Follow the Fish
If I was a writer…
If I was a writer, with words would I scoop the hiss of Indian Ocean waves as they glide in and off the beach beyond the balcony. This Dhigurah Island sound is to preserve, to apply liberally later as memory, as mental balm to Dhaka’s car-horn vibrancy. The Maldivian sea is soul music. “I’m still here,” the island’s ocean breathes…
It doesn’t begin this way. A trip to the nation of a thousand islands starts with information overload, Dhaka-big. As recently as the 1970s the Maldives was one of the twenty poorest countries in the world. Now there are around a hundred extravagant resort islands to choose from. Since 2009 it’s been possible to visit inhabited islands too, which have guest houses and hotels to rival the resorts, save only for alcohol availability.
In advance of the waves I surf the net. A certain bucket list comes to mind. It’d be interesting to stay in a water villa built directly above the sea. It’d be fun to take a sea plane. It’d be quite an adventure to swim with the world’s largest fish, the whale shark.
Knowing that genuine cultural experience appeals more than any resort could, and with the third item on the bucket list in mind, I hone in on Dhigurah, a local island. South Ari Atoll, of which Dhigurah is a part, is about the most reliable place in the world to find a whale shark.
Are you insane?
Oddly, we test ideas on our friends. It’s as though in hearing ourselves say it, or by writing it, or by gleaning friends’ reactions, a first solid step towards making an idea believable has been achieved.
Whale sharks are the largest non-mammalian vertebrates in the world. The graceful giants grow to eighteen metres in length. They live for at least seventy years, and although scientists aren’t quite sure, possibly to the ripe old age of one-hundred-and-thirty. Curious creatures, whale sharks are prone to investigate divers and snorkelers. I don’t suppose I was entirely convinced. How much did I want to be the subject of a shark’s curiosity?
“Are you insane?” was the approximate, fearful reaction of the handful of friends with whom I shared the Youtube videos of whale shark encounters. “Don’t take emotional decisions when it’s a question of life and death!” one friend responded. It’s nice when people care.
I knew that whale sharks are filter feeders, that their enormous toothless mouths are disposed toward plankton. I knew that in South Ari swimming with whale sharks is an activity undertaken by tourists just about every day. All the same I wondered: How would I really feel jumping off a boat into the deep blue sea with a shadowy shark lurking nearby?
I checked such questions into the hold with my luggage. From the Maldivian capital of Malé I took a twenty minute tin-can plane ride, unfortunately an ordinary propeller type rather than a sea plane. This journey was followed by fifteen-minutes on a speedboat. As I finally stepped ashore at the island’s small port, where an open-backed motorised contraption waited to whisk me off to the nearby hotel, whale sharks were furthest from my mind. Indeed, if I had thought about them then I might’ve concluded that Dhigurah Island was about as close to a whale shark as I needed to be.
It probably won’t happen…
Dhigurah is ridiculously serene. It is so serene that I couldn’t find a way to let all that serenity in. One could do a weeklong meditation course and still feel stressed in comparison with that island.
Just 650 people live there, in a clean and quiet town towards the north end, a town of sand streets stretching the island’s entire three-hundred-metre breadth from east to west. There are swinging chairs suspended from trees. There are hammock-like public seats of knotted rope along the town’s roadsides. About everywhere the tropical sea sound calms.
Surprisingly there is terrestrial wildlife. Flying foxes circle the coconut and pandanus tops, birds of every measure perch, wade or flit through the undergrowth. About a hundred thousand sand crabs line the beach by daylight, not much scared of the humans. Dhigurah is an island with pockets of jungle to explore too, dark places that extend away to the south, where Dhigurah thins, ever thinner, until a final wisp of sand dissolves poetically into the sea. It’s hard to appreciate, but at a few kilometres long Dhigurah is a large landmass for the Maldives.
Was it the echoing bustle of Dhaka that prevented surrender? Was it the possibility of a looming whale shark? These were questions to be pondered from the balcony, so close to the beach that it’d not be entirely absurd to measure the distance in centimetres.
“Don’t worry much about your stuff,” a Bangladeshi hotel staff member told me. “There’s no crime here. If a phone gets lost they make a lost phone announcement over the island’s loudspeakers when somebody finds it.” Dhigurah didn’t allow any excuse, it seemed, for stress. To the contrary, it’s as though the island wanted to blurt out accusingly, over those same loudspeakers, to let everybody know: “He’s worried about the shark!”
