Thursday, July 24, 2008

Shark Eye for the Dive Guy

This was originally published as a trip report for Tom's Dive and Swim in Austin, TX. If you happen to be a scuba diver in that area, they're a great bunch of people and the Flower Gardens is a great place to dive.

This account is loosely based on a real encounter on October 11, 2003.  Unlike most fish tales, however, the size of the fish is about the only thing that hasn't been exaggerated.

" Whale shark."  With those words, the dive master had our attention. 

We were far out to sea in the Gulf of Mexico , moored over Stetson Bank in the Texas Flower Gardens National Marine Sanctuary aboard the MV Fling.  The Fling, like her sister ship the Spree , has a fairly rigid set of rules for dive schedules.  Passengers must take at least a 2 ½ hour surface interval between dives.  During those times the boat crew does its diving while the passengers kill time mostly by eating snacks. We were two hours into our latest surface interval and the dive master had just climbed out of the water.  Naturally, we were eager to hear about a big fish.  

"Definitely a whale shark.  Just my luck, though, I was finishing my safety stop and low on gas when I saw him.  He's probably still there just below the surface, circling the ship.  You might be able to see him from up here.  I last saw him off the port stern."  With those words, the dive master lost our attention.

Naturally, we weren't really that eager to hear about a big fish.   What we really wanted to do was see it.

Upon hearing that we might actually be able to catch a glimpse of Moby Jaws "off the port stern", the 15 or so passengers who had heard seemed to meld together as a single being with one collective train of thought.  For a critical few seconds, we were lost in reverie.  No, not reverie about what seeing a whale shark would be like or what it might mean or how it would affect us. 

Instead, we were lost in the deep reverie it takes to figure out what "port stern" means.  From time immemorial, boat crews have used a special naval jargon designed to bewilder and perplex passengers.  This is so we aren't tempted to mess with things we clearly don't understand and do something dumb like pull out the drain plug at the bottom of the boat.  After staring blankly around for a moment, we finally seemed to agree that "port stern meant "left rear."  With that enlightened revelation, we moved together as one mass to the rail to begin to watch.   And watch.   And watch.

It's amazing how much one patch of ocean looks pretty much like the next patch.

Fickle tourists that we were, our collective mind began to fragment.  Bored, some wandered off to eat another snack while others began bragging about past encounters with large marine animals.  The few that did keep watching would occasionally announce "there it is," whereupon the rest of us would look where they pointed.   Invariably, "it" was only there if you considered "it" to mean "random patch of unremarkable ocean."

It's amazing how much one patch of ocean looks pretty much like the next patch.

A few dedicated souls continued their watch.  I have to admit, that at this point, I was not one of the ones so dedicated.  Our surface interval time was winding down and I had begun contemplating the cold shock of putting on a wet wetsuit.  There was an internal debate raging in my head over whether or not to let the suit dry for maybe just a little longer.

The debate was rudely cut off by shouts.  "There it is!"  "Look at that!" "Hey, I dropped my snack!"   The noise was so compelling that I had to look.

It's amazing how much different a patch of ocean with a 25 foot monster looks.

Clearly visible just below the surface was the outline of something quite large, moving quite slowly.  My brain snapped into focus.  Without taking my eyes away I said to my dive buddy, "10 minutes 'til we jump, quit gawking and start gearing."  Brian seemed impressed by my quick and commanding decision making.  A minute later Brian seemed much less impressed by the fact that I was definitely still gawking and definitely not gearing.

His look of patient disgust motivated me to follow my own advice.  Within 10 minutes, he and I had put on wet suit, weights, boots, mask, fins, BC, tank, and regulator.  At least we hoped we had put it all on.  Otherwise this was going to be a very short dive.

We both splashed into the water in quick succession and, after a brief debate on the surface, we remembered where "port stern" was.    Knowing that the beast was staying shallow, we dropped to 25 feet and swam to the back of the boat to hang from a line and hope.  Visibility was probably no better than about 50 feet, so he'd have to be pretty close for us to see him.  We waited.

It's amazing how much one patch of...

Out of the gloom, a large shadow appeared.  The shadow slowly resolved in shape and form.  Then the shadow became the largest shark I'd ever seen. 

My heart beat faster.  Sure, I knew that whale sharks are in many ways more like the former than the later.  Unlike their sharp toothed brothers, whale sharks feed by filtering the water for plankton and other tiny prey.  I knew all that.

But this was one big krill swilling machine.  He was big enough that an accidental bump would be like an accidental bump from a large dump truck - a large dump truck with a mouth the size of a Volkswagen. 

Still, Brian and I were determined.  So we quickly squashed down our near-pathological fear of dump trucks and swam towards the magnificent creature.

The whale shark swam over our heads, several remoras visible under each pectoral fin.  We rose a little in the water to be about on his level.  With one flick of his tail he turned in a circle, aiming one eye toward us.

As the immense being circled within 7 feet of us, I had a rare opportunity to philosophize.  Henry David Thoreau would surely have contemplated our deep connection to nature.  Buddha would have seen it as an object lesson in our hubris at assuming ourselves to be the focal point of creation. Confucius would have written of the harmony of the remoras holding their rightful place under the powerful shark, each contributing to a greater good. 

To this list of notables add that James Iry managed to think "wow" followed by "oh wow."

Curious, the shark continued to circle and watch, keeping one eye on the two noisy, ugly, awkward fish that had come to interfere with his grazing.  He barely seemed to twitch a muscle, but continued moving around us, watching to see what we did.  Brian and I spun slowly, fascinated by this creature that was so fascinated by us.

Finally, after 3 or 4 orbits, bored with his playthings and no-doubt hungry for more edible fare, the whale shark straightened out and swam away with the purposeful slowness that only the massive and powerful can have. 

Brian and I watched him go.  The shark faded off into the blue gloom and after a moment we realized we were alone again.  The spell broken, I shook myself back to reality and formulated another thought worthy of future ages: "where heck is the boat?"


Germán said...

Amazing :)

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