Now I am a Boiled Prawn

whaleshark.jpg
Writing this post is a sensitive task for me. Every word I type causes painful feelings. Not for any sentimental reasons, but because each keystroke sends a shiver of discomfort through my sun-charred, aloe-vera soaked arms. My back and shoulders are covered in blisters and my face is swollen and red. The worst sunburn of my life? Maybe the second worst.

Despite the agony, I am smiling as I think back to the cause of this distress. An hour baking on the bow of a speedboat crashing through the Indian ocean, the heat of the sun offset by a cool, stiff breeze. I knew I would pay the consequences, but I was immobilised by the sheer sense of freedom and satisfaction. I just sat there with a smile on my carbonising face.

Since I was a child, I have always been fascinated by the whale shark. I think that deserves capitalisation. Since I was a child, I have always been fascinated by the Whale Shark. The world’s largest fish - “as big as a double-decker bus”. Later, I was inspired by Tim Severin’s book, “In Search of Moby Dick”, where he voyages through the South Pacific to look for the truth behind Herman Melville’s novel. He visits remote fishing and whaling communities in places like the Marquesas Islands and Tonga gathering stories that might have influenced Melville. The Whale Shark always has a special significance. Stories of fishermen being rescued and carried to shore. Even in Vietnam, where it is referred to as “Cá Ông” (a distinguished name that can be roughly translated as “Sir Fish”), fishermen believe that the Whale Shark is a kind of deity. It literally is the stuff that legends are made of.

I didn’t believe that I would have a chance to see one in the wild. Even when I jumped off the boat and landed directly above it, I still couldn’t believe it. But I kept flipping my flippers and keeping pace with the seven meter behemoth. Directly beneath me. Within touching distance. Trying to come to terms with the situation. It was like being sucked into the National Geographic channel.

I can hardly begin to describe the atmosphere. Do you remember those relaxing lava lamps that people used to have? A lava lamp is a garish psychedelic fireworks explosion in comparison to the tranquility of this situation. The reef itself was spectacular, and there were even some other small sharks around, but I could not take my eyes off Sir Fish. Until I nearly puked from drinking too much seawater (my snorkel wasn’t in right).

Still stunned from the experience, I had a chance to enjoy an hour of snorkelling at a reef nearby, rewarded by a glimpse of a sea turtle among the coral and lots of colourful fish. Most of the species I could not identify, but I did spot some butterflyfish, sweetlips, wrasse, angelfish, unicorn fish.

Needless to say, I will be back. With an underwater camera. In recent years, the government has relaxed the law that prohibited tourists from staying on islands that were inhabited by locals. Now you are no longer forced to stay at an expensive resort eating buffet breakfast every morning, paying resort prices every time you set foot on a boat. So my next trip will be longer and entirely focused on scuba diving, snorkelling, underwater photography, and game fishing. With sunscreen this time. I should have listened to Baz Luhrmann.

 
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