"Whale Tale -- In
Search of the Mythic Fish"
Celebes Sea off the east coast of Sipadan, Malaysian Borneo,
Finally! I've actually completed an entire dive with this
overachieving advanced scuba group. Normally, I would have already
ran low on compressed air and left the group early, to be picked up
individually by the bubble-following boat above. This time though,
we're all at 5 meters in depth, and suspended in these beautiful surroundings
during our de-compression safety stop. Unfortunately, I'll be staying
just 3 minutes or so, as my air display is reading a somewhat alarming
300 PSI (virtually out of air). (You're supposed to surface with no
less than 500 PSI.) So, as the seconds click down, I begin to ascend.
I feel, however, the gentle but firm hand on my shoulder of Zane,
the divemaster, imploring me instead to look up and delay my return
to the surface. Above us are mating green turtles (Chelonia Mydas),
three of them! (They apparently "swing.") We watch for what
feels like an inordinate amount of time (I do check my air gauge frequently,
which seems to hold at 300 PSI), all of us fascinated by this very-rarely-observed-from-below
event. One member of our 7-person group, Dom, actually shoots a couple
of photos. As we surface and board the boat, I blurt out congratulations
to him on his shots, to which he replies; "I'm sure they'll be
great." The very experienced underwater photographer then exclaims,
"You know, Willis, I always save several frames (this was before
digital, hence the use of film) just in case we surface under something
spectacular, like a Whale Shark." I think to myself, "What's
a Whale Shark?"
Later, while enjoying cocktails-of-a-color-not-of-the-natural-world,
Dom and I end up discussing the events of the day.
"Dom, what did you mean by 'just in case we surface under a Whale
Shark?' What is that?"
the largest fish on Earth, Willis, measuring some 15 to 20 meters
in length. But they're harmless, not like these menacing Gray
Reef Sharks and Hammerheads we've been swimming with all week.
They're baleen, like whales, but they are fish. The largest fish
in the world."
"They're the largest fish
on Earth, Willis, measuring some 15 to 20 meters in length. But they're
harmless, not like these menacing Gray Reef Sharks and Hammerheads
we've been swimming with all week. They're baleen, like whales, but
they are fish. The largest fish in the world."
"Have you ever seen one, given all the great dives you've made?,"
I asked. [Dom had over 3000 dives, all over the world. He'd been a
guide based from the remote Seychelles Island chain (Indian Ocean)
for the previous decade.]
"Why, no, I haven't, that's why I save the film frames, just
bar of The Bay Islands
Beach Resort, north coast of Roatan, Honduras, central Caribbean Sea,
"So, have you been here before?," I asked
a group of American scuba-diving tourists.
"Yes, many times, but we'll never stay here again. Next time
we're going over to the Inn of Last Resort, on the West End. We've
stayed there before, and their boats can actually make it around the
[He's right, I thought. Not only does this place offer lousy food,
inadequate boats and pricey drinks, but Cheryl (my wife) and I noticed
in the room a ridiculous written plea concerning tips for the staff.
The suggestion (actually demand) was for unusually large tips, to
be placed in an envelope and then given to the manager for distribution
to the staff. We concluded that what this really meant was that the
proprietors were directly paying the wait and service staff nothing,
leaving such mundane details to the guests. The management, we concluded,
would share a small amount of the jointly-collected tips with their
staff, to essentially pay them! Management would then pocket the rest
of the dough! This theory was confirmed when I offered my relatively
generous tips directly to the very appreciative staff, circumventing
the manager (son-in-law of the owners, a luminous and wonderful couple
who had inexplicably decided this season to renovate their kids' house
in West Chester, PA while the son-in-law ran the resort into the ground.)
The lovely on-site daughter and small child were apparently unavailable
"OK, I understand, so why do you come back here to Roatan? The
scuba diving is really only average."
"Well, for the Whale Sharks, of course! They come here, you know,
and are occasionally seen off the northern coast of this island and
adjacent Guanaja. Isn't that why you're here?"
"I suppose," I lied. "So, how many of you have seen
the sharks? And what is it like, surfacing under the Whale Sharks?"
"Well, none of us have actually ever seen any," one of them
noted with some dismay.
just great," I groaned. "This is always the story from
you Whale Shark chaser-cultists. I don't even think they exist;
at least I've never met anyone who's ever even seen one Whale
"Great, just great," I groaned. "This
is always the story from you Whale Shark chaser-cultists. I don't
even think they exist; at least I've never met anyone who's ever even
seen one Whale Shark. All you guys are full of it," I pompously
concluded, as the expensive drinks arrived and the incompetent son-in-law
approached. Above us in the rafters was a ridiculous rubber doll of
the spotted Whale Shark.
