Friday, November 29, 2013

Rite of Passage

In Ethiopia, it's cow jumping.
In Nigeria, it's fattening up with rich foods.
In Australia, Aborigones must survive in the wilderness alone.
In West Africa, it's facial tattoos.
In Roatan, it's swimming with a Whale Shark.

They're a rare species in the world, though the warm tropical blue waters of the Bay Islands, Honduras is known for hosting these gentle giants from time to time.  Since I've lived here, I would guess there has been at least 10 Whale Shark sightings, which averages almost 1 per month.

When there is a sighting, the town goes nuts, Facebook blows up and the local boat captain network erupts.  After being here for awhile, I know how to sight a Whale Shark sighting.  Boats headed straight out past the reef, with little hesitation.  If I see a group of boats congregating somewhat close together beyond the reef, that's another sign.

As for sighting the actual shark, the 2 biggest signs are a) A Tuna boil.  If you think about it, it explains itself.  The Tuna are feeding off the smaller fish that the shark is eating or attracting.  The Tuna go bizerk jumping all over the place, causing the sea to appear as though it's boiling.  That in itself is actually pretty cool.  b) Multiple birds circling.  Typically you see one, and then the other.  If there's loads of birds, look for the Tuna boil.  If there's a Tuna boil, look for the birds.  And Mr. Whale Shark is in the middle of this giant food chain having desert.

Our boat's first mate spotted the boil, and it was GAME ON!  Typically, the captain has more experience than the rest of the passengers on the boat, because the boat captains are islanders, and have been boating and sighting long before you or I had ever even heard of Roatan.  The captain is also responsible for the safety of everyone on his boat, so he makes the call if and when passengers may enter the water.

Captain Ray, Bay Islands Adventures, Roatan

We circled a few times, before Captain Ray decided we were close enough to see this fella and we all jumped in with masks and snorkels.  I adjusted my mask and put my face in the water just in time to sight this massive creature swim just feet from my face.  I was so excited I went along with him, right under the boat, and then quickly realized I was NOT scuba diving and that breath of air I was looking for was up top at the surface.  Luckily, he didn't mind we were there, and gave us the opportunity to hop in the water with him 4 or 5 more times.  The 2nd time he swam directly at me; his mouth must have been 6 feet wide!  I opted to move out of his way...  2 additional times, I got to swim along next to him and he slowly wagged his massive tail from side to side and sauntered away.  His tail was almost 7 feet tall at the tip.  WOW!!!

Pics from one of the guests

This particular day, I opted not to bring fins.  I don't use fins when I snorkel mostly because I hate lugging them around.  I'm a very strong swimmer, so it's never been an issue, until this day.  I also had 2 cameras on the boat, neither of which had waterproof housing.  I've come to the realization that there are times when a camera will only distract me from the real genuine experience, and that sometimes it's better to have the experience, not the perfect shot.

This was the 3rd time I've been on a Whale Shark sighting pursuit.  2nd time I've bailed off the boat at the command of the captain.  1st time I've had the opportunity to be with the actual creature, swimming alongside him in his (or her) own natural habitat.  It was a day I'll never forget.  The day I earned my Bay Islands Rite of Passage. And caught lots of Tuna fish too ;)

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