Every once-in-a-while a person will have an experience that is so awesome it seems completely surreal. The magnificence of one of these experiences is often so far beyond words it is futile to try to explain them to somebody else; language is just not sufficient. Today was full of those moments for me and, despite the futility in trying to do so, I will attempt to describe my day today with MCSS.
It began when I awakened myself at 7 AM for an early snorkel. I swam all around the little cove behind the house and followed an eagle ray for a bit, dove down for a close-up of a lionfish, and saw three one meter long bumphead parrotfish patrolling the waters.
When I returned a little before 8, Johan was waiting to drive me to the airport for a morning survey in the microlight. He gave the aircraft a quick check-up and we were in the air shortly thereafter. About ten minutes into the flight, Johan was pointing out numerous turtles in the water 1500 feet below us; they looked like specks of dirt to me! Another ten minutes and we saw our first whale shark swimming at the surface of the water feeding. Johan circled down so we could get a closer view and I was awestruck. I have loved and read about sharks my whole life and this was the first time I ever saw one in the wild. And we were 1000 feet above it! Watching the animal move so smoothly back and forth from a bird's-eye view was a real experience.
I must emphasize how amazing it felt to be so high above ground with no enclosure surrounding me. The freedom ... wow. It really is as close to feeling like a bird as a person can be. At one point during the flight Johan let me take control saying, "Just hold it steady. She flies herself," and I steered the microlight for about ten minutes on my own. I panicked a couple times when I would turn a little too sharply, but somehow the plane seemed to right itself quickly each time. Johan described flying as "instinctual." Perfect description. Over the course of the flight we spotted 4 whale sharks near the southern tip of the island.
About two hours after landing, Katie and the other interns picked me up and we drove to the boat so we could search for the whale sharks on the water and swim with them for the first time this season. It wasn't long after we left shore that Johan, who had taken off for his afternoon survey, led us straight to our first whale shark - a 4 meter long male. I had never been in the water with a shark before, but have been fascinated with and studying them for as long as I can remember; I had literally been waiting my entire life for this moment.
When we jumped in the water and I had my first underwater glimpse of a real live whale shark it felt like time momentarily froze while my brain tried to comprehend the splendor of the sight in front of me. The animal was so graceful and, despite its size, so peaceful (Katie described swimming with a whale shark as a "serene" experience). I just floated in the water and stared until I realized the whale shark was swimming away from me and would be out of sight in a moment. I booked it toward the shark just as it dove too deep for us to follow.
After the first encounter we returned to the boat and proceeded to swim with 4 different whale sharks over the course of about an hour. The animals are the epitome of the term "gentle giant." They are incomprehensibly beautiful.
When the day was finished and we returned to the house, I was writing to my family about how amazing the day had been as Luke beckoned us all out to the deck ... there was a small pod of dolphins swimming about 100 meters off our back porch.
What a perfect ending to a, well ... perfect, day.