Mahe, Seychelles Chasing the World's Biggest Fish

When a whale shark is spotted, it’s like an alarm call in a firehouse. Everyone jumps. The engine stops. The deck starts thumping. Tony and Gerard get the gear ready, Ian and Winfield pull the line on the Zodiac, and Captain Francis keeps his eye on the shark from the bridge. Jean Claude, the deckhand, scrambles around for anything that needs doing. Somewhere in the belly of the ship, Nelson quietly chops onions and Antonia folds fresh towels for when we get back.

The only passengers are me and Carlo, an utterly joyless building contractor from Luxemburg. I remain stumped at how a man so devoid of wonder could have enrolled himself on such an expedition. He has all the finest equipment and is prompt for every dive, yet he exudes the kind of enthusiasm you’d expect from a town deputy ordered to clean up road kill.

I race down to my cabin, toss my glasses on the bed, strip down to my wet suit-friendly lycra shorts, and inelegantly cram my camera into its housing. When I reach the dive deck, Carlo and Tony, our Seychellois dive master, are already wearing their wet suits and waiting for Ian to steer the Zodiac to the side of the ship. I try to catch up, but pulling a full wet suit on in a hurry takes experience and finesse that I don’t have. Half-ready, I awkwardly toss my mask, fins, booties, and camera into the Zodiac and we push off.

We sputter around for twenty minutes looking for the shark. Calls go back and forth on the radio between Ian and Captain Francis, looking out over the horizon. They finally spot it. Ian turns the Zodiac to face the shark, revs the engine to push us forward, then shuts it off and we drift. Tony points at the waves until I can see an imperceptibly greener shade of blue under the surface.

"Which way is it moving?" I get no answer, then realize I don’t actually care. Just a little nervous that there’s nothing left to do — no procedure for this. You get close and you jump in — backwards.

There are no tanks involved because they don’t like bubbles, so it’s just fins and mask. I wait for Tony to go in first and then push off with my feet, waving goodbye to Ian.

There are a few seconds of bubbles and disorientation with backward entry. You right yourself, adjust your mask, and see what’s in front of you. In this case it’s a 5 meter whale shark — a baby. Still, my heart pounds and I have to catch my breath through the snorkel. If the thing had teeth, it would be the most terrifying image I’ve ever seen. Pretty soon its too much. I stick my head up and take some deep breaths. I see Ian and Jean Claude on the Zodiac and all I can think to shout is "Big!" They laugh.

I can’t stay up long with something like that underneath me, so I duck down to get another look. It’s impossibly huge — more than twice my length from head to tail. I lift my camera up to start shooting. It doesnt turn on. And then I notice the water line swaying back and forth inside the housing. In the rush, I didn’t close the seal properly and the camera has flooded.

Shit.

I swim back to the Zodiac and the camera over. They get it out quickly and start drying it off. I can tell they’ve had to do this before. It’s clearly in better hands with them than me, and I’m missing out on what I came here to see, so I leave the dinghy and shelve my worries for a later time.

I’ve calmed down a bit by this point and I swim up on top of the thing, watching it slowly glide through the water with its mouth slightly open, catching whatever drifts in. The locals call whale sharks sangren, a Creole spelling of the French word meaning "sad," or "sanguine." The name is surprisingly profound, and understandable when you see it firsthand. This languid, toothless leviathan has no agenda. It’s not a hunter and it cannot defend itself. Its size is a deterrent and nothing more.

The urge to reach out and grab it is irresistible — a strange phenomenon that everyone I ask sheepishly confesses to. You’re not supposed to touch them, but touch is so important; maybe to make sure it’s real. Anyway, I can’t quite reach, and it must know I tried, cause it dives. We follow until it disappears into the blue, then crawl back in the boat.

"Was that your first time?" I’m surprised Tony has to ask, as if it wasn’t obvious from my face. He reaches his hand out to shake. "Welcome to the club."

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Tony is a sweet guy and I like him a lot. He’s 24, from the island of Praslin. He’s never left the Seychelles. His dream is to dive in Aldabra, an atoll a thousand miles southwest of here, toward Madagascar and the African coast. It’s uninhabited but for 150,000 giant tortoises, a legendary paradise among serious divers, and one of the most remote places on earth.

His dream will come true next spring when Peter and Maureen, the Swiss owners of the ship, take a group out there.

I say Swiss, but Maureen is actually from my home state of Connecticut. She was an architect in the states, lived in Egypt during the failed coup attempt in the eighties, and later moved to Switzerland, where she married her second husband, Peter. They purchased the Indian Ocean Explorer a few years ago for their impending retirement and are down now on one of their semi-annual trips.

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The ship itself is already enjoying its retirement. An oceanographic research vessel built in Hamburg and used in the North Sea, it can take a lot more abuse than this region will likely throw at it. At fifty years, it still has its original engine — that’s German engineering for ya. They refitted the hull with seven spacious wooden cabins; each includes a full bathroom and a nifty porthole, and conveniently matches my laptop.

