Astrolabe

A Fishy Story

This whale shark encounter has to be seen to be believed!

By Dr. Randel Davis ~ Photos By Jean-Francois Chabot

Tuesday, July 22, 2008: It was a day that started like any other. After a hard morning on Providenciales’ Northwest Reef looking for cannons from the US Navy Brig Chippewa (which we found!), Capt. Jean-François Chabot (“JF”) was taking Jack Crowe and me back to the liveaboard dive boat TC Explorer II, a few miles away. About halfway back in two hundred feet of water a dark shape appeared directly below us. Whatever it was, it dwarfed our puny 15-foot dingy. JF shouted “Whale! Everybody in!” Jack and I pulled on our snorkeling gear and rolled over the side.

A rare encounter with a whale shark off the coast of Providenciales

A rare encounter with a whale shark off the coast of Providenciales

I was the first one in and when I came up under the boat I encountered the largest animal I’ve ever seen, But it wasn’t a whale, it was a whale shark—the largest fish in the sea! It was massive, more like a submarine than a fish. Its head was six feet across. It must’ve been over thirty-five feet long with an eight foot tailfin and loads of remoras attached to its belly and tail, and it was coming directly at me! I back-peddled, but it kept swimming toward me as if to get a closer look. I knew that despite their size, whale sharks are not considered dangerous to humans, but I did not expect it to be so . . . pushy. Was it just curious or what?
By this time Jack and JF were in the water. I saw that JF had the presence of mind to bring his HD video camera. At one point he passed it over to Jack to shoot this amazing animal. When he did so, she (yes, the whale shark was a she) seemed to become even more curious. Now, instead of continuing to swim ahead so that we would have to chase her to get more footage, she came straight for Jack, mouth opening and closing right in front of him!
He was trying to get a shot of JF and I with her, but she was making it difficult by staying too close to the camera. He got nice footage of the inside of her throat, thinking the whole time “she’s going to swallow the camera.” He had to swim hard in reverse so as not to be sucked in with the water and the camera. Putting his hand on her lip (if whale sharks have lips) was the only way he could stay away from her five-foot wide mouth lined with ten or fifteen rows of small 3/16-inch teeth on both the upper and lower jaws. If she opened it all the way you could actually swim in and be Jonah for a day.
It was strange that she just kept swimming in a small area around us. Also, she never went deeper than about thirty feet, spending most of the time near the surface. At this point we were all questioning her behavior: was she sick and seeking help, or was she OK? We were amazed at her apparent curiosity about us and fascination with the video camera. When Jack passed it back to JF her attention turned to him. Definitely not camera shy!

Whale shark's open mouth

Whale shark’s open mouth

As we swam around her, the remoras, which ranged from three to six feet in length, would occasionally detach and reattach to her body, but most just stayed put. For all her size the shark moved smoothly through the water. Her tail would barely move but you had to swim hard to keep up. She had multiple white spots which seemed to shimmer as she swam. We learned later that they are unique to each whale shark. Her eyes were as big as baseballs, but didn’t seem to register when you looked right into them. Yet I know she knew we were there! It has been said that tiger sharks sometimes will swim in tandem with whale sharks, so we were looking below and around us while we swam.
There was one small problem though. No one was in the boat. As the boat drifted away, we took turns catching it and bringing it back to the fish. When it was Jack’s turn the whale shark decided to follow him and actually pinned him between the boat and her lower lip, “kissing” him so to speak. He later said she was gentle, but firm. He couldn’t push her so he pushed the tender away instead. As far as kissing goes, it was by far the biggest and wettest he ever had.
After about forty-five minutes of swimming with and filming this incredible creature we were pretty pooped, but didn’t want to end this once-in-a-lifetime encounter. JF went back to the dingy and tried to call the Explorer on the radio to give the rest of the team a chance to see our new pet, but was unable to make contact. We finally decided to head back to the Explorer and were delighted when the whale shark followed about thirty feet behind us, like a lost puppy unwilling to part company with her new friends. She did this for over a half a mile. We were starting to wonder what we were going to feed our new pet. Then, she was gone.
When we got back to the Explorer and told our tale the others were skeptical, to say the least . . . until JF put the video on the big screen TV so they could see it for themselves—our experience, captured in HD video. You can see it too, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AZt-RAgXHpQ.
Now, when I hear a fisherman bragging about hooking a twelve pound bass or even a three hundred fifty pound marlin, I just smile and say, “Now let me show you what I call a big fish!”



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