Freediving with Whale Sharks
“Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes skyward, for there you have been and you will always long to return.” – Leonardo Da Vinci.
The ocean surface is calm, yet below lurks a family of gentle giants. Most are about 25 to 35 feet long. Underwater, the giants seem to emerge from nowhere, sometimes three at a time. One of them lets me freedive with it for about 15 minutes. Up close, I can see minuscule, sandpapery bumps on its pinkish gray skin. I even catch a glimpse inside its fleshy white mouth and inside its gills, which are lined with white sieves that look like an accordion.
My whale shark friend begins descending, its elegant silhouette growing smaller and smaller. For a moment it seems I’ll be able to watch the enormous fish vanish into the dark blue depths. Then it comes back to the surface about a foot away from me and pauses, opening its mouth wide to feed. Each of its eyes is only about the size of a silver dollar.
I find myself staring into his huge, intelligent eyes just a few feet away. It feels like I’m being psychoanalyses.
With the sun shining bright above, ripples on the water’s surface cast a lacelike pattern on the shark. When it briefly sinks a few feet, I dive and sink over to its other side. For just a moment, I hover above its massive body. On its back, I can see my tiny shadow.
– Etoile Smulders
Photography: Phillip Puckey