Friday, May 23, 2008

Marine Megafauna

The whale shark is sort of the Holy Grail of scuba diving. They're relatively rare, living only in certain, mostly tropical, waters. They tend to be solitary, and they just...swim. So it's quite rare to run into one. In the group we used to travel with and dive with, it was kind of a running gag: if someone would elect to skip a dive, those who went would return saying they had seen multiple whale sharks or something.

Today we saw one. The real thing. It's hard to put into words just how magnificent these creatures are. The one we saw was female, about 30-35 feet long, and mostly gray with the typical spots on it. And it was beautiful, graceful, and seemingly either unaware of or at least unconcerned by our presence.

It was the third dive of the day at Darwin's Arch, near Darwin Island in the northern Galapagos islands, right after lunch. We were all hanging at the edge of the reef, watching and waiting at around 50 feet. We'd seen a few sea turtles and maybe a shark, but no big show. Then suddenly behind me, I hear noise: human noise. Hooting and hollering and general excitement. Someone tugged on my fin to get my attention, and I see pointing and kicking, as everyone headed off to see this creature.

And there it came, out of the murk, swimming a bit above us. We kicked up to get a better view, then all started to kick alongside, trying to keep up. We kept bumping each other and the rocks in our excitement and effort. The whale shark was swimming into the current, so we had to kick hard and sometimes pull ourselves along the rocks. At some point I realized that I was between the rocks and a slowly moving tail that was considerably larger than I was. One good flick, and I would be a Chard pancake.

It was hardest for the divers with cameras, as they are generally less hydrodynamic, but it was quite an effort for all of us. Besides the adrenaline rush of seeing a creature of such magnitude, there is also the realization that this is unique; you may never have another chance like this, and time just ceases to mean anything. At least two of the guys shooting video got great shots, and several of us managed to keep up with the creature for about 10-15 minutes, until it dove to a depth we could not follow.

After kicking so hard for so long, I was exhausted, my head throbbing. We moved up to shallower water on the reef to catch our breath and try to enjoy the rest of the dive. And indeed, we were visited by a couple of hammerhead sharks and at least one very inquisitive sea turtle. But this will always be the whale shark dive.

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