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Searching for whale sharks

By: Gwynedd Arbury, high school alumna High School Adventures, Middle School, Wildlife Conservation

August 6, 2008 is one of the most memorable days of my life. When I was younger, I never thought I could become so passionate, so quickly, about something as I did that day. The process of getting my SCUBA certification certainly was not easy. In fact, I practically failed the exam. I did, however, excel in the pool training, which impressed the instructors. I was also the youngest in the class and felt awkward and unsure as to whether getting certified in January would be worth it. Going SCUBA diving in a quarry in the middle of January did not sound too appealing.

Six months later I was in Baja California, the small peninsula off of Mexico below California, forming the Sea of Cortez between itself and Mexico’s mainland. This trip, part of an organization called Broadreach, placed me with a group of nine strangers for a three-week SCUBA excursion in the Sea of Cortez. Once with the group, I felt as awkward and unusual as ever, even more so than with my first certification class. My new group members enchanted me with their stories about amazing dives in far away waters like Útila, Roatán, and the Great Barrier Reef. All I had to talk about was training in a pool and getting certified in a man-made lake in Florida. Needless to say, I felt a little insecure diving with them for the first time in six months. Surprisingly, I managed to remember how to set up my air tank, regulator, and buoyancy control device and I plunged into the deep, clear Sea of Cortez.

It is hard to imagine that just five days later, I had become great friends with those nine strangers. In five days I had logged over ten dives, eaten a clam caught while snorkeling, and swam with seals. On that fifth day, something unexpected happened. It was our last day living on the uninhabited island that we had been calling home. We woke up early and set out for the city of La Paz, our newest destination. We all felt jittery as we ate breakfast, thanks to the title we had bestowed upon the day—Whale Shark Wednesday. Their dazzling blue spots and their lengths of up to 60 feet can identify whale sharks, the largest living species of fish. Our dive master, Chabello, had told us that finding whale sharks was a difficult and long process, which we shouldn’t get too excited about, as it was unlikely. We did not listen to him. Instead, we sat at the bow of our boat sporting goggles, snorkels, and fins. We were prepared to jump into the water at any sight of the large blue shadow that we all hoped to find.

Searching for whale sharks is unquestionably difficult. These majestic animals happen to be very elusive and solitary. However, none of us thought it would take as long as it did. Many of us had even fallen asleep while basking in the intense sun that beamed onto our bow. In an instant, we were awoken and told to jump into the water as silently as possible. As I grabbed my gear and plunged into the clear blue water, excitement flowed through me. After swimming as quickly and quietly as humanly possible, I came face to face with a 12-foot long whale shark. This beast that we had been obsessing over and had even dedicated our own holiday to, was the most majestic thing I had ever laid eyes on. Its blue spotted skin was perfectly complimented by the blue water and the sunlight streaming through. As the shark slowly moved its caudal fin back and forth, we followed suit, swimming side by side with this large and very misunderstood creature. It was in this moment that I realized that this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

Being less than a foot away from a 12-foot shark may seem terrifying, but in that moment, I was completely at ease. In fact, it was not simply the shark. I was completely at ease with every living thing in the Sea of Cortez. I wanted to dive every day, to see every urchin, moray eel, and sea lion that I possibly could. I realized that swimming in a man-made lake in the middle of January was completely worth every second and every shiver I made. I realized that I would never stop learning about the ocean and its inhabitants, that I would never stop diving. And since August 6th, 2008, I never have.