It was time to complete my beginner’s Open Water Diving Course this morning with the final two dives. After that, I would be a qualified diver with a licence to prove it. Super. The rest of my small class had assembled early in the morning, and by the time I arrived, the others had already assembled most of their gear. I quickly gathered my stuff and together the five of us boarded the boat with a mixture of trepidation and enthusiasm. We would go out as shivering novices and come back as fully qualified divers. At least, that was the plan.
The boat was crammed with divers that morning which didn’t help as I nervously toyed with my tank. Morna, our Scottish diving instructor, shouted some last-minute instructions at us, which was quite difficult given the loud engine noise from below and the captain’s hip-hop blaring over the cabin’s loudspeakers. The waves were also rough that morning, and I was glad that I had skipped breakfast; otherwise, it would have gone over the side right then.
Cookie, the hip-hop-fanatic captain, guided the boat out of the bay and around the island to a nearby reef. After letting all the experienced divers out first, and a double round of extensive equipment checks, to make sure we could perform the routines without additional help, our team of about-to-be-qualified-divers jumped into the water, fitted the breathing apparatus to our faces and slowly descended into the deep blue water. Morna led the way, constantly looking over her shoulder, and the four of us followed closely like little ducklings. Not that ducklings are stupid enough to go down this deep.
I concentrated on keeping my buoyancy neutral, my breathing steady, and generally tried not to look like useless underwater prat as I continued to descend. Today’s round of diving, that would conclude our diving course, was aimed at practising the basic skills of not dying underwater and so we spent the next half an hour doing exactly that. Then we returned to the boat for a half time break, and then back into the water for a second round of not dying underwater.
I more or less got the hang of not looking like an floating twit by the end of the second dive of the day, at the end of which we were all officially qualified as Open Water divers. We could now dive at leisure down to a depth of eighteen metres in any certified diving shop around the globe and could even join in the diving stories at the bar. Rejoice!
We returned to the boat, exhausted, but very happy we had finally managed to finish the course. We untangled ourselves from our equipment, high-fived all the people on the boat, bowed to a few rounds of applause, and sat around with big grins on our faces.
Meanwhile, the boat steered sharply away from the coast, and, unbeknownst to us, the captain now set about the task of looking for boils. Cookie, his eyes strained as he scanned the horizon for some indication of what he was looking for, leant heavily on the wheel as he told me about what he was looking for.
‘Ey,desnappergroupingindeseasodetunacome, man,’ shouted Cookie above the engine noise and hip-hop. ‘Ay, yogaddalukfurfdegullsnshit, broder.’
‘Er, what was that Cookie?’ I replied, not being entirely sure that he was speaking English, or even with me for that matter.
‘Yo deaf sonny?’ replied Cookie. So, he was speaking to me in English. ‘Look for de seagulls, man, that way we find the tuna, dig it, broder? We lookin for dem boils,’ he said.
I understood the bit about looking for seagulls to identify that there was an increase in fishiocity in a particular area, possibly some tuna feeding on large number of freshly laid snapper eggs or something, but why were we going to boil them? Maybe the fish had boils on them? It was all very confusing, but I got the meaning of the word a few minutes later when, excited shouts from the other divers indicated they had found something.
They don’t call it a “boil” for nothing, and as we approached the area everyone was frantically pointing at, I could see why. The horizon was bubbling fiercely, a sight caused by thousands and thousands of tuna lunging and flollopping near the water’s surface to get at the krill busy feeding on the spawning snapper eggs. Got all that? Us looking at tuna eating krill eating snapper eggs. Easy.
So what were we doing here? Simple; Whale Sharks also eat krill eating snapper eggs, and we wanted to look at them, too.
Cookie continued to look intently into the surrounding waters and a couple of the dive masters helped by climbing on the roof of the boat and scouting the area from there. Before I knew what was going on, the rest of us were rushed to the back of the boat and quietly told to put on our snorkels and fins. On the dive master’s signal, we were to silently slipped from the back of the boat into the water. I eased myself into the water and started to swim. My mask was dirty and fogged and I used the usual diver’s trick of spitting into it, rinsing it out and put it back on. I looked down.
My eyes nearly popped out of their sockets, as there was a gigantic whale shark directly beneath me. It was looking straight at me. It was going to eat me alive and use my snorkel as a toothpick. Time ceased to function normally as I hovered near the massive creature, stunned into a state of frightened paralysis as I bobbed up and down stupidly. I tried to comprehend the sheer size of the fish I was looking at. Or was that mammal? Fish. Big fish.
The term “Whale Shark” seems fairly harmless and arbitrary until you are actually snorkelling a few metres from one. The term incorporates both the concepts of “Shark”, which instantly brings forth images of Spielberg’s “Jaws” movies, and “Whale” the largest species of which can reach a length of 35 meters and weigh more than a Panzer. Put the words next to each other and you get something which means “Enormous and Fucking Scary”, and I contemplated this fact as I doggie-paddled quietly above it, too mesmerised by its sheer size and incapacitated with pure terror to do much apart from gawking at it. I decided to relax a bit and only be mildly terrified about the fact that I was swimming next to a humungous fish that could easily crush me like a grape.
This was the sort of being you would definitely not want to share a living room with. The whale shark was about eight metres long, and several metres wide, its grey skin decorated with large white spots in regularly spaced intervals. I had to admit it was a thing of beauty and I quickly realised how privileged I was that I could look at it in its natural habitat. It seemed I wasn’t going to be eaten after all, and I figured that if the thing had had any carnivorous urges in my general direction, it would have acted upon them by now. I’d be fish food already. The encounter which seemed to last for a few minutes, but which was in fact only a few seconds, came to end as the whale shark moved its tail in a single, graceful motion and slowly moved away in a very casual manner.
I was still too petrified to swim after the shark, so I scrambled back to the boat in time for Captain Cookie to swing her quickly around to the other side of the boil and drop the other divers back into the water for another gawk. I stayed and watched the action from above and revelled in the fact I had just had a close encounter with a gigantic shark . . . and lived.