DONSOL, The Philippines – After three hours of aimlessly crisscrossing the waters I thought the guide would call it a day without us having caught a single glimpse. Not a fin. Even the spotters, perched high on the small boat’s bamboo towers, slumped and seemed less optimistic.
“Shy,” the guide said, the creases on his leathery face growing deeper, his voice betraying defeat although his milky eyes never stopped scanning the seas. I lay there thirsty and listless, wondering if I could afford the time or money to try again tomorrow and wondering if my luck would not be the same if I did. This was the prime time of year for whale sharks in the waters off Donsol, but of course sightings of the world’s largest fish were never a guarantee.
We bobbed in the water.
All of a sudden, elated shouts:
Commotion erupted on the deck, the boat whirred to life and flew, bounding over the surface – I barely had time to put fins on my feet before the old man grabbed my arm and threw me overboard, boat still racing. Floundering, sputtering salty water, I frantically snapped on the snorkel mask and dove under.
Just a blue yawning emptiness. I had missed it.
Hands seized my shoulders hard and spun me around. There she was, all 20 tons coming straight at me at an alarming speed, her enormously wide mouth agape threatening to swallow me whole.
I awkwardly fluttered out of her way then moved to swim alongside her, trembling while trying to take in every inch of her 9-meter long body. She was the size of a school bus yet her movements were supple and smooth and effortless. The sleek grey skin was mottled with mesmerizing silvery spots that glittered like opals in the dappled light. Suddenly she rose up and her dorsal fin grazed my leg; I leapt out of my skin.
I settled in to her left beside her head where she could see me. We regarded each other for a moment, her eye roving on me as if to say, Oh, hello. Hm. Going my way?
We continued on like this for ten minutes, gliding together in the silence of her world. Then with a polite nod, a swish of the tail, a final shimmy and shimmer in the light, away she went – down, down, down, with each fathom growing fainter and fainter until she was but a watery phantasm. And then she was gone. I was lifted.