Monday, 11 April 2011

The mightiest fish in all the oceans - swimming with Whale Sharks

*Important disclaimer - not one of the pictures in this post were taken by me. They are all courtesy of google images to break up the bulk of writing a little!*

After arriving back in Manila, and a short flight, we touched down in Legaspi in South Luxon. Finally the time had arrived – our main reason for coming to the Philippines – the chance to potentially swim with Whale sharks. The bay in Donsol is rich in plankton, and every year a number of these gentle giants invade the waters to feast. The peak months are March and April, so we were hopeful that our chances were good.

After a very early start, we jumped on a tricycle to the meet point and waited anxiously for our boat’s turn to head out onto the water. The spotters on each boat are incredible – with the very limited visibility and dark-ish water, I couldn’t see more than a few inches below the surface from the boat, yet they were able to spot sharks from a distance and lead us in the right direction.

We began to get excited after glimpsing a fin breaking the surface of the water, and just a few minutes later our guide gave the call to gear up. Cue frantic pulling on of flippers and masks before jumping off the boat into the blue below. Spitting the salt water out of my mouth (and probably a lot of plankton too - sorry sharks!), I put my face below the surface, just in time to see a huge body swim underneath us. Our first whale shark – gracefully drifting past, barely a metre below. It was beautiful, with vivid silver-grey spots and huge head, tapering out into a powerful tail and fins. Huge and alien, and more than I had ever hoped for.

After swimming alongside it for a few metres (struggling to keep up – they move fast!), it dove deeper, and we found our boat and climbed back aboard. We were just catching our breath when one of our spotters excitedly called once more, and it was back in again in time to catch another shark gliding past. The scale of them never failed to awe me, particularly when they swam underneath and the width of the head was most apparent. Absolutely huge, they were never intimidating, as everything about their manner was gentle.

Our next couple of encounters were brief, and although equally amazing, the number of people had increased, and some guides were happy to ignore the ‘one boat per shark’ rule, allowing more groups to enter the water around one shark. We were kicked in the face and body by flippers, shoved out of the way by people trying to get a good picture or hoping to get closer, and it was more difficult to keep a reasonable distance from the sharks.

F managed to swim alongside one for a while, but I received a bit of a bashing and struggled to keep up. It’s not surprising they swam deeper quicker. In fact, on a couple of occasions our spotters found a shark, but our guide didn’t allow us to go in as there were already too many people around. If only all guides were as considerate, the number of encounters might decrease, but they’d probably last longer.

The fifth encounter was by far the most incredible for me. Entering the water, a shark swam underneath, and I was able to follow it until another group came in and the bubbles/debris kicked up made it difficult. It looked as though there was going to be too many people again, and the shark was moving away too quickly. Like a flash, our guide was suddenly beside me, and grabbing my hand, led me off quickly, his powerful swimming guiding me away from the group. I could only see murk ahead, and was begin to wonder where we were going.

Suddenly, a shark entered my vision, swimming towards us. It passed underneath, but began to rise closer to the surface. We tried to move away, but of course the shark was quicker, and at one point its fin was merely inches below me, and all I could see was shark filling the entirety of my vision. We got out of its way, and the guide led me alongside it, keeping a good pace and allowing me to really observe the shark in its full glory closely, without other people around and at a respectful distance. How the guide predicted the direction the shark would swim I don’t know, but those minutes were amazing and I was so grateful for his help.

We spent the last twenty minutes on the boat completely exhilarated, feeling incredibly privileged to have seen so many sharks and to have had some amazing encounters with these graceful creatures (and my new favourite fish…).

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