My outer voice said “cool” while my inner imagination pictured what a beach looks like as the water recedes just before a tsunami. At this moment I was picturing what life would be like from the inside of the whale’s guts as there was no possible way I could swim against this assured suction.
Fortunately my ninja like skills (read: panicked swimming) got me out of the way and the large fish swam by me. I decided I would swim beside it since I was no longer in harms way. What an amazing creature…shaped like a triangle with it’s huge flat lips forming the bottom and it’s pointed shark like tail the point. It gracefully moved through the water and didn’t seem to care who or what was around it. After what seemed like an eternity I poked my head out of the water to find the boat and was quite surprised to see how far away I had swam. Matt had already retreated to the safety of our vessal and was grinning when he saw me poke my head up. After climbing the ladder and collapsing onto a seat I described my whole adventure (including the ninja like skills) to which he replied “cool.”
Later that afternoon as I sat on the bow of the boat and titled my head back to let the sun kiss my cheeks I couldn’t help but think how far I have come from the days in Chilver Lake! I thought I was a regular Little Mermaid or Jacques Cousteau. Next adventure; cage diving with the great whites? Probably not.