Tuesday, September 11, 2012

First Encounter... a personal perspective

Prepped with our new found proficiencies and filled to the brim with enthusiasm, we have now finally been able to reap the rewards of our hard work during boot camp. Wally (the fake Whale Shark) has been traded in for the real deal and we finally have the chance to regurgitate our Whale Shark knowledge upon unsuspecting clients. With all six of us chomping at the bit, we have finally been set free. Whale Shark season 2012 won’t know what’s hit it!

As we headed out to Conception Channel we were full of anticipation, all beaming and hawk-eyed hoping to spot a fin poking out from amongst the waves or the dark silhouette of everyone’s favourite spotty fish moving under the surface! 

Finally, a very large spotty fish!

After a lot of waiting and watching, with the rocking of the boat starting to make us feel sleepy, our hope was diminishing. Maybe these ever elusive animals just didn’t want to play today. But then, finally, we got the call that we’d all been waiting for. The muffled voice of Neil (one of the pilots) coming through on the radio “I’ve got a shark for you!” Everyone sparked into action, the skipper following our directions as we tried to listen to Neil over the squeaks and squeals of exhilaration. There was a rush to get our fins, masks and cameras and an exchange of smiles throughout the group as we approached our target. The boat slows down when we start approaching 100m from the shark, at 50m it almost cuts off completely, and then an aberrant silence as we perched on the sides of the boat, waiting to get visual affirmation of the sharks’ position.

 Worth the wait! Our very first whale shark was a beauty!

I saw a dark shadow moving as we approached and heard our team leaders telling us to get in. I think I swallowed my fair share of sea water as I very inelegantly threw myself in the water. He was beautiful, we were in complete awe! It made all the hard work completely worth it and it really reiterated to us all why we applied to join the project in the first place. Just to be in the presence of these gorgeous creatures felt like a privilege. As he moved effortlessly through the water (a damn sight more graceful than any of us) we soaked up the experience and followed him for an awesome few minutes before he dived. We gave the signal to the boat that the encounter had ended and waited for the boat to pick us up.

 Glad I took the photos as I forgot to count the remoras!

We were hoping to get a chance to get some of our excitement out before we had to prioritise getting the all important data and looking after customers. And we lucked out! With all six of us on the boat we have now encountered 5 sharks. The first encounter was understandably a mixture of being dumb-struck and forgetting near enough everything we had learnt about counting remoras, pilot fish and getting the necessary photographs. Ooops! But, after the first shark, possibly the second, we got our act together and made our team leaders proud. Even with Savi’s snorkel-laughs being heard across conception channel and Amanda only being able to muster various expressions of astonishment for a good while after. 

We also got to grips with “the science” whilst on the boat and you can now call us fully competent “Plankton pullers”, “Secci disk lowerers” and “Conductivity, temperature and depth investigators”. It was fantastic to put our skills to the test and to finally use the I3S software to identify REAL sharks. We have already found out that a couple of the sharks have been seen in the Seychelles in previous years. 

Maddy getting to know her new spotty friend!

Its great to feel like the season has got going and we look forward to ID’ing many more sharks. As well as sharing the remarkable experience of encountering the lovely Whale Shark with lots of other people. 

Maddy Cole, 2012 whale shark intern

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