January 23, 2012

Whale Sharks!!!!

Tonight is my last night in Utila and after ten days, I can safely say that this place is up in my top three favorites in the world, along with Karijini National Park in Australia and the Fjordlands of New Zealand.  There are no majestic water falls, nor any grand mountains or hot springs, but the ocean life I have encountered over the past several days has been amazing.  The water is clear turquoise and the coral is pristine, the fish are plentiful and the people are wonderful.

After I got over my cold, I completed my two free fun dives that came along with the course on Saturday.  My pressure equalization has been getting progressively better so I was able to descend with little of the ear pain that had been plaguing me in previous dives.  As soon as we got to depth, we spotted a sea turtle hanging out along the buoy line.  It had been my dream to see a sea turtle in the water for years.  I had been to several nesting sites in my travels but always in the wrong season.  There is something about seeing them move so effortlessly through the water that just gives me goosebumps.  The rest of the dive went well and we surfaced and went to the next site.  We followed along the side of a huge reef wall, spotting groupers and angelfish and the occasional spiny lobster or crab.  Then as we came over a ridge, ANOTHER sea turtle.  One of the dive masters told me that she never saw a turtle until her 46th dive- I was on my lucky 13th.

I took the next day off from diving and just relaxed on Jewel Cay.  My room overlooked the water and I could see the coral beneath the shallow water.  In the morning the sun rose directly outside my window.  On Sunday I decided I had had enough peace and quiet for a while and headed to the main island of Utila.  I went with a German couple I had been hanging out with to a presentation on whale sharks given by a biologist at the local research center.  Utila is the only place in the world where you have a chance to see them year-round, though only one had been spotted since October.  The research center allowed snorkelers to go out with their research boat for $50.  I put my name on the waiting list, but wasn’t sure if I should spend that much for the off-chance that they might see a whale shark that day.  In the end I decided to spend my money on a couple more dives instead, and it was probably one of the best decisions I have made on this trip.

This morning started out rough, as I had trouble getting to sleep and then had to meet the dive boat at 6:45am.  I grabbed a coffee and a cinnamon roll from Thomson’s Bakery (yum!) and then climbed aboard- and within 2 minutes half of my coffee was on my shirt when someone in front of me slung on their backpack and tipped the cup into my chest- I soon forgot about that, though;  as we rode out to the first site, we came across a pod of dolphins and the captain slowed down.  One of the dive masters shouted to get our fins and masks on because we were going in.  The boat was still moving as I leapt from the side and got a mouth full of salt water for my trouble.  I forgot about that in a moment, as a half dozen bottle-nose dolphins swam within 4 meters of my face.  They only stayed for a few minutes and then it was back to the boat to get to our dive site. 

After the dolphins, the dive seemed a bit underwhelming but it was interesting enough, with several small coral channels to navigate through.  On the way to the second site, more dolphins showed up, playing in the water along our bow wave. And then the captain spotted a large shape in the water.  Someone shouted that it was a whale shark and that we needed our mask and fins on NOW.  Geared up once again, the captain steered alongside the beast and I got into the water just in time to see is tail fin flicking into the blue.  We climbed back aboard and continued on.  Not five minutes later we found ANOTHER whale shark.  This time I was already sitting with my gear on and dove in like a flash.  Those 10 seconds were the most memorable of my life- I landed within 3 meters of the giant creature’s head.  He was at least 10m long and I am pretty sure I could have stood up in his mouth.  Whale sharks are filter feeders and don’t eat anything bigger than about 30cm, so there was no physical danger, but the shear enormity of the creature I was swimming beside was hard to fathom.  It still hasn’t really sunk in what I saw this morning and I think it will take me a couple days to really appreciate it. 

We, of course still had one more dive, and as we descended, I was still thinking of the whale shark when we came upon an eagle ray, about 1.5m wide and a moray eel further along.  The other dive group encountered more dolphins as well. Finally the diving was done for the day and the boat headed back.  The final cherry on top was the sea turtle we saw skimming the surface along side the boat on our way back to Utila.  The manager of the dive shop was on the boat today and told me that it was her best day on the water ever (she has over 100 dives in her log book). 

We all tipped the captain generously and my dive master, Lisa, said I was good luck.  In 4 dives and two snorkels I managed to see 3 sea turtles, 2 eels, a ray, and 2 whale sharks.  I can’t believe how lucky I am.  There are no words to explain how surreal and extraordinary the past 3 days have been.  I am leaving tomorrow for the mainland with not a single regret and an experience I will remember until I am a hundred years old.

Cheers.

-A.

P.S.  Speaking of age, HAPPY BIRTHDAY KRISTAN!!!!!  The whale sharks say hello! 

 

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About Amy D. Nelson

Wanderer, hack writer, aspirational hobo, part time aerial surveyor, geologist, forester and whatever else I can do to pay for a plane ticket. Is that sentence fragmental enough?

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