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Thursday, May 26, 2011

5/20 Whale sharks at Playa Santispac

We arrived at Playa Santispac in Bahia Concepcion yesterday after a 10hour rodeo ride. It started out calm as could be and we had our sails up in a light wind as we left San Juanico at 6am. The mild NW beam reach winds quickly turned into a northern and built throughout the day with winds reaching about 18kns. The winds were not the problem though. Once the northern settled onto our nose it was the steep short chop that made for a rough ride. Ten hours later we arrived worn out and bit jumbled but fared better than our friends on both Persistence and Serina. Persistence packed it in after about three hours and headed back to San Juanico and Serina (who got an extra hour of sleep but quickly left us in her dust) blew out the clew of their high tech jib. The day ended nicely with Ed and Connie from Serena helping us finish off the rest of the Chocolate clams from San Juanico. Oh and on our way in to Bahia Concepcion I picked up a VHF transmission saying that the whale sharks were in Playa Santispac. So while Bill hit the sheets by 8:15 I stayed up and got our underwater camera ready to go in case they returned. As my head hit the pillow I was thinking about the morning (snorkel gear, camera, charged battery, check!) and hoping they would reappear.

I rolled out of bed, turned on the tea pot and fled to the cockpit with my yogurt and the binoculars hoping I would be lucky. I had no more than taken a bite of yogurt when I saw a big tail cruise between us and Serena. No wonder they call them whale sharks. They are the size of whales but feed on the surface so their tail and dorsal fin cuts through the water like a shark. They have that familiar swishing movement of a shark too. Whispering at Bill as loudly as I could I nearly fell down the companionway in my excitement. As Bill scrambled on deck I was already grabbing flippers and masks and looking for my suit. It took us no time to get the dinghy down and the gear loaded and off we went in pursuit.

There is some controversy about swimming with the whale sharks. Some people feel that we shouldn’t bother them at all. If they swim by great, get a few photos and consider yourself lucky but don’t pursue them or get in the water with them. The other school of thought is that since the creatures seem to have no concern what so ever when humans are in the water or next to them in boats means its not harming them at all. I simply couldn’t pass the experience by. Since they are actually fish not whales their bodies are covered with a slippery slimy coating that acts as a protective barrier. Touching them can compromise that barrier so hands off. With my wet suit on and still trying to tuck my feet into my swim fins we motored the dinghy towards one of the two we were watching. In a moment I was pulling on my mask, slipping the camera over my head and sliding into the water with my heart pounding.

As I bobbed at the surface adjusting my gear and turning on my camera my mind began to run its own line of reasoning. I swam forward, then slowed down, then stopped. The water was very murky and I hadn’t really gotten a good look at him. Just how big is he? Will I see him coming or is the murk to thick? If one comes right towards me will I see him before he is on top of me? With adrenalin pumping, fear creeping in, body on alert and conversation with myself still rumbling in my head I moved forward -a little. How often do I get to be in the water next to a creature that is 15feet long? Should I put my head in the water and swim towards him? Or should I keep my head above water and try to keep my eyes on him? Then finally a deep breath through my snorkel I pushed through the adrenalin and slipped below the surface.

I thought he was in front of me moving towards shore but suddenly to my right out of the dark green he swims passed me only a few feet away. *&^%, by the time I had my camera raised all I could see was the last bit of spotted body and the great big tail. By this time Bill was in the water too and for the next fifteen minutes we swam around in circles trying to get close enough to them to photograph. The reason the whale sharks are here is because the water here is full of good stuff for them to eat. Unfortunately that means the clarity of the water is poor which doesn’t make for good underwater photography. I had one more decent pass by and clicked off a couple of pictures but we could tell the other people now around us were getting much better pictures from their dinghies than we were managing from the water so we climbed out and headed off to try and get some better shots.

The next thirty minutes was amazing. From the dinghy we had a much better view. We could see the shadow of their body even when they swam deep which made them easy to track and the amount of time they spent on the surface made it easy to get lots of good pictures. They seem to do most of their feeding on the surface with their huge heads half out of the water. They have the biggest mouth I have ever seen. They swim along the surface mouth agape scooping the huge amounts of water they need to filter out the tiny krill and plankton they need to survive. They truly don’t seem to be bothered at all by the human contact. Everyone was being thoughtful and careful around them and every outboard was carefully kicked down to neutral whenever the creatures came close. Over and over they surfaced right next to paddle boards and boats full of gawking cruisers. They stayed on the surface for amazingly long amounts of time swishing the water in and siphoning out their breakfast. No fear and no worry that we could see. One of them though must have tangled with a propeller or two in the past because his dorsal fin looked like it had been sliced into big thick strips. With that kind of injury you would think they would choose to stay away from humans but apparently not. Maybe much like Florida’s manatees their docile nature doesn’t serve them as well as it did eons ago when they began swimming the Sea. Happily for me though they simply keep on swimming and scooping. It was a heck of a way to start my day. Kat

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