"Hey, are you guys going to go on a dive to the 'Shark Alley'
site this afternoon?," the son-in-law inquired.
Responding later to our amazement, one of the very competent divemasters
noted, "There is no 'Shark Alley' dive site."
our dining room table, Conifer, CO, USA, late
fall, 2004 -- while reading the latest issue of "Undercurrent,"
a type of alternative no-advertisement "Consumer Reports Magazine"
concerning the sport of scuba diving and associated travel issues:
"Hey Cheryl, look at this -- these guys actually report that
they saw Whale Sharks off the northern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula,
Mexico -- all while staying at an idyllic beach resort. And they report
that during the summer months observing them is a common occurrence.
What do you think?"
I guess we could combine this idea with our previously-planned-oft-put-off
trip to photograph some of those Mayan ruins we've never visited."
10 kilometers south of the northern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula,
Quintana Roo, Mexico, July, 2005:
"Look, damnit, get your head out of the map and look, or you'll
miss this third Coati -- he's walking out on to the road!"
"Stop, please stop, or you'll hit the little jackass -- he's
walking right up to the tire," I said after finally looking up
and out into this low jungle environment. We stopped. Moving in a
herky-jerky fashion, he sniffed the tire and car; Coatis are the Central
American equivalent of a raccoon. He methodically inspected our vehicle,
and then slowly made it off into the forest.
"How far are we from the coast, anyway?," Cheryl asked.
"I would say about 10-12 kilometers, although as you've noticed
the sinage seems minimal."
"No problem, this is the only road anyway."
aboard a 36-foot launch, perhaps 40 miles into
the Gulf of Mexico off the northern coast of Isla Holbox, Yucatan
Peninsula, Q. Roo, Mexico, the next day:
"Jesus, it's been at least 45 minutes and we're way out here
-- I wonder how far to the Whale Sharks?," I questioned.
"It's so beautiful and surreally placid, almost eerie,"
And it was. As it turns out, the plankton-feeding Whale Sharks require
a sunny, very placid day, or they will not surface to feed. As we
learned over the next several days from two experiences out in the
90-degree Gulf of Mexico, these fish, although very large, are difficult
to find by yourself. You are, after all, in the middle of the ocean
with no land in sight. It's a very big place! Hence, all of the fisherman-turned-Whale-Shark-guides
communicate via radio and use GPS devices to initially locate these
great fish. (A few of the migrating Whale Sharks have been tagged,
but generally, I'm assuming, the electronic tags fail or fall off
when the sharks dive to perhaps more than 350 meters. It's still a
very new science, this Whale Shark stuff.) When a Whale Shark is collectively
spotted, the 10 or so tourist boats converge, all very faithfully
adhering to the strict boating and swimming rules, noted prominently
on each boat in Spanish, English and with "international"
1 -- Everyone wears the provided life vests while in
2 -- People must stay 2 meters from the Whale Sharks.
3 -- Boats must stay 10 meters from the Whale Sharks.
4 -- Only 2 guests and 1 guide per Whale Shark in the water (at any
5 -- Ease into the water with life vest, mask, fins and snorkel; no
6 -- Wear sun protection cream.
7 -- No touching the Tiberon Ballena (literally "shark-baleen").
(More later personally on this rule!)
8 -- No scuba, only snorkeling.
9 -- No flash photography underwater.
10 -- No fishing.
11 -- No littering.
12 -- No collection of fish or coral.
13 -- No kicking of coral. ( We were in 300 meters of water!)
14 -- No feeding of wildlife.
So . . . the guide (there are two employees on the boat, a driver
and a guide) and I, ridiculously -- (what do I know about Whale Shark
spotting?) are positioned Russell-Crowe-Master-and-Commander-fashion
on the front of the boat, and suddenly, a Whale Shark is spotted by
|So . . .
the guide (there are two employees on the boat, a driver and a
guide) and I, ridiculously -- (what do I know about Whale Shark
spotting?) are positioned Russell-Crowe-Master-and-Commander-fashion
on the front of the boat, and suddenly, a Whale Shark is spotted
by our guide.
