Monday, March 17, 2014

Run Over By A Whale Shark

What seems like an eternity ago, I took the opportunity to swim with gentle giants in Oslob, Philippines. My only information on the area came via an e-mail from a city sponsored website which had replied to my question of, "What are my lodging choices and how much to swim with these beasts?" with, "There are no hotels just come and you will find someplace to stay." There were low prices listed, which sounded too good to be true, and it turns out they were. So I decided to stay in Cebu, which is on the way to Oslob, because, I thought, Riding a bus is easy.

However, riding a bus in the Philippines is NOT easy, it is an adventure in itself. The streets are crowded, the traffic is measured by inches, and the only traffic law is that you use your horn to communicate via SOS signals.

Oslob is only about 70 miles from Cebu, but in Filipino time, that equals four hours of creeping, bumper-to-bumper traffic, and roads in desperate need of repair. The bus dropped us in front of a stretch of road where various former-fishermen-turned-tourist-guides advertised their services with big colored flags.

It was noon when I arrived at Oslob for my swim with the Gentle Giants and I was informed that swimming with the giants ended at 12 pm - I had just missed it. Frustrated and quickly finding that extra money would not buy me the happiness I demanded, I settled into a room at a house near the diving guides. The room was amazing and I wish I had cancelled my room in Cebu, so I could have stayed for a few days. The entire house was made from a red hardwood, which looked like mahogany and I have never been in a place that clean before. The owner was from America and had lived in this poor, quiet area for about 30 years. He was also a boat builder and I had the pleasure of seeing his latest sail boat skeleton. The owner talked my ear off, as he missed American company. He explained the only Americans he saw were the occasional backpackers who stayed with him.

That night it rained hard, and it was my first experience with a tropical storm. The sound of the rain was absolutely deafening, and as I tried to sleep, I wondered if it would ever stop, or if my dream of swimming with the giants would ever come true. By morning the rain had stopped, but water still dripped from the palm trees into puddles below which reflected the rising sun in their ripples.

I had to attend a small briefing on how to properly swim with the giants. With the smell of the clean morning damp air deep in my nostrils, I found it difficult to make it through even the short lecture as my mind raced about the experience to come.

We boarded a catamaran fishing/tour boat, which is operated by someone at either end, one of whom was a child of maybe twelve. He paddled away, and with his determination in hand, he would push forth as hard as any adult. The other operator was yet another kid of maybe 16.

The water pushed lightly under our bow as the air skipped gently off the turquoise-blue water. My first sight of the giants was a fin sticking up slightly out of the water and a giant mouth poking up ever so slightly as it followed a "trick boat". The trick boat is responsible for feeding the animals, to ensure we would have a show.

I was struggling with the new snorkel and mask I had just purchased. The normally easy task of peeling off stickers and attaching my snorkel made nearly impossible by hands shaking with excitement.

Finally we stopped and I slipped into the water. Looking through the clear water, I still somehow struggled to see about 30 feet. Then it happened!

The first beast was following the feed boat. Its body seemed never ending as it drifted past me. Camera in hand, I struggled to remember which button did what. The fact it was a new camera didn't help, but really, it was only a matter of pushing buttons, yet I still struggled keep my head straight.

I tapped into my instincts, and finally found the shutter button to take my first picture of the giant streaming by. My concentration was so deep, at the last second I saw a giant mouth open wide to filter its food. Now, let me just say, the knowledge of these giants not attacking people does not help steady the mind when a mouth that looked more like a cave is coming straight at you propelled by a 30-foot body. The theme song to Jaws played ever so quietly in my head.

We had a half an hour with the animals and it seemed like all day. As I swam about, and darted under tour boats, with their laughing passengers, I was having a blast.

Finally, I came to rest at my boat, chatting with my guides, a gentle giant swam to me, his mouth open at the surface, I struggled to get out of the water. The guides started yelling not to panic and stay in the water. However, their quivering voices were less than reassuring. What should I do? Its body was closing in and actually broke the surface as the water rose and tried to reclaim it. I lifted my legs and said a prayer to Poseidon as the beast got closer and closer. Keeping my body up and holding my breath, it traveled just barely below me. I finally exhaled.

I wondered if this was a game to it? How did it perceive me? Was I just a giant shrimp? I let go of the boat and followed the beast for awhile. It swam slowly and it was easy to keep close, only slightly losing the speed race. Another came at me, getting far too close, again.

Our instructors told us not to touch the animals. I really had no desire. I was worried about getting hit by its rear fin; I cannot imagine the force and energy that carried. I decided they were being a bit to aggressive for my liking and I headed back to the boat. I wasn't planning on being the first human attacked by a whale shark.

I got back to the boat, and relaxed by hanging off the side of a boat. Yet, another shark would come at me, again my guides yelled at me to stay calm and to not touch it. Yeah right! There it was by me, I lifted my feet high again, only to have its dorsal fin slam me into the boat. It was hard enough to leave nice cuts up my leg and arm. I had officially been run over by a 30-foot beast weighing 20 tons. I had enough and happily crawled into the boat.

What a day! I got to swim with one of the largest creatures in the sea and having battle scars to prove it. Scratch one more off the Bucket List, but then add more; heading to another island to swim with the thresher shark. One thing I love about the Philippines, it seems to somehow make each dream come true.

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