Elephants of the ocean

Liberatus, a tall thin man who wears denim in thirty degree heat, moved to Mafia Island from Dar about twenty years ago to study whale sharks.  Since then, he has become the island’s enthusiastic expert: he works with a conservation group to tag the fish so that they can analyze population and migratory patterns, educates local fishermen about the importance of preserving current population levels, and runs trips for tourists who want a chance to swim with the sharks.

Shortly after booking a boat trip with Liberatus, he arrived at Mama Lizu’s with his laptop and a power point presentation.  The next hour was a lesson in the poetry of mathematics: whale sharks are the largest fish in the world and can range from 10 to 30 metres in length, their mouth is wide enough to swallow a human whole, spotting a whale shark in the Indian Ocean is as magnificent as spotting an elephant in the Serengeti.

Liberatus explained that approximately 100 whale sharks live off the coast of Mafia Island. On sunny days, whale sharks are drawn to the surface of the water where they can be spotted swimming and feeding.

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.


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5 responses to “Elephants of the ocean”

  1. Zoe G. says :

    Wow. Is there ever a dull moment in Dar? The whales are truly stunning.

  2. William Kelly says :

    That is fantastic, the memories you will have from your adventure there are incredible. The stories you will be able to pass on to your grand children (when that time arrives) will be awesome. Live life to the best of your abilities and treasure every moment.
    I think just being on the boat with that many people would have been excitement enough for me!!!
    Thank you so much for sharing your adventures.

  3. frenchimmersion says :

    If you were brave climbing Kilimanjaro, you have surpassed yourself! What a day out!

  4. Kim says :

    Im envious! I so love Whale Sharks 🙂

  5. bookmole says :

    What a shame there are no pics of you on the whale’s back! Sounds like it was fun, even if a little scary.

    I hate swimming with things in the water (seaweed, fish – you know, all the things that belong there!) so I would have been too frightened to do it AT ALL, so you win hands down for bravery from e!

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