Swimming with a Giant

Koh Chang

Ever since designating Ariel as my favorite Disney princess, there was a little part of me that has always wanted to be a mermaid. About two years ago I made that dream come as close to true as humanly possible by getting my scuba diving certification on an island in Thailand.

As I always suspected, the life of a mermaid gives you access to an entirely different world than you have known all of your human, land-dwelling life. Only ever experiencing the ocean from above, whether on a beach or a boat, we are drawn to the mystery of that great blue expanse. We wonder what lies ahead of us farther than the eye can see on the horizon, or even more intriguing, what lies thousands of feet below. Although I am only certified (at this point) to dive 18 meters deep, I can never go back to not exploring the endless, and sometimes frightening, mysteries below the waves.

It is addicting. From the castles of coral reefs and Dr. Seussish sea anemones swaying in the ocean current, to the hundreds of species of multi-colored fish that travel in eerily synchronized communities, to the unblinking eyes of a moray eel peering from the inaccessible darkness below and between the reefs, I am totally obsessed with that one hour in time I am allowed to be, as Ariel says, “a part of that world”.

Luckily, I have found a life partner as eager as I am to strap on an oxygen tank and dive into the great unknown. Ingo and I are always searching and planning for our next underwater adventure and although we always come up feeling like we’ve seen a miracle, our last trip was one that needs to be written down:

The dive shop had us at “shipwreck”, but then the instructor decided to add one more hook to seal the deal.

“We also spotted a whale shark at this sight the day before yesterday.”

A whale shark. The biggest shark in the ocean, and also the most gentle. Unlike its more predatory relatives, the whale shark feeds on a diet of plankton. The ultimate sight to a dive, but one that is rare if you are not baiting. Since I refused to go to see baited whale sharks, a wild sighting would be my only chance.

“Yeah, but how often does a whale shark return to the same place?” asked Ingo, who saw the hopeful way I sat up a little straighter at the idea of seeing a whale shark in the wild.

“Not often,” she admitted, a bit sheepishly. “We don’t want to get your hopes up, but either way the shipwreck is awesome.”

I shrugged my shoulders, trying to give Ingo the impression that I hadn’t gotten my hopes up. “Any dive is worth it to me. Let’s go see the shipwreck.”

The next morning we suited up and jumped in. Down, down, down we went, slowly letting out air and blowing gently to release the pressure in our ears. We passed the crow’s nest, covered in barnacles, and sunk until we were even with the deck on the old World War II ship. Following our diving instructor, we kicked out and began to circle the ship, searching for sea life along the algae-coated deck. We followed a school of silver fish through the door of what might have once been the control room, and then kicked out through the rusted window. Breathing slowly to conserve air, we circled our way back up to the crow’s nest. I stood on the decaying platform, my flippers sticking out at odd angles.

Standing on the crow’s nest with our diving guide

I imagined standing there when I would have been high above the water, scouting the horizon and found it ironic that when I stood here now all I could see was a distance-distorting blue. You could get lost in that blue. Not knowing how far up or down you were or how far from the boat you had gone. And then in the middle of my musings, I heard the ting, ting, ting, of metal on metal that the guide used when trying to get our attention for something interesting. I looked around to see our guide pointing excitedly at a huge shadow, darker blue than all the blue around it, moving slowly and majestically about eight feet above us.

Whale Shark 2
Ingo and I with the whale shark shadow above us

For a moment, my heart stopped, and I forgot to breathe at all. I felt suspended in time and space, held stable by the crow’s nest, but feeling like I was weightless—watching the whale shark glide closer and watching in awe as its huge shadow blocked out the light from the world we would shortly need to return to. It was blue like the ocean around, but with white spots and a white belly. Feeder fish swam all around the shark, its constant symbiotic companions.

We were almost out of air and we needed to go up. Finally popping out of the waves, we spit out our regulators and yelled, “Whale Shark!, Whale Shark!” to our crew aboard the boat. All of them Thai, they seemed amused at how excited we were to swim with this huge ocean creature. They shook their heads at us and smiled as we stripped our tanks off, grabbed a snorkel and dove back in to see him again.

Our friend must have been young, because not only was he a short 4 meters (13 ft) in length (they grow to be 40 feet), he also seemed extremely interested in the small creatures who blew bubbles off their backs and kept trying to swim around him. Sometimes he would disappear into the blue beyond our sight and we would pop back up to the surface, sad that he had left, but elated to have spent time with him. We would climb aboard the boat only to see his huge shadow return. And again, we would grab our snorkels and leap back in to swim with him.

My favorite moment was swimming toward him to get a closer look right before he turned towards me to get a closer look! He swam so close to me that I could see the ridges of his smooth body, perfectly suited to gliding through the ocean. He seemed to be made of something synthetic, rather than real-live whale skin and flesh. He came so close to me, I could have reached out and touched him, so I kicked back to give him a clear way. When he passed, for one beautiful moment we caught each other’s eyes. My awestruck blue ones behind goggles, to his small curious black one. His eyes were so small compared to the rest of his huge body, but for a moment, I saw him and he saw me. My eyes filled with tears behind my goggles. I wondered what mysteries those eyes had seen in this ocean he called home.

This is me, trying to remember to breathe while looking at the whale shark.
Whale Shark 5
Swimming with the whale shark. Ingo gets credit for all of these photos. Thank you!

We finally climbed back on the boat. The camaraderie and joy was contagious on board. All the divers were laughing and shaking their heads in pure gratitude, knowing we had seen something truly special.

Ingo and I couldn’t stop talking about it for days. And even now, I think it is probably one of the greatest moments I have ever experienced. I often wonder where our friend is now and can only hope that he is making his peaceful way through that great blue mystery that will call me back again for the rest of my life. Although I know I will never be a mermaid, I hope to visit his home again soon.

See the best video that Ingo took of the whale shark here!

7 thoughts on “Swimming with a Giant

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