YouTube says one has to be a strong swimmer to keep up with the fish. Please define strong. I hadn’t been snorkelling for more than ten years as I recall, not since Tobago. I knew that I knew how to swim but how good was I at it really? Would I remember just how to use a snorkel without flooding it with saltwater? Would I be remembered as that adventurous soul lost at sea while foolishly trying to have a chat with a shark?
There was also the question of the underwater camera. It was new, and it seemed so entirely odd to contemplate diving into water with an electronic device. As much as the shark concerned me, so did the possibility of technological humiliation, of reaching the boat again to find the camera destroyed, to have some onlooker flippantly comment the retrospectively obvious: “Oh, you forgot to attach the standard water-keeper-outer thing.”
The hotel’s manager was a Maldivian by the name of Ali. Despite running the tours he wasn’t pushy. “We haven’t seen a whale shark for the last ten days,” he counselled. “It happens so, maybe once a year. But every day we don’t see one is one day closer to finding them again.” Yes, of course! Whale sharks are wild animals. They swim vast distances across the ocean. I could book a tour not to meet one! If I went, I could just get lucky, either way.
Maybe I’m tired…
I had to meet the boat at nine-thirty. They were taking some German scuba divers out for a dive first, before swinging by the harbour to pick me up. I tried to think of reasonable reasons not to go. Maybe I can’t swim that deep. Maybe I should think seriously about the environmental impact of whale shark tours, since there is online talk that the endangered sharks don’t really enjoy flash mobs of snorkelers and divers turning up. Maybe this was a tropical island and I would be well within my rights to laze all day at the beach. Maybe I was tired.
And yet, that morning, I drove myself on. ”Okay, I’ll just have breakfast and then decide. Okay, I’ll just put on sunscreen and then decide. Okay, I’ll just pack up the underwater camera…” In this way I was soon waiting under the attractive Dhigurah welcome shelter beside the harbour, still deciding.
My next best hope was not to find the fish. As we powered off at speedboat speed following the island’s coast the weather was good, enjoyable. “It was a nice day even if we didn’t see a whale shark,” is what I would have hoped I would be saying, later. Unfortunately, when it comes to animals I have a history of being fortunate.
Not six months earlier I’d seen that nocturnal giant jumping rat in the one national park where it’s still found, in Madagascar. There was an Indian-origin couple from the States who hadn’t seen it. “He’ll be upset for days,” the wife said of the husband the next morning. There were the wild tigers too: two sightings from two attempts. In Sariskar National Park in Rajasthan decades ago another Indian couple had also missed out. They’d been camped in a camouflaged tree-house for a week, and when they heard that we’d seen a tiger on our first morning, the guy muttered under his breath “Westerners’ luck!”
Whale sharks too, it seems, favour me. Or at the least the one did. It only took half an hour. “Get ready!” the guide said excitedly. The crew-of-two became agitated. There was a rush of movement onboard.
Perhaps I don’t look like a strong swimmer. I’m not sure if the guide was imagining giving testimony at a subsequent coronial inquiry when he said, “Would you like to wear a life vest?” I shook my head instinctively, wondering if that was the correct response.
As I put on the flippers I realised that the most remarkable difference between me and the German divers wasn’t nationality. It was that they knew what they were doing. The boat pulled up, first on the scene, what luck! – and the divers stepped overboard one after the other, like Bolshoi ballerinas.
I moved to the edge. For the first time I saw a very big shadow of a fish in the ocean below. My last chance, my very last, would be to baulk and call the whole thing off. But there could be no pride in that.
How to make flippers reverse?
Splash! Okay, so the camera might be broken except it wasn’t. Okay, so I might’ve just kept sinking except I didn’t. To my delight even the snorkel hadn’t filled with water. There was no way back now, certainly no shoreline nearby. All that was left to do was to look underwater, and enjoy the pleasing sensation of the flippers. I’d forgotten how much easier it is to swim with flippers.
The shark was altogether too much to comprehend. There was the dark skin with the telltale white spots, a gigantic tail sidling almost robotically. The tail is the dangerous part, I remembered from Youtube. It can swipe, accidentally I suppose, with enough force to injure. The shark was close to the surface, as they often prefer. It was close to me and, on the slightly distressing side, heading closer!
