swimming with a friendly monster

MANILA, Philippines Suddenly, literally out of the blue, the enormous mouth stretched across my entire field of vision, gliding silently towards me.

MANILA, Philippines

Suddenly, literally out of the blue, the enormous mouth stretched across my entire field of vision, gliding silently towards me.

I almost bit the mouthpiece off my snorkel. I’m certain I gasped out loud.

Polka dots. All I could see was polka dots. But wait … there’s something else. Those squiggles aren’t polka dots. Are the squiggles stuck onto the mouth?

No, they are moving. They are fish. The squiggles are small fish.

The mouth and the squiggles disappeared from view beneath me but the polka dots kept rolling past, as if painted on a canvas so wide I couldn’t see the far side.

I peered ahead, looking for the dorsal fin. Here it comes. It had taken me so long to gather my thoughts I’d have to swim like crazy to stay alongside the whale shark now.

Whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) are the largest fish in the world. Known locally as butanding, they can reach 18 metres in length and weigh up to 40 tonnes.

They can live to be 100 years old. Their blue-grey skin is patterned with white dots.

“That was just fantastic” chimed Miraflor, a Filipina university student from Manila. “Just incredible” agreed Roberto, a retired Italian chef.

Our BIO (Butanding Interaction Officer) pushed back his snorkeling mask and smiled broadly. It had been a good, long swim before the naturally timid shark headed for bottom, its tail disappearing into the deep water below. We bobbed around, excited, waiting for our boat to pick us up.

Whale sharks feed on plankton, krill, small fish and squid, so although their mouth can be up to two metres wide and is lined with thousands of tiny teeth, it is safe to be in the water with them — even if it elevates your heart rate considerably!

“Just pass your flippers up to me” called Sam, leaning over the side of the boat as it slowed down on its approach.

A young Filipino photographer keen to capture some ‘action’ shots, he had remained on board this time. The half-dozen of us who had opted to swim clambered up the short ladder in between surges from the waves.

The Swimming with Whale Sharks program, now in its 10th year in the Philippines, provides alternative employment and income opportunities for fishermen and local residents.

The program contributes much to protecting the butanding from illegal fishing and promoting conservation. Whale sharks frequent the area between December and May each year.

“There were quite a lot of cleaner fish with that shark.” Right, those moving squiggles: cleaner fish, of course! “That may be the biggest one we’ve seen yet.”

The boat cruised around the bay while the BIO and his spotter, perched above us on a bamboo pole running the length of the boat, keenly searched for the smooth, moving underwater shadows that would alert them to the presence of another whale shark.

Feigning nonchalance, masks and snorkels dangling and flippers scattered, the swimmers lounged around the deck, comparing notes and chattering away — yet all the while keeping one eye on the BIO.

In the blink of an eye, his relaxed composure switched to frantic. Lunging for his flippers, he gave the call everyone had been on edge to hear.

“Get ready!!”

This is the final installment of Nomad Journal. Following a short jaunt to Thailand, Catherine Millar will return to Whitehorse mid-April.

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