He communicates with the other boats, many of whom are
a long way off, perhaps multiple kilometers away. You can see only
the top part of some of the distant boats (due to the curvature of
the Earth, a phenomena ancient mariners noted long before the astronomers
and the Church observed and recognized it). All of the rigs rush to
the area. Several more Whale Sharks appear from the depths. We are
now implored by our guide to suit up (life vest, mask, fins, snorkel)
and jump in to actually swim with the great beast! Our boat and its
participants get to go first, since we initially spotted the great
The first adventurous couple eases in and approaches
the Whale Shark. Unlike the somewhat orchestrated public dolphin experiences,
these are wild fish in the middle of the ocean. They move very slowly
and methodically, but still, one slow "wag" of their tailfin
and they end up moving many meters away. Couple this with really low
visibility (due, I believe, to the the incredible richness of the
organic food content of the water), and it becomes really quite an
accomplishment to even see the Whale Sharks during the time in which
a person is swimming in the water with them. As we will discover,
if you're more than two meters away (from a 15-meter long animal!)
you can't even see him. The first couple swims over to the great fish
and attempts to swim with him, resulting in, I believe, only minimal
success. They reboard, and now Cheryl and I volunteer to go. We don
our equipment, and lean over the side of the boat, backs to the water.
We ease in, right over the Tiberon Balena. I look down, and there
is his huge, polka-dot spotted black-and-white body (the locals affectionately
call the fish "Dominoes") just below, maybe one meter distant.
I take a photo with my amphibious camera as he moves away. The behemoths
don't really enjoy this experience; I would say they tolerate it,
their gigantic bodies and enormously wide flat horizontal mouths open;
methodically plying the plankton-rich water. They would probably wish
we humans weren't there; the people a mere annoyance, the whole thing
somewhat akin to a person's relationship with an insect.
The shark swims below and past me. I kick vigorously to keep up (a
futile endeavor) but happen to end up very close to his stupendous,
entry-door-sized tailfin. I reach for a moment, thinking perhaps I
should grab a hold and ride, which was, I believe, very possible.
But just as he swims away, I remember the rules and back off. Cheryl
had a similar profound experience looking into the great fish's flat,
wide mouth from this very animal's other flank, although she and I
couldn't ever see each other. We attempt to follow the shark by kicking
wildly and by simultaneously locating him using the method of looking
above-water for his very visible dorsal fin, but he's too fast.
When we reboard the boat, the other 5 tourists are abuzz. They believe
I touched the shark's tail, and Cheryl begins to refer to me as a
"tail rider." After some time and another swimming experience
we go back to the modestly-sized beautiful Xaloc resort, viewing dolphins
along the way. The whole experience lasts at least 4 hours.
The next day we repeat the experience under even more
serene conditions. When we reach what appears to be a similar spot
literally dozens of the great fish are on the now percolating surface,
feeding. The placid sea is indeed "thick" with Whale Sharks.
This time we enthusiastically volunteer and have several swimming
experiences, one of which stands out.
As we are now familiar with the routine, Cheryl and I gear up and
are comfortable both just leaning over backwards, almost touching
the ocean with our heads. We now are "experts" (Ha!) and
know just when to enter the water. The boat approaches the Whale Shark.
I ease in directly over the beast, and admire his beautiful dorsal
fin, which I'm just behind. Looking back I notice his tailfin "coming
up" on me. If I swim forward, I may or may not get to his right
side, but I'll likely visibly lose him in the rich living broth. I
can't really swim backward. I decide to just wait, and sure enough,
seconds his huge tailfin is upon me. He "wags" it gently,
and I am touched and pushed aside like some tiny insignificant
in several seconds his huge tailfin is upon me. He
"wags" it gently, and I am touched and pushed aside like
some tiny insignificant bug. What an honor. And I don't think I broke
any rules, and further, I'm not aware that the Whale Sharks are required
to adhere to the rules.
[click image for larger view]
He touched me, or rather he slammed me. As I enter the
boat, Cheryl, who was aware of the whole incident, says to me, "Now
you really are the 'Tail Rider' (note caps)," referring in some
measure to the delightful coming-of-age film "Whale Rider."
Deco Bar, Captain Don's, Bonaire, Netherlands
Antilles, southern Caribbean Sea, March, 2008:
"Hey, are there any Whale Sharks around here?,"
an ill-informed but curious scuba diver asks.
"Well, a few years ago someone supposedly saw one off the coast
of Klein Bonaire, across the way," the chatty German photographer-in-residence
In the corner there is a middle-aged couple, listening to the mellow
live sounds of Moogie's "Bonaire Holiday" and sitting alone,
quietly sipping on cocktails-of-a-color-not-of-the-natural-world.
"Are you going to speak up, 'Tail Rider'," the woman asks?
"I don't think so," the man replies. "I'm not all that
sure the mythic Whale Shark even exists."
Copyright Willis Greiner, 2005. All