The whale shark at the end of the world
IT is rounding into hour two and I am beginning to feel a little like Captain Ahab.
‘ ‘ Look for the dark shape beneath the surface,’’ our guide, Charlie, a diminutive Irish lass, shouts over the roar of the twin 85hp outboard engines. Squinting and sweating in the hot midday light, we peer like sun-blind mariners into the deep, and though the sea here is lovely — now cobalt, now turquoise — we have spotted nothing that looks even remotely like our quarry.
The waters off the town of Tofo, on the southern coast of Mozambique, are among the best places in the world to see, and to swim with, the colossal whale shark. At an average of 10m in length, they’re filter-feeders, gentle and slow and harmless to humans despite their metre-wide mouths.
And though something
this massive should not be hard to spot, we are experiencing considerable difficulty doing so.
The small boat, now stopped, is pitching in big swells and I am sunburned and beginning to feel nauseous.
‘ ‘ Would you say the whale shark is a reclusive creature?’’ I ask Charlie as she stands surveying the shallows from the bow. ‘‘Well, perhaps a bit shy of human contact?’’ I continue. ‘‘I mean, we don’t really know much about them . . .’’
She sneers at my needling and goes back to watching the sea. The German guy next to me is beginning to turn green.
Not that there isn’t a silver lining; as a location for heatstroke and seasickness, you could hardly choose a more beautiful setting.
We’ve motored far south of the town and the undeveloped African coastline here is stunning, with high khaki-coloured dunes rising behind a broad sweep of empty beach; only a lone fisherman in his short pants and floppy hat belies the feeling that this very well could be what Mozambicans call fin del mundo, or the end of the world.
Lovely or not, our time is almost up. There’s a real sense of disappointment as we turn back north. ‘‘Even the researchers at the marine institute here don’t really understand the behaviour of the whale shark,’’ Charlie apologises as we chop back across the waves, the town hoving into view around the rocky point. Suddenly, though, our skipper calls out and throttles the engines way back. There’s a dark shape just off the starboard bow, and we quickly come about to get ahead of it.
Swiftly donning mask and fins, we roll backwards over the gun- wale into the warm salt water, kicking through the waves just as the whale shark comes into view.
It’s a beautiful female, perhaps 8m long and distinctively spotted, swimming gracefully along the ocean floor just 5m below us, the slow, serpentine motion of her tail stirring up the sediment in a cloud around her body.
All of us are kicking as hard as we can to keep up, and I can feel the wash of pressure off the fins of others all around me. On we kick, tiring and slowly falling behind, for 30 seconds, 60 seconds, a minute and a half, and then the water deepens, the blueness becoming inscrutable and, just like that, the shark is gone.
When I surface, exhausted from the sprint, I pull off my mask and see that everyone is smiling in the sunlight.
‘‘Amazing,’’ one woman says. ‘‘Amazing,’’ others reply and the word choruses all around as we tread water over the deep.
The whale shark is a gentle creature and harmless to humans