By Justin Porter Biel
I look through a clouded diver’s mask. It’s poorly fitted to my face and the lower half is filled with water. Sand and plankton churn upward from the seafloor, the debris turning the sea hazy and slightly brown. I swim toward the waving hand of Francesca, arriving at the back of the group and peer forward between floating bodies, wagging arms, kicking legs and fins. Suddenly, a shape begins to emerge. Some behemoth lies directly ahead, resting in the murky water. White spots and lines expand across a vast black mass, a beautiful, natural pattern developing before my eyes. I spot two dorsal fins, and further down, the most massive tail fin I’ve ever seen is resting upon the ocean floor, flapping in the sand.
I can see him now. We are face-to-face.
A tremendous white-ringed mouth is opening and closing, sucking plankton and water in big slow breaths. The motion of the jaws creates a suction that pulls my body towards the gaping hole. I kick back to readjust and then glance at the rest of our group. I see wide eyes under each mask, and as whole, we appear insignificant beside the magnificent creature.
I am arms length away from the largest known fish in the world, and the moment brings a sense of reverence and awe.
We spend the entirety of our allotted time with our whale shark, observing his feeding patterns, each one of us joined to his movements like a pack of oversized remoras. We snorkel in a circular, crisscrossing flow, along with three other groups trailing their underwater giants.
“There are four sharks,” says Francesca, her head splashing above the surface of the water, “wait, here comes another.”
I see the new arrival. The tiger-patterned fish is coming my way. The shark is swimming alone, the length of his charcoal body sturdy and sleek and beautiful.
With our whale shark to my left, and the new arrival approaching on my right, I’m stuck between them and have nowhere to go. Unsure of what to do, I follow Francesca and pull my limbs inward, allowing my body to sink just as the new shark passes. The shark’s open mouth, which is big enough to swallow me, drifts right beside my face. Next comes an inquisitive eye, the sharks black iris hovering within a smoke-colored circle. The fish locks onto me with his gaze, and I can only guess how we appear – over-anxious and tense, our human bodies flailing, poorly designed for the underwater world. He notices us, but only briefly, and then moves past. We are merely an annoyance to this gentle giant’s morning routine.
When our time is up, we swim back to the boat where Captain Salvador greets us. He takes our fins and masks, looking down on us from above, his face covered in wrinkles under a low drawn, withered hat. When he turns the boat back to La Paz, each member of our group is smiling, including Francesca.
On the way back she spots another whale shark off the bow.
“This one’s not feeding,” Francesca says, “you guys ready to swim.”
It takes less than a minute. We are geared up and back in the water.
Beside this shark the water is more transparent, unclouded by plankton, fins, andwaving cameras. The giant glides quickly underwater, and we swim hard to keep up. For ten minutes I merely observe, floating beside the animal. I become lost in the creature’s magnificence, but also, the beauty of the world we both call home.
Ex-Pat Chronicle – Lessons Learned From
Whale sharks are not whales; they are filter feeding carpet sharks.
Whale sharks are the largest living nonmammalian vertebrate.
The largest whale shark ever recorded was over 40 feet long and weighed over 45,000 lbs.
Whale sharks are believed to live up to 70 years.
Whale sharks feed exclusively on plankton and are not known to pose threats to humans.
La Paz, Baja California Sur, Mexico
About the Author:
Leaving his home state of Colorado behind, Justin now calls the beaches of Baja California home. A writer and new expat, he is a resident of Todos Santos, Mexico.