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The dive deck was modified for commercial use, and the crane was moved to the third floor sun deck, where it holds two dinghies for trips to shore, dive sites, and for our current purpose of chasing whale sharks.

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We stay out on the Zodiac and wait for Captain Franc is to call in anothe r spotting. How he does it is beyond me. There’s no equipment involved. He has a pair of binoculars that I’ve never seen him use.

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Captain Francis came with the ship from its previous owners. He assembled the crew from local islanders, some of them distant family members, others fishermen he knew. Before this job, he worked on cargo ships and traveled the world. He lived in France for a few years and liked it there, but his home is the Seychelles.

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The radio screeches and Captain Francis says something in Creole. We see him pointing. The Zodiac springs forward so fast I have to grab the side rope to keep from falling out. A minute later we’re on top of another whale shark and it’s clear even from the surface this one is bigger.

In the water, my mind tells me it’s a special effect. The hydraulic pumps are hidden. The Universal Studios tour guide will chime in momentarily with some cornball scripted line about the ride malfunctioning and our tram being stuck on the bridge. But no, this thing is bigger than Jaws. Maybe not the one from Jaws 3D, but definitely the first two. It has a huge scar across its back, which we later speculate to be from a propeller, and a chunk missing from its right pectoral fin. Tony says another shark must have bitten it off.

"Well…that’s reassuring."

Carlo starts taking pictures. His camera stopped working at the same time mine did, but from a less serious error. He put it in its housing wrong, but the seal held, and the only consequence was an almost drained battery from not being able to turn it off. He has enough juice left to take a few shots.

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I get close to the beast and it doesn’t seem to mind. It even loops around to take a head-on look. Finally, I feel confident enough to lightly grab its tail. The thing sweeps away from me and I’m stunned to see something so big move so fast. Then I realize the tail is coming back with enough force to knock me out. I get out of the way. Punitively, the shark dives out of sight and I assume it’s time to get back on the Zodiac. But Tony keeps an eye on it and soon it’s back on the surface. I follow along next to it, this time at more of a distance, but sporadically diving down to get slightly underneath. We stare at each other for a while. At one point it rolls on its side to get a better angle. Eventually it gets bored and dives down, then back up again. Watching it emerge out of the abyss gives me chills.

This thing I’m looking at closely resembles the terror from the deep that haunts me every time I get in a swimming pool. In a clear, empty body of water, it’s part of the imagined unknown. But here it is right in front of me and the fear is a dull whisper. Funny how that works.

Before all this, we started the day with a morning dive that featured a lobster, a white tip, a couple eagle rays, and a misanthropic octopus. I got some good video of the octopus sidling away along a wall, but I was generally bored by the experience. After 60 dives, watching fish hide under rocks doesn’t do much for me anymore.

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After the dive, Peter and Maureen headed to shore. They’re main purpose here is to do accounting for the ship, and the papers they needed were back on the island. They were gone for the rest of the day, leaving us to search for the elusive whale shark on our own.

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For a couple hours everything was quiet, except for me wandering around pestering the crew with questions. "Do they get close to shore? Do they mind heavy current? Are birds on the surface a good sign? Does the engine scare them away?"

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The crew is polite and tolerant, but a little frustrated not to find anything. The previous week had only one spotting, and by the time they got out on the Zodiac, it was gone. The week before that, they saw three, but again no close encounters. And for the rest of the year, there is nothing. When you consider that this is one of the few places in the world where whale sharks can be reliably spotted, and that we are the only ship in the region bothering to look, it puts into p erspective how rare an experience it is to be in the water with the world’s largest fish for even a minute.

Interesting piece of trivia: there has never been a single documented sighting of whale shark mating.

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Captain Francis gets a call from a micro-light spotter plane flying over the island. They just saw nine off the southern tip, two hours away. Nine! He tells us to take lunch and wait for word.

The food onboard is fantastic. Nelson, the ship’s cook, spent years working on various cruise ships, learning from the different head chefs. He specializes in French and Creole cuisine. Food seems to be his only interest in life. The rest of the crew spends a lot of time loafing around and socializing. I’ve never seen Nelson speak and he’s only very rarely outside the kitchen, always to pull more ingredients from the hold.

I came here thinking I’d be tagging sharks to help get an estimate of their numbers. That turned out to be bogus. Peter says they tried it a few years ago, but whale sharks like being tagged about as much as I like a needle in my arm — a similar procedure, except the shark gets a puncture wound the size of a golf ball. So the problem is the sharks swim away immediately after days looking for them, not to mention the dangers of handing an inexperienced diver what is essentially a harpoon gun. And in my own speculation, a poorly executed tagging could easily result in a walloping tail thwack.

