Friday, October 16, 2009

Umberto.... love at first sight?

A rather different post from intern Abi March... getting attached to cats and dogs is common so I guess we shouldn't be too surprised when an intern falls for a shark!

From my first sighting of a big spotty grey fish over 6 years ago on the Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia, I fell in love with whale sharks. I put my head in the water and a big mouth about a metre wide was coming towards me. It was a huge, beautiful, gentle fish, it was love! Even seeing pictures in magazines, my tummy gives a little flutter. Two years ago I saw them in Holbox in Mexico, lots of them cruising around in a bay, swimming under the boat, hanging around for ages, I didn’t think whale shark experiences could get much better… until I came to the Seychelles!

Over the last 7 weeks I have seen more whale sharks than I could have dreamed of, but it doesn’t matter how many I see, I still get the same excited, in awe feeling whenever I get in the water. I’ve had so many memorable encounters and have met many lovely sharks, my favourite being Umberto, closely followed by Yogi and it’s always a thrill to be in the water and recognise them.

A couple of weeks ago, we were on the boat in the south, we’d been told the sea would be quite rough that day. It was, the boat was crashing up and down, and as a big wave broke into the boat I wasn’t holding out hope that this would be the best sharking day. However, we had some good encounters, the choppy waters doesn’t effect the sharks, but some clients were feeling a little worse for wear so David decided to go into the bay. Johan found us a shark there and as I was on radio, I directed our skipper to it. The shark was swimming right on the surface and seemed very pleased to see us. Tori and David got into the water followed by the clients, he was very intrigued by these strange creatures that had joined him and kept coming closer to them to have a good look. Then the shark wanted to check the boat out, I was sat on the edge watching him and he came right up to me, head jutting out of the water and just stared at me. We had made eye contact and it was the most incredible thing, I‘d loved to have known what he was thinking! I was still on the radio to Johan telling him in high pitch squeals what was happening.

Umberto (UT05.067) showing us his famous U shaped mark that makes him easily recognisable

Then Tori came back on board, gave me her mask and snorkel and said “Abi, give me the radio, you’ve gotta go in and see this”. Despite us observing our whale shark code of conduct where you stay 3 metres away, this shark had other ideas. At one point, David, Gareth and myself were next to the boat, the shark eyed us and came closer, then closer still, and soon enough we were all the fill in a whale shark/boat sandwich. I put my hands to my face to stop getting squashed and he squidged alongside, his pectoral fin folding across me. His skin was so smooth and soft, it was amazing. I got back on board and declared to David that this was my new favourite shark! When IRISing the next morning it turned out that this was a totally new shark in our database, sey.2009.027. I found that really interesting, we were probably the first boat and people he’d ever seen, no wonder he was so curious.

Last week, with the weather not its greatest, Johan could only fly the north of the island. So out we went on the boat, our first time in the north this season. The sharks here were very fast, and as the spotter it was a job to keep up and get the ID shots. After a few short encounters we found a great spectacle with loads of birds above the surface of the water and a huge shoal of fusiliers underneath, all busy feeding on the plankton. Then in the chaos we saw two whale sharks, swimming along, gulping the plankton rich sea. David said that it probably wasn’t best to go in as they’d be very quick. Seeing this fantastic sight I was itching to get in, “shall I just go and get you the ID shots?” I said. David looked dubious, but after a moment relented and soon I was jumping in. I hit the water and looked down and could just see fish everywhere, then to my left appeared a whale shark. Before I could take a photo I heard my name shouted from the boat, a quick look to my right and the other whale shark was skimming past underneath me! It was an incredible, breathtaking experience. Though David was right, after tiring myself out I couldn’t keep up any longer, and it was also very difficult to get the ID shots!

The feeding frenzy.... sharks fusiliers and lots of fish poo!

Back on the boat we again moved nearer to the scene, I said to David “If I asked to go in again you’d say no wouldn’t you?” to my surprise he simply said “Go on then!”. It was the most frantic but brilliant encounter and soon John, Tori and the clients were soon experiencing it too. On getting back on to the boat the last time, I hugged David and once again declared that these were my most favourite sharks!

Abi and Umberto, love at first sight?

After my declarations of favourite sharks to David, I have to point out that I’m not that fickle, it’s just that all the experiences and the whale sharks are amazing! However, I do take back my comments, as after a wonderful long encounter with him today, my heart belongs to Umberto!

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