I drift effortlessly along in the current which is steadily towing me northward. There is a lot of plankton in the water reducing visibility to around 8 metres and obscuring my view of the landscape. I look around me. I am not familiar with this site having never dived here before. Big limestone boulders surrounded by a sandy bottom littered with smaller rocks. It’s not a pretty dive site, lacking the colourful soft corals and proliferation of life I’ve seen elsewhere. And it’s not where we would normally dive. Today there was a ripping current expected at Koh Bida Nai rendering it an inappopriate dive site for inexperienced divers. But here I am, and I intend to make the most of the dive, if not for myself, but for the two fun divers I am guiding.
I scan the area around me for creatures of interest. Looking through the plankton into the murky distance, I hope to catch a glimpse of black tip reef sharks shyly cruising by. I see nothing. Disappointment creeps in and I start wondering why we are even diving here. Few fish and no pretty corals. Then “bingo”. I spot a small hawksbill turtle feeding on the coral just a few metres from me. I put one hand on top of the other and flutter my thumbs to signal turtle to my divers and point to where it lay on top of a coral boulder. Elena is looking somewhere else so I tug sharply on her fin to get her attention and point to the turtle. We watch her as she burrows her head under a rock, beneath some harp coral. I can’t be sure if she is trying to sleep, eat or hide but I love being so close to her. We spend 5 minutes with her and then watch her swim away towards the shallows whilst we happily throw ourselves back into the current and continue to drift the dive site. My divers give me puslating OK signals, happy with having seen the turtle, as am I. If I see nothing else today, this graceful creature has made my dive.
A few metres on, I startle a scorpion fish on a boulder just below me and I follow it to its new resting place on the sand beneath some low-lying table coral. I lie on the sand and signal to my divers to do the same to get a better view of this spiny, mottled pinky brown, poisonous fish. Christian takes a few photos before the current takes us further north.
We drift for several minutes without seeing anything much. I am gratfeul for the turtle and the scoprion fish. “At least my divers have seen something here” I think to myself. I still scan the waters around us, praying for a glimpse of black tip reef sharks but still none are to be seen and I am doubtful that we will see any today.
Suddenly, the current speeds up and the visibility drops a few more metres. Unsure of where the dive site ends and worried that we might be swept around the corner and off the dive site, I look for somewhere to shelter. In between two big boulders, I spy a school of ten cornet fish and guide my divers in behind them, the two boulders providing a stagnant place to rest. One of the cornet fish swims just centimetres from my face, eyeing me curiously. It’s long, slender body glides effortlessly past me, the long spotted blue stripes on its back flashing irridescently.
I turn around to make sure my divers are behind me and that they are watching this school of curious fish and signal questioningly if they are OK. They each signal OK back to me. As they do so, movement behind them distracts me. I adjust my focus to see more clearly behind them. My eyes double in size, showing my divers massive amounts of white eye balls and I hold my arm out directly in front of me, pointing behind them. My mouth would have dropped open in a shocked “Oh my god” movement if my jaw wasn’t locked around my second stage, my lifeline, supplying me with air from my tank. My divers look at me, puzzled by my reaction for a moment, then turn around to see what I am pointing at.
Swimming into the plankton-filled current is a gentle giant shark of the sea. Identification requires no guesswork. It’s size, it’s shape and it’s fluorescent white spots are unique. We have been graced with the presence of a whale shark. A 5 metre female.
I can hear the thump of my heart beat in my ears as adrenaline courses through my body. My arms are shaking with excitement. In fact my whole body is trembling. My eyes are still as large as the porcelain full moon as I watch, with awe, this magnificent creature hang in the current at 9 metres before slowly heading towards the surface. She hangs at about 2 metres before slowly heading back down and changing direction.
The excitement of this experience causes me to suck more oxygen down for fuel. I become conscious of my rapid breathing, as the extra dead air I have exhaled bubbles above my head and expands on its journey to the surface above. I check my dive computer. We are 38 minutes into the dive. I check my air which is plentiful with 140 bar. And then we follow her. Sometimes swimming with her and sometimes hovering in mid-water, swept along with the current, all the time watching her majestic snaking swimming movement, cutting the current with ease. She comes within a metre of me. I am so mesmerised by her, watching her looking at me with blinking curiousity. Then as her body passes me, in a fearful split second I am convinced she is going to smack me with her tail and I reverse thrust to put some distance between us.
My fun divers are also clearly in awe of this wonderful creature. I can see through their masks and solid regulators that they are happier than words can describe. And I am so happy for them. Christian has his camera in front of him trying to capture some of these moments forever. She swims right towards him, her wide mouth ajar and gills fluttering as they filter the water for air. I gasp silently as it looks like she is going to bump right into him but he moves to the side and she glides right past him. We watch her as she circles around us, ascends to 2 metres and then back down again.
Conscious of the current and decreasing visibility, I continuously check my divers to make sure we stay together and don’t lose eachother. Losing a diver now would mean an instant end to this experience as the poor visibility would require us to surface to reunite. The current picks up again and I see deeper water coming up ahead of us. I am worried that we really are about to be swept around the corner and off the dive site bringing a premature end to our dive. If she came off the dive site with us, then it wouldn’t matter to us if we didn’t see the rest of the reef. We were now swimming with a whale shark, a rare event and a diver’s dream.
Again she hovers effortlessly in the current just above a huge rock. I fin strongly into the current towards the rock and grab onto it and signal to my divers to do the same. Elena is a little distance behind me and struggling to fight the current. I hang on and reach out my hand for her to grab so I can pull her in safely beside me. We dip down and shelter from the current behind the rock, three mesmerised divers alls in a row with this 5 metre beauty hanging just above our heads. I signal to Christian to take video, hoping he understands my hand signals. We stay in this position until 50 minutes into our dive, she swims off into the current. We watch her until her massive body is swallowed up by the murky water and she is out of sight.
Christian signals to me that he is low on air so I signal for them to stay close to me and I give them the safety stop sign. I inflate my surface marker buoy and shoot it to the surface. Hanging onto the buoy line, we three happy divers, drift into the blue with big OK signs and drawing big happy smiles in front of our second stages. We will never forget this dive or this rare close encounter of a large kind.
It's a turtle, a green one not hawksbill, but it is a turtle :)
Her majesty, whale shark