To sour things even further, the whole global operation of whale shark tagging seems to be somewhat of a boondoggle. A muddled agenda, staffed with the wrong people, and half-assed from the outset, its unlikely to produce any definite conclusions, and far less likely to persuade impoverished third world villagers to abandon a practice that puts money in their pockets and food on their table when nothing else will. If whale sharks survive, it will be their own reclusive ways that save them and not the benevolent research funding of the World Bank.

In the afternoon, we head to shore and pick up Marc, a French freelance journalist working on several potential whale shark pieces for newspapers, magazines, and television. He is immediately charming in that "freelance journalist" sort of way. Nothing is made absolutely clear, but he’s been on the island for three weeks and he seems to be sneaking around trying to get at the sharks from any angle he can. He was on the micro-light in the morning and called in the nine sightings. Now he wants to get close.

Meanwhile, I’m exhausted from the sun and increasingly mournful over my camera. Winfield, the chief engineer, and his assistant Gerard, have been drying it with a towel and blowing the remaining moisture off with an air hose attached to an open dive tank. A noble effort, but it’s still broken. I get off the Zodiac to see what I can do. Moments later, Captain Francis spots another shark, but I can see from the bridge it’s not even the size of the baby we saw in the morning.

Gerard loans me a mini-screwdriver set and a cloth. Having bought the camera in Singapore sixteen months ago, I doubt I could get it replaced. The coffin is sealed by a warranty that doesn’t cover dive accidents. Were there anyone on the continent of Africa who could repair it, and I doubt there is, the cost would be greater than if I just bought a new one. Bearing these things in mind, I take to disassembling the camera on the dining table.

It’s fun and sort of cathartic. At a point, I’m not trying to repair it so much as I’m performing an autopsy. The moisture is indeed everywhere. I dry the big, juicy morsels, but there are some parts I can’t get at without a lobster shell cracker. I carefully put the screws back in so that I once again have a presentably busted camera.

Later on, the loss gives me a sense of relief. It’s like the accident was a small earthquake that relieved seismic tension, preventing something worse. Neither I nor anyone else is hurt, and there are so many things that could happen. Swimming with sharks is the last thing to be concerned about. Moving quickly about a heavily swaying steel ship and my own lurching stupidity are much greater dangers.

The Zodiac returns and the passengers are disappointed. The baby they chased swam away and a subsequent sighting was not in the mood to stick around. Marc didn’t get any useable footage on his several very expensive cameras. We sit down in the lounge and talk. He tells me a story about crossing the border from Pakistan to Afghanistan on foot in the 80s with no food and a duffel bag full of cash.

Still lamenting my loss, I show Marc my dancing movie and explain that I wanted to get a clip from the water in front of a shark. He takes to the cause immediately, offering to use his cinema-quality digital camera to take the clip as soon as we get a chance, and in the meantime, he gets me to dance on the bow of the ship during some serious waves as back-up. The crew looks on, laughing without a clue of what I’m doing.

Before sunset, Marc shoots an interview with me about the day’s encounter. It’s sort of a tit for tat with the dancing thing. I try not to sound like an idiot, but fail. It’s nearly impossible to be articulate about an encounter with a 25 foot shark. It’s like trying to look cool while eating an ice cream cone. The two things are incompatible.

As a postscript, the next several days were sighting-free. I went on a few more dives, made mediocre by the global coral bleaching of 1998. A guarded secret of the dive industry; the after effects of El Nino wreaked havoc on the sea, and the shallow Indian Ocean worst of all. Once colorful coral gardens are now graveyards, and the effect has worked its way up the food chain. There are signs of recovery, but coral grows slowly and our gluttonous fisheries aren’t helping things.

On the last day of the cruise, we got lucky and dove with two whale sharks and had a brief encounter with a manta ray, which is very uncommon in these waters.

I enjoyed the trip enormously. I did a lot of reading, a lot of writing, and a lot of staring out at the sea from the lookout platform. Next up is three quiet days on the main island of Mahe before my flight to Nairobi and a hopefully-not-too-harrowing overland journey to Mombasa.

6 Responses to Mahe, Seychelles Chasing the World's Biggest Fish

  1. Mom

    Can’t say I wish I were there, but I can say you bring your experience alive for me. Thanks and keep writing.

  2. Jay

    Nice! Matt, you make me wish I had been more adventurous in my youth. :)

    (This is the Jay from the cubicle across from yours at Amaze, who now inhabits your cubicle.)

  3. Melissa

    I can’t believe those pix! It looks like it’s right out of Blue Planet. Amazing! Sounds like you’re having a blast, hope you crazy kids stay out of trouble in Mombassa. Miss you, M.

  4. maureen

    Hey Matt,

    Nice story and mostly accurate. We are in fact going back again in March to do the Aldabra Explorer trip which is a celebration of Peter’s and my 50th birthdays. This time I do NOT plan on doing accounting work, only sun, sea and diving. Since Aldabra is a World Heritage site and the IOE is the only boat that schedules regular visits for divers there, it should be a fantastic experience. Hope all went well with the rest of your trip and that you managed to find a new camera and find your way southwards!

    Maureen

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