Pro surfer, Alex Gray, pro wakeboarder Jeff McKee, and myself, hanging out on the boat in La Paz, Mexico. photo: Justin Lewis
We were told it would look like a bus, an underwater bus steaming ahead at an average speed of a little over three mph. Moments following the sputtering radio announcement that our sea plane had spotted the creature, we sped over the tepid waters of the Sea of Cortez at top speed, overflowing with anticipation.
Jeff McKee, throwing the bunny ears.
Upon first spying the dorsal fin poking through the surface, I hastily threw on fins, mask, and snorkel, and dove overboard with an awkward splash. Unfortunately, the “bus” was already traveling away, and while the projected speed previously seemed doable, it was more than I could do to catch up. I peeked my masked eyes above the surface line to gauge my progress, only to see three divers flop off the boat more than 20ft away, the dorsal fin just ahead of them. Putting my head down, I swam with all my might, arms and fins fully engaged, slowly gaining. But just as the turbulence from their fins came into view, the creature sped off and out of reach for all of us. Frustrated, I pulled myself back into the boat.
Looking for critters. photo: Justin Lewis
The boat circled with a crewmember perched on the bow looking for that fin and telltale shadow. I watched him carefully, and when he suddenly pointed with outstretched arm, I wasted no time in diving in once more. We were only a few dozen yards from shore and the water was cloudy with a high mixture of sand. I swam eagerly through the silt as the murky shadow slowly gained form. My first attempt had revealed only the fleeting sight of a powerful tail, but as I approached this time, the entire outline came into view. It was as if suddenly a veil had been lifted and the whole animal, covered in a beautiful pattern of white spots immediately filled the frame of my perspective. I paused, mesmerized. It took a moment to process the sight of a 20ft long whale shark in all its spotted glory, lingering just a few kicks away.
All photos unless otherwise noted: Justin Lewis
The “bus” had stopped for us. For the next two hours, we admired it. We respected it. We reveled in it. Not wanting to waste any time with too much gear, unsure of how long the creature would allow us to play, I free dove, bouncing between the surface and just below. Surprisingly to me, he was sunning himself only a few feet from the waterline, making for easy viewing.
I swam alongside of him, eye to eye.
I drifted back towards the tail to appreciate the extent of the massive body and powerful swimming capabilities.
I took a deep breath to dive underneath, swimming belly to belly, and look up at the silhouetted outline from below. Eventually, the excitement, kicking, and frequent dives had my breath running a little thin and I couldn’t stay on his level as long as I wanted.
PADI’s Kristin Valette and I
Alex Gray. We would later joke that the whale shark had never seen so many “shakas” before and is not likely to ever see that many again!
Reluctantly taking my eyes off of the most amazing creature with which I’ve ever had the chance to interact, I kicked back towards the boat to trade in my snorkel for regulator and more bottom time.
Originally the boat driver had warned us that the bubbles produced from exhaling on scuba would scare the shark away. On the contrary, this one seemed to be attracted to the bubbles.
Whether the boat captain was wrong or the simple fact of the curiosity of youth (this whale shark was only 20ft long, coming from a species that regularly grows to 40ft in length) prompted him to swerve towards our bubbles rather than away. Maybe it was only my own hubris, but he seemed to actually enjoy our presence.
In the occasional instance that he did divert from his orbit, swimming in front of him while kicking with fins towards his gaping mouth seemed to have a calming effect.
Kristin Valette, taming the beast. photo: Greg Browning
He gulped up the propelled water, apparently happy to participate in lazy feeding. Rather that having to work to keep up with him as expected, I had to focus on not bumping into him while posing for the cameras.
After a plethora of photo opportunities, I set back into the simple rhythm of admiration. The previous day we had attempted to swim with a pod of dolphins, jumping in off the boat repeatedly, hoping they would continue to swim towards us only to hear them squeaking directions to each other to dart the other way. We did have the chance to commune with a colony of seals.
Seal and sardine photos: Greg Browning
They dove off the rocks and performed impressive spins and swirls right before our eyes in incredibly clear water.
Alex, enjoying the sardines. photo: Greg Browning
Still the seal antics did nothing to rival the awe-inspiring sight of the gracefulness of such a large animal. Even after an hour, I couldn’t take my eyes off him. At one point, he appeared to simply stop and float, repeatedly opening and closing his wide mouth. I found myself peering into the huge plankton-sucking cavern. Tentatively, I stuck my hand near the opening and it was immediately sucked inward. The reflexes kicked in and I pulled it back immediately letting out a big burst of bubbles from laughter.
Eventually, I decided to head back to the boat for a break to take some time to digest the awesome experience. I was floating in the water between our two boats, relaying my tale to those still dry when a friend warned me the shark was approaching. I looked back to see the broad head coming straight at me and quickly moved out of the way, just in time. Turning to watch his departure, straight through the middle of the six-foot gap between boats, I was inadvertently struck by the strong tail as he passed. I took it as a friendly gesture, a pat on the back from a new friend. His way of saying, “see ya later, alligator.” Internally, I replied, “after a while, whale shark!”
That afternoon, we piled into a truck for the two-hour trek to the Pacific Coast of the Baja Peninsula. A NW swell was running and it was time to trade in the dive gear for the more familiar activity of surfing.
The waves were fun and it certainly felt good to be propelled by the power of the ocean once again after a weeklong break.
Body Glove marketing director, Scott Daley rips!
Wakeboarder, Jeff McKee is pretty solid on a surfboard as well!
Alex Gray looks as good on land as he does in the water!
Still, my mind was elsewhere. Every fin in the distance and every murky shadow that caught my eye from below the surface was a reminder of the variety of life lurking below. Usually while surfing, I prefer to ignore the existence of sharks in the ocean, but after having actually met one and spent some quality time, my perspective has changed. If only they were all so friendly!
We also did some wreck diving