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Up close and personal with the whale sharks of St Helena

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There are very few marine encounters that rank as highly as your first whale shark. For me, that was in October of 2009 in Sharm El Sheikh, when a juvenile (a relative tiddler at only 4m long) passed by over the plateau at Ras Umm Sid. The encounter was short lived. While I remained motionless, agog and overwhelmed, the eight divers I was guiding, pedalled past me as furiously as they could in order to capture that perfect souvenir photograph. Once I had gathered my wits, and despite my best efforts to call the divers back and restrain their exuberance, the whale shark, which had until then been slowly tootling by, gave one languid swish of its tail and was gone.

I sank down onto the sandy bottom and, forgetting any sense of propriety, punched the water so enthusiastically that it may have caused ripples at the surface, some 20m above my head. I had to clear my mask of salt water; some of it wasn’t from the sea.

I had waited for more than 2,000 dives for that first encounter, with a twinge of jealousy every time I heard stories about how some lucky student had seen their first whale shark during their first training dive. I saw precisely three more during the rest of my career as a dive instructor and guide, until, that is, I visited St Helena.

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Within my first two hours at sea, during which we had encountered a pod of pan-tropical dolphins on the journey out of Jamestown, and enjoyed the pleasurable company of a friendly Chilean devil ray during the dive at Egg Island, the shout of ‘Whale Shark’ went up and the boat immediately came to a halt. Even with the sunlight glinting off the surface, there was no mistaking the outline of the giant fish, and this was much, much larger than those I had seen before.

The captain carefully manoeuvred the boat into position so as not to disturb the animal unnecessarily, and we jumped. The whale shark was playing hard to get – before we could see it, it had disappeared and re-appeared on the other side of the boat. We boarded and tried again, only for it to disappear and re-appear again close to the shoreline, like hide and seek with an elusive giant.

I was reminded of a time when, back in my life as an instructor, we recorded special marine sightings on a large white-board in the dive centre – but surface encounters didn’t count; it had to be underwater, during a dive. If I could have done that now, I would have ignored the underwater rule. I had just seen a whale shark, and that was that.

Every year between December and March, adult whale sharks congregate off the shores of St Helena, a tiny and most wonderful volcanic island that is – quite literally – in the middle of nowhere. 1,200 miles into the South Atlantic from the shores of Africa, and in one of only a handful of known locations around the world, the whale sharks come here to breed – and they gather in numbers. Just prior to my visit, 36 individual sharks had been recorded, with the total number probably far greater.

Weather conditions during the week of my visit to St. Helena made the sharks just that little more elusive, but I went out again a couple of days later and, after much searching through reasonably high seas and a strong surface current, once again that unmistakable silhouette in the water, and this time, she didn’t disappear.

For at least 20 minutes, probably 30, I got to swim with a whale shark.

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She wasn’t fully grown, but as she circled a small plateau just offshore from a rock formation known as the Turk’s Cap, Karl (to whom I am indebted for the photographs) and I experienced the thrill and joy of a close encounter with one of the largest fish in the ocean. She didn’t disappear into the blue, seemed quite at ease with our presence and at times appeared actively curious as to why these small and insignificant beings were splashing around beside her.

Her tail moved only gently, while I – frustrated with the fact that my well-worn fins and extremely buoyant new booties (oh, and too many pies) made snorkeling through the waves rather challenging – struggled to keep up with a shark that was finning so effortlessly it appeared almost lazy, a clear display of the immense power of the species

Some people might have expressed disappointment that there was ‘only one’ whale shark but for me, it was one of the most singularly magical experiences of my life, more than 17 years after I first learned to dive. The first time might have been great, but this was far greater – closer, more intimate; alone in the water with a whale shark in one of the most remote and isolated locations on the planet.

Back on board the boat, I had to take a personal moment. Several, actually. To have had such an extended encounter with such an awesome creature was as unforgettable as the first time I ever saw one, only more so, because the company of a single whale shark for 30 minutes had far more impact than the mere few seconds I had spent in the presence of others.

Combined with the experience of visiting St. Helena – remote and isolated but so very much alive – this is one encounter that will remain indelibly etched in my memory.

If you want to know more about these fantastic beasts and where to find them, a full report of our trip to St Helena will feature in the summer print edition of DIVE.

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