To see a whale shark has got to be one of the most incredible experiences of my life. And every time I see one I am filled with a range of emotions: Awe, excitement, wonder. These are definitely some of the most obvious ones. But there are some others that surface; respect, humility. I believe that being in the presence of whale sharks has allowed me to feel a little bit of the whale shark’s spirit, and for a long time I grappled with words to try to describe what I was feeling inside. They don’t have the skittishness of a mako shark, nor do they have the exuberance of dolphins or the sheer grandeur and power of the baleen whales, but there is something there when you look deep into their eyes. A kind of intelligence, maybe? A deeper understanding of the world? And as I swam with more of these incredible beings, I was able to understand and appreciate them even more. Their gentleness and the soft look in their eyes remind me of a meditative monk walking along a forest path. Soothed by the sounds of the forest, but undistracted by the monkeys moving in the trees above. Heavenly thoughts fill the monk’s being. But every so often he comes across a group of loud party-lovers. So, he diverts his path back to the tranquility of the deep forest. The whale sharks may not always show their speed or power but it is an incredible experience to see them drift by in their quiet meditation. Unfortunately, every so often, a group of loud party-lovers splash into the water and charge off towards our gentle giant forcing him to take refuge.
And so I try to tell as many people as possible about my two golden rules for swimming with whale sharks. The first is don’t splash. People only get into the water off the swim platform (never the sides of the boat) and slide into the water. When we are in the water, I ask people to try keeping their fins in the water, especially when swimming quickly. I have also noticed that if even one person in the group uses their arms to swim (free-style), the shark will be scared away. The second golden rule is that if the shark can see you, freeze! (even if it is 60ft away). This may not be intuitively obvious because people want to get as close to these awesome creatures as possible. My behavioral studies have shown that if people are in front of or alongside the shark and are moving, the shark is more likely to flee. Instead, what we do is if the shark is facing us or swimming by, we all bob in the water motionless (okay, you can breathe and press the camera shutter release). We emphasize the idea of everyone being calm and moving slowly in the water.
Now that we have learnt these simple lessons, our encounters with the whale sharks have become so much longer and infinitely more awe inspiring. I couldn’t even tell you how many times we have had nice, long, relaxed swims with whale sharks that came to investigate the strange group of [monkeys] in the water. Five minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes, anything is possible if everyone is calm, doesn’t splash, and remains motionless when the whale shark can see them. So these are some of the things that the quiet monks of the sea have taught me. It has been an honor and a privilege to have worked with them. And for all that which these incredible creatures give us, all that they ask for in return is respect, kindness, and tranquility. Let’s show them we can do it.