The whale shark at the end of the world

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Afloat - MATTHEW CROMP­TON

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.

GETTY IM­AGES

The whale shark is a gen­tle crea­ture and harm­less to hu­mans

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