Elephants of the ocean
When Liberatus first moved to Mafia Island, he approached the lodges about offering whale shark viewings for tourists. Nobody was interested. At the time, the lodges wanted to focus on promoting the marine park and the coral reefs to tourists. Then one day, the story goes, a group of tourists spotted the whale sharks from the air as their plane approached the island. They instantly became fascinated, and the lodge they were staying at contacted Liberatus to see if he could take them out on his boat.
Liberatus now owns three boats and employs his nephews to lead tours. The animals are gentle vegetarians and it is possible to get out of the boat and swim with them. It is important, however, not to touch the whale sharks. They are large wild animals and, if startled, could unintentionally cause injuries with their powerful fins and tails.
Last Saturday morning was warm and sunny and we set out to sea in a small wooden boat. We were prepared for a long day, as Liberatus had warned us that it could take hours to locate the whale sharks. It took half an hour. Someone yelled shark and a large gaping mouth emerged from the water. We jumped in with the shark, joking about how counterintuitive this felt and humming the theme song to Jaws.
Up close, the whale shark’s skin is grey and white dots arranged into an intricate pattern that Liberatus explained is unique to each animal, like a fingerprint. The shark swam around us and under us, and we followed it as it moved around the boat.
I’m not sure how I lost sight of a 10-metre long shark, but somehow I did. And then, before I could move out of the way, it was swimming directly underneath me, and then surfacing, and then I was sitting on its back. Like that scene in Free Willy but much, much less graceful. I screamed, a sound that was stifled by my snorkelling gear and came out sounding like a strangled sigh. I considered whether I should crawl to the side of the animal’s back and try to jump off. If I moved around on its back, would that make it more or less angry? The shark retreated back underwater and I swam quickly towards the boat, where Liberatus’ nephews were laughing at me.
Later, back at Mama Lizu’s, we decided that Liberatus was right. The whale shark is not beautiful, with its wide lips, tiny eyes, and ungainly body. But it does possess a certain grace. And spotting one in the Indian Ocean is kind of like spotting an elephant in the Serengeti.