Small baubles on either side of its giant square mouth, its eyes seemed firmly set on checking us out, not that one can really tell what a whale shark is thinking. “Come closer,” the guide gestured with his hand, under water. “They eat plankton,” I was telling myself. “I’m not plankton.” Still I was nervous. What if it somehow ran into me? What if I became the first person to die by the freak accident of being on the receiving end of a whale shark head-butt? I desperately tried to figure out how to make flippers go in reverse.
Of course it turned, and I wish it hadn’t turned, in a way. In fact, I don’t think I’d even considered what a whale shark encounter might be like. I guess I assumed the fish would be scared, that it’d be there only fleetingly, for just enough time to get an underwater photo if one was lucky.
Not so. Whale sharks can dive deep at any moment when they get sick of tourists. It even did so, for a short while. But then it returned; the encounter resumed. I swam and swam, no longer worried, in pursuit of the shark. The ocean’s blue was ethereal, the creature simply stunning in its limitless, borderless reality.
It wasn’t only fear that vanished. So did time. “Follow the fish! Follow the fish!” was chanting through my mind. No longer did I know where the boat was. I had no clue as to which direction we were headed. That fish might have been leading us well out to sea, to a rocky reef, into a dangerous current or even into a pod of orcas. Nothing mattered. I was lost entirely. I was entirely ecstatic. “Follow the fish! Follow the fish!”
I can’t say how long the encounter lasted. I meant to ask. My guess would be somewhere between ten and twenty minutes, because it was long enough for even stranger thoughts to claim me. For some reason a random bank manager image came to mind. People chase money. People chase fame. Here was I, at least for the immediate present chasing a fish. What was the merit in chasing a fish? Surely it wasn’t any more of an illogical activity than devoting one’s life to the pursuit of wealth or power?
Nothing to say
There were many other divers and snorkelers in the water by this stage. When a whale shark is spotted, all tourist boats rush in that direction. To the shark perhaps we were not more than larger versions of the remora fish that constantly ride by its side. But it was hard to avoid running into the plastic flippers or wetsuit-clad arms of other swimmers. It was easy to get momentarily lost in a white of human-made bubbles.
On the other hand, even then they didn’t exist. There was only ever the shark, floating somewhere outside time, beyond the reaches of the known world, and there was me.
I’m not sure how long I could’ve lasted in the ocean. I grew tired at perhaps the same time as the shark got bored with spectators. It finally descended, growing increasingly shadowy, to finally merge at some distant depth with the tranquil blue of nothingness. Finally I looked above the water.
To my surprise, the guide who I’d quite forgotten about was nearby. Perhaps he’d been watching me as intently as I had watched the shark. I might’ve been taken by how majestically the creature swam. He was probably on edge, prepared at any moment to launch a rescue bid for a foolish tourist.
He pointed out our boat among the many, which was good because I had little idea which one it was. It wasn’t so far, yet still I found some sort of new energy to swim there. I guess the only thing more embarrassing than drowning in the quest to meet a whale shark would be drowning after the whale shark has been met. One of the German divers had to tell me to take my flippers off before climbing the ladder back onto the boat. It was a useful suggestion. Soon enough we were all onboard, headed to a coral reef for general snorkelling and diving.
It’s strange but after such an extraordinary experience there was little to say. I did manage to ask the Germans if they’d met a whale shark before – some years earlier in the Galapagos Islands, they said. And I asked a crew member if the whale sharks were scared. “The ocean is their home,” he said. “They don’t feel fear. We humans feel the fear.”
Apart from these few words we rode on in silence. Inside was a bubble, a kind of thrill that lingered, that I knew would be impossible to express with words. If I was a writer, I might be tempted to call it a whale shark smile, a smile so self-confident, so fulfilling that it need not bother to present itself on the face. I’d really swum with a whale shark! Truly that was something which was done!
Time to complain
“You were really lucky,” Ali said that evening. “We had a group of twenty people who left yesterday. They stayed for more than a week. For five days they went out to search for whale sharks, but they never saw one, so they gave up. You found one on your first attempt!”
“Yes everything was fine,” I told him at checkout, two days later. “Yes you have activities. Yes, I like how you don’t foist them on the guests. It’s true you do that delightful and rare thing of accepting people as they are, such that they locate their own desired mark on the spectrum of activity. But the sound, you know, it’s hypnotic. The beach is too close! You hardly give reason to step out of the room!”