Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Matt's view on whalesharks

And now a post from Intern Matt Leaper:

There really is no way to describe the sensation of awe that overcomes you when you first slide off the side of the faintly bobbing boat to plunge into the salty water below, look round and find your entire vision suddenly filled with the streamlined shape and unmistakeable spotty patterns of your very first whale shark. It was a moment that I had been forever dreaming of, watching the television documentaries enviously and hoping that one day it would be me in the water with the fish that holds the title of world’s largest. And after years of having to stay out of the water and behind a school or university desk, sometimes it felt like it would never come.
But suddenly, there I was and there it was. Me and the shark, within five metres of each other. At long last.
 The shark was a five-metre long male, making it a juvenile and only a quarter of the size that whale sharks can actually grow if they live long enough, but I really didn’t care that it was comparatively small because to me, it was still vast. Easily larger than any other animal I’ve ever seen, not counting whales that I had seen only from the surface on boats.


It cruised past with a grace that belied its great size, beady eyes staring unblinkingly ahead as it studiously ignored the humans that had suddenly entered its water world with it. I immediately had to start kicking my fins hard to keep up, but the shark seemed to be moving effortlessly forward with mere lazy sweeps of its giant tail. However, one thing that did seem to intrigue it a little was the boat that we’d come in, for it swam very close to the white bottom of the craft and curved in a slow, calm circle around it.
The feeling of euphoria and triumph within me, combined with the overwhelming wonder of the massive fish before me, made me temporarily forget that I was actually supposed to be doing something with it. It was on an important conservation internship – I wasn’t just here to gape at it through the mask and snorkel like the tourists around me. But fortunately one of the main things that I had to do was take photos and that was something that I could set to with a will. And so I did. I did my best to photograph the specific portion of the shark that would help to identify it – the area behind the gills and above the pectoral fin which is unique in every shark. But while I was swimming furiously to keep up, I couldn’t resist taking many, many more of various other angles.  


After about ten minutes or so in the water, the shark increased its speed slightly and was soon lost to sight, but I felt no disappointment. I was too overcome by what had just happened to feel sorry that it was over. I ended up climbing back onto the boat with what I am quite sure was a ridiculous grin plastered over my face and collapsed onto the seat, laughing like an idiot. Simply put, I was stunned and ecstatic. Could it possibly go any better than that?


As it turned out, yes, it could! A radio contact from our microlight pilot told us he had another visual a short distance away, and the skipper piled on all speed to reach the site. A mere ten minutes after getting out, I found myself darting back in again to find myself facing a shark once again. As it turned out, it was the same shark as the first time, and the only thing I can say is that it must have been surprised to see us again so quickly because this time it decided to hang around for a lot longer. And this time, it took a lot more interest in us.

One thing that we had been instructed to do was to never swim in front of the shark. Not because it was dangerous to do so but because the shark would most likely dive if its way was blocked and then we’d lose it very quickly. But this shark made that rule very hard to follow indeed because it proceeded to try and follow the swimmers around, interested in our kicking fins and the bubbles that we were producing as a result. I probably ended up swimming away from the shark more than I swam towards it because it seemed to take a particular interest in me. Thank goodness it was a harmless plankton eater or this would have been more alarming, but every time and kicked to the side, it simply turned further to face me again. Even when I turned away completely and kicked hard for about twenty seconds, I turned around to find it was still right behind me. It was very tempting to let it approach so I could touch it, but as this too was against the rules I persevered in getting out of the way.


But this interest in following me was sporadic, for equally often it continued to circle the boat and, on occasion, it started feeding, opening its incredibly wide mouth before my eyes to draw its staple plankton lunch into its maw. It seemed totally unconcerned by our presence and maintained its curiosity throughout an entire in-water session of exactly forty minutes before, finally, it decided that it had other things to do and moved away, losing us once again. I spent the entire journey back up the island with a grim so wide that I could very well have been in danger of my mouth elongating to the same length as the shark’s own.  It is an experience that will stay with me for the rest of my days. And I have many weeks left here in the Seychelles for more.


Not to mention when we got back to the office and analysed the photos we’d taken with the previous sharks in the photo database, we discovered that it was a brand new individual, never before seen in Seychelles waters since records began in 2001. This was an added bonus to an epic encounter, and though he was given the individual title of ‘sey.2013.001’ for the purposes of the database, I decided to give him the unofficial nickname ‘Fergus.’

Perhaps during my stay here in the Seychelles I will encounter Fergus again. I wonder if he’ll remember me and try and follow me around again if I do?

1 comment:

Johan Anderson said...

Hey Matt! Great encounter! :) I was wondering since you have been there for some time, any luck encountering "Fergus" again?