Travel Writing Awards Entry

By Regan Spearing

We were nearing the end of our stay on Utila, a small island off the north coast of Honduras where PADI dive courses are notoriously amongst the cheapest in the world. Thirteen dives in eight days, two PADI diving qualifications, too much partying and little rest meant we were fairly exhausted!  There was one particular attraction that eluded us- the north side of the island had until now proved difficult to reach, due to priority given to the ‘resort divers’ (packaged dive holidays) and those undertaking the ‘real dive courses’.  However, our last day diving brought gorgeous, calm water and clear blue skies.  So, during our ‘surface interval’, the compulsory waiting period between dives where nitrogen levels are lowered, we had some time to head northward to seek out the worlds biggest fish, unique to Utila’s waters.  We were searching for the gigantic Whale Shark.
Of a crowd of about ten on this boat, I was one of those overeager ones who perched themselves on the roof of the diving boat as it cruised the eerily calm and seemingly empty waters northward into the expansive open sea.  We were keeping an eye out for ‘boils’- disturbances in the water caused by jumping fish and feeding birds, signaling the probable presence of the whale shark below.
  An apprehensive silence had gripped the idle divers, my head darted backwards and forwards and my eyes strained as I convinced myself I was going to spot something.  But, half an hour had produced nothing and the captain began to wrap around to head back to the next dive site.
  Suddenly word came up from the captain below that he believed had spotted something in the water and was pointing off into the distance.  Our eyes darted in that direction but it seemed the enthusiastic captain was just overly excited, as we saw nothing.  However, he continued his apparent blind optimism and moved our bright yellow diveboat towards the spot and I fed his comments back to those with me on the sun-drenched roof.  His latest comment, ‘There’s definitely something there!’ immediately set our legs shaking!  Less than five minutes later a large patch of water close to the boat was alive with jumping fish and everyone was murmuring excitedly.  We were instructed to quickly gear up and given procedures on entering the water so as to minimize splash by sliding our backsides off the back of the boat on the captain’s command. 
    Two files of snorkellers lined up seated on the floor of the boat, whereas I couldn’t commit to sitting.  When one of the dive masters screamed ‘There it is!’ from the roof of the boat as a pointed arm shot forward towards the water, I was beside myself!  I peered into the water, saw a huge black shadow and immediately took my place amongst those seated on the floor, awaiting the green light from the captain, who was maneuvering the boat into position.  The fish were jumping everywhere and so was my heart.  The captain screamed ‘Now’ and I echoed his command repeatedly as we piled into the deep water.
The graceful backside-first slide approach was quickly abandoned as we tumbled in headfirst.  For a moment we were just a pile of tangled bodies and flooded snorkels amongst immense quantities of bubbles.  With my feet pumping furiously I jostled free of the others and the bubbles cleared.  I coughed out my third mouthful of saltwater, the first two of which I had swallowed, and in front of my wide eyes I saw it.  A huge, but graceful figure, was swimming slowly about 8 metres away, its massive tail was waving back and forth and its wide mouth open and feeding.  I glanced sideward to the various, comparatively tiny fish, swimming as fast as they could to keep up, and then upwards to see the scattered snorkellers who had abandoned their chase.  As I looked back down, I saw the beast was turning and yelled back to the others, who then plunged their heads back into the water.  As it turned I got another incredible view of its open mouth, this time heading in my direction.  I froze for a second, as thoughts of Jonah flashed through my mind, but reassured myself that it was supposedly harmless and enjoyed the last ten seconds before it disappeared.
We returned to the boat and were informed they were going to attempt another drop.  Sure enough when the shark was spotted we were again bumbled into the water to see the enormous shark swimming towards us, but about five to six metres deeper and diving.  This incredible, serene moment lasted for over a minute as the uncharacteristically sociable creature again turned and began to surface from underneath me!  Whatever composure I had was lost as my unmanly squeals of excitement echoed through my snorkel as the creature got close enough to touch!  I stretched out my hand to stroke its smooth dorsal fin and then its huge, powerful tail, knowing it could, with a quick flick, inflict some serious damage.
The shark disappeared again, but we were ecstatic and, still shaking, climbed aboard, exchanging tales with the others.  Undoubtedly, this will be experience I’ll never forget; the time I took on the whale shark!