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Meeting the whale shark

Meeting the whale shark

The journey to the Queen’s Gardens has been, as always, long and tiring: but the charm of these islands, which are covered with mangroves and inhabited just by iguanas and tortoises, is this—here time doesn’t exist; everything has remained the same as 500 years ago, before the arrival of Christopher Columbus, and the difficulties to get here makes the Garden’s a paradise for a few people. And every time, it’s in some way a return home: mi casa flotante entre cielo y mar [my floating house between the sky and the sea], as they call here the floating platform where we are lodging.

During all the summertime, our Cuban friends that work with us at the diving centre in Calabria have told us about these wonderful places. And here we are. The expectations are great. I was assured me that in November, when the water is turbid (in a manner of speaking, obviously) because of a higher quantity of plankton, it is more likely to meet a whale shark. It’s a big promise: we all have photo and video cameras with us.

Commander Trigo tells us that in the last few days they have sighted shoals of bonito and therefore the whale shark should be around here.

Trigo is a real character. He knows these islands and the sea that surrounds them like the back of his hand. As in an epic novel, he tells us stories of when he was still young, when he would take Fidel out here to fish. Suddenly, there’s a commotion in the control room: “There, there! Can’t you see it?” Actually, we couldn’t see a thing. Again, “Can’t you see it?” Yes, now we are able to see something. The seagulls are flying in circles. We come closer. The birds fly low over the foamy water. The bonito spring over the surface while they go after after a cloud of microscopic fish, and in the middle, all of a sudden, like in a whirlpool, the water opens up. A whale appears in all its majesty, the enormous mouth wide open ready to eat. It has assumed a vertical position and the enormous remora that stays clinging to it slips almost detaching itself. The shark sucker alone is over one meter and a half long!

We remain entranced for a while and then, everybody jumps into the water. We aren’t wearing our wetsuits and there’s no time to get ready we jump into the blue with masks and flippers and swim towards the shark. The enormous animal doesn’t seem frightened at all when he sees us. He swims calmly letting us get closer. We feel small compared to the shark’s 10 metres. It’s difficult to describe in words our enthusiasm. It’s a spectacle beyond all imagination. These emotions have to be experienced; they are too deep to be simply told! The shark is huge; his skin, bluish marked with spots and squares. The bonitos now chase a shoal of fries. We come back up to the surface to take a breath, and then dive again. It isn’t easy to photograph a shark in free diving, but the clicking of the camera can be heard repeatedly. Surely something good will come out of all these photographs. Then, as suddenly as when he had arrived, he engulfs himself and we watch him go away with certain nostalgia.
We get back on the boat. We are now close to the place that should have been the diving area, the famous Túnel Azul, or Blue Tunnel, a canyon in the rocks that starts at 35 metres and finishes in the deep blue aroun 50 metres.
We carefully check the equipment. It’s a difficult dive because of the depth. We are getting ready to dive in the blue when the prophetic fins appear around the boat. My friends hesitate; won’t it be dangerous? We joke, but nobody wants to be the first to get into the water surrounded by the sharks and wait for the others. I jump in. The silky sharks, the small barrier reef sharks swim around me. They even rub their bodies on me; they let me caress them. I’m not afraid, I’ve done it many times and I know they aren’t aggressive if you don’t annoy them. Certainly being in the middle of a shoal of about fifty sharks has a certain effect on you. They swim sinuously, elegantly around the boat. Finally, everybody’s ready and we dive to the 35—metre platform. The sharks follow us for a while, and then go away. I wonder if our friend is still somewhere around here?

Certainly there are enormous and curious sea—bass. To tell the truth, everything here is big. This is a park with very strict rules, and the fish, which are not very used to the presence of scuba divers as not many of them get to this point, are not, however, frightened in the least. They get closer, curious. You have the sensation here of not participating in a tourists’ attraction, but of being a guest of the real masters of this watery domain. A kind of magical relation has been established between man and these creatures of the sea!

We now come to the entrance of the tunnel—a crevice in the rock that is covered by luxuriant webs of black coral, and sponges of an incredible purple. We enter single file and swim in a straight line a few metres down the tunnel; then it begins to curve to the right and to descend quickly. We are nearing the exit and can make out the blue. Once out of the tunnel, our guides tell us that two sharks bigger than the first ones we saw—the Caribbean reef sharks—seem to keep guard over the passage. An unusual rope is hanging in front of the exit. Strange, I think to myself, the boat wasn’t here before: I lift up my eyes and I realize what it is: it’s an enormous sea eagle that is passing over the tunnel. It is flying majestically. It has got an incredible wingspan.

One last surprise awaits us. We’re finally going up again along the anchor chain (the real one, this time!) and, we have used up all the film, when a shadow darkens the sea over us. He has come back: the whale shark has waited for us! To be able see him in the water, wearing scuba diving outfits is a very rare event. Normally, when you’re getting ready to take a good look he has already disappeared, and, also, he is usually disturbed by the bubbles. This time, though, we have been lucky. He is here right above us, around 10 metres away and he seems unaware of our presence! You then realize the immensity of Nature. Everybody watches in breathless awe. Amazement after amazement, emotion after emotion, this little yet immense piece of our planet is a sea paradise.

My friends are over the moon; not often do you manage to see much more than what is allowed! Today is my birthday, and tonight we will celebrate together with Gualberto and Noel, the Cuban instructors who have accompanied us on this splendid trip, and Trigo, with his fantastic sea stories. We will celebrate with rum and sweets that I have brought from Italy. A one—of—a—kind party under the incredible starry Cuban sky!

During the whole week, one immersion after another, we continued searching for the enormous animal, and we were able to see him two or three times more. It isn’t always the same one. Once, even a mother and her offspring swam past us. Luckily we took pictures and videos to testify everything that we saw day after day; probably nobody would have believed us back home if they had to take our word for it. It is now time to leave, but I’m sad because I know that I’ll soon be coming back! April 2009

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