By Lindsay Mackenzie
“Now, the important thing is when I say go, you jump out of the boat. If you wait it will be gone. When I say go, go. Understand?”
Clad in snorkeling gear and falling over our flippers in an awkward attempt to launch the boat from the beach, we nod in agreement with Carlos’s instructions and jump in. As we motor out of the bay I turn to see another of our guides, known only as the Shark Spotter, clamber into a high chair at the back of the boat and silently scan the horizon.
“So he just says go and we jump in. That’s it?”
My friend replies with a shrug: “I guess so.”
Considering what we’re about to do, I could have used a little more direction.
Before we can prepare or ask questions, we hear Carlos yelling above the roar of the motor: “Ok we see one! Go!”
The boat pulls to an abrupt stop and we flash each other wildly conspiratorial grins before strapping on our masks and — with an utter lack of grace — toppling backwards out of the boat.
Suddenly the chaos of the boat is lost in the silence of the warm blue Indian Ocean. As I attempt to orient myself and find the surface, I glimpse the huge spotted mass gliding beneath me. There it is. A whale shark.
Registering the fact that I am swimming next to the largest fish in the sea almost causes me to forget to breathe. I curse my petty human need for oxygen as I head back to the surface for a quick breath. As I plunge back toward the whale shark I have the chance to take in the full size of the animal — at around 20,000 kilograms, the shark is about the same size as a school bus. The only difference being that it’s alive, and next to me underwater. I swim closer, getting a good look at its tiny eye, bright white spots and gaping mouth. Though I know that it somehow manages to become so huge feeding exclusively on plankton, it’s still slightly unsettling to be underwater next to such a massive open-mouthed animal.
The shark hardly looks as if it’s moving as it glides effortlessly through the water, making a mockery of the tiny snorkelers beside it who kick frantically in a losing battle to keep up. Eventually we all tire and the shark leaves us in its wake. Carlos nimbly plucks us out of the water and my friend and I babble giddily about the experience, trying to come to terms with our own disbelief about what we’ve just done.