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“People might look for these fish all over the world — Thailand, Dominican Republic. See nada. Then they come to Whale Shark Alley and they can’t believe it.” Isham squints into the deep blue emptiness with the narrowing eyes of a big-game hunter. “The sharks are out there, alright. There’s an 80% chance you’ll see one today.”
It was always going to take something special to help us overcome the do-nothing imperative of Tofo. We’d followed in the wake of the hedonists, the in-the-know bums and the winter sun-seekers who have long frequented this immaculate notch of Mozambican coast. Theirs was the spirit in which our group — two couples on a temporary escape from the city-grind — had rattled down the 20 kilometres of broken asphalt that runs down here from the faded colonial sprawl of Inhambane: read a book, jump some waves and stoke the evening braai.
As time passed, however, the region’s other cause célèbre had become harder to ignore. From the beach-boys looking for kick-backs to the Saffer drifters downing shots of tipo tinto rum in the bars that line the dunes, word on the sand was: “The sharks are out there…”
Ordinarily, this refrain would be good reason to stay the hell away from the ocean, but these sharks were different. These were whale-sharks, the gummy goliaths of the shark fraternity, and rumour had it there was a veritable posse of them cruising just offshore.
It was early May, but that was irrelevant. Tofo’s waters are rich enough to sustain whale-sharks year-round, together with a seasonal supporting cast of bottlenose dolphins, humpback whales and manta rays (no Great Whites before anyone asks — the water’s too warm). This fact, coupled with the proximity of the feedings grounds to the coast, has made this one of the best places on earth to take the plunge with the world’s biggest fish.
According to a recent study carried out by the Tofo-based Foundation for the Protection of Marine Megafauna Foundation, excursions out of Tofo run an 87% chance of encountering the big one. Hand over $30–40 to one of the handful of dive-shops that run these daily “ocean safaris”, and you could be as lucky as the group that saw 14 whale-sharks in one two-hour trip, or the blessed bunch that got to swim alongside one particularly insouciant monster for 49 minutes.
Isham, the old-hand who’d just sent us down the beach with his gravelly “80%” reassurances ringing in our ears had undersold it.
Sat behind the counter at Tofo Scuba, a PADI Gold Palm outfit right on the beach, Tibea — “like the bone” — is more circumspect: “The visibility is good, the sun is out. But there are no guarantees.” The last gusts of the wet-season trade winds have kept the boats beached for the last three days, she explains, so no-one’s sure exactly what’s out there right now. Still, 87% — it’s worth a punt.
Half an hour later, we’ve stripped down to our swimwear and joined a group of 16 other hopefuls in what amounts to a military initiation: eight abreast each side of an orange R.I.B, heaving its hull through the tumble-dryer surf, and then slithering aboard. Hereon, we are in the hands of the Mozambican crew: Rafael, our diminutive guide; the spotter, perched on top of a triangular scaffold above the stern to spy for fins; and a grizzled mariner at the wheel, gunning the pair of 90HP Evinrude outboards through the troughs, letting the ocean take over as we ride up onto the swells, stubbled jaw set firm, sun-narrowed eyes scanning the horizon.
The clients make a charade of doing the same, but puce complexions betray that most of us have overindulged in tipo tinto the night before. I concentrate on clinging to the grip-rope and holding down breakfast, while Rafael runs through the etiquette we would need to follow to ensure that the fish would be only mildly inconvenienced by our intrusion: “Don’t swim in front of it, don’t swim by the tail. And whatever you do, don’t touch!”
Soon we arrive at Whale-Shark Alley. This is where the sea is at its most nutritious: an invisible spaghetti junction of plankton blooms, the filter-feeder equivalent of an all-you-can-eat buffet. The pilot kills the motor a few hundred metres offshore from Praia da Roscha, one of the endless series of bronze arcs that radiate out from Tofo both north and south, where a trio of surfers are waiting for the perfect break.
For a while, it seems like they have struck upon a much better way to exploit the conditions. On calm days, when the sea is flat as polished topaz, spotting marine mega-fauna is easy. Today, tossed about in a constantly rippling desert of water, it seems a lost cause. A passing school of flying-fish provide an iridescent injection of excitement, but hardly worth abandoning the sun-lounger for. A girl at the back pukes over the side.
I’m just preparing my appeal for a refund when there is a flurry of pointing and an urgent Portuguese exchange between Rafael and his amigo on the scaffold perch.
“Put your masks on everyone.”
“What is it?” I ask, and then see for myself — a grey fin cutting low and smooth, twenty metres off our port-side: a dolphin?
Rafael and the pilot turn and say in unison: “Whale shark!”
The boat describes a big arc, everyone’s eyes following the more experienced gaze of the crew to train on the spot where we think our quarry is cruising.
“OK, in the water!”
A clumsy ballet of flipper-y chaos: the squeak of 16 backsides swiveling on the rubber; 64 flailing limbs, 16 plops into the bobbing water.
Less than a mile offshore, the Indian Ocean is warm but already 30 metres deep. Despite excellent visibility, the underwater world is featureless. Plunged into this disorienting void, I end up detached from the rest of the group, and at first I’m set on rejoining them. Behind those paddling silhouettes — that must be where the fish is. Um, why are they all coming…?
The sight that greets me when I turn around is akin to the last image Jonah saw the moment he entered into biblical lore: an oval mouth big enough to swallow me without touching the sides. Its owner is a monster, a mature male whale-shark the size of six bull elephants, his grey-blue flanks crosshatched with a grid of stripes and mottled with light yellow polka dots, like a one-sided game of noughts n’ crosses. ‘Marokintana,’ they call him across the water in Madagascar — ‘many stars’.
After a few frantic moments, everyone finds a point at which they can admire the creature without getting kicked or inadvertently swallowed, and the mesmerizing rhythm of the shark’s serpent-like arabesques begin to cast a magic spell. A few metres below, a pair of bottlenose are hanging in crescent shapes with that dolphin expression, somewhere between serenity and amusement, as if they too are here on an excursion: watching us, watching the whale shark.
Eventually, he gets bored and, with a slight acceleration of his mighty chevron tail-fin, he is gone, the five minutes of surreal tranquility his presence created replaced by the euphoria he has left behind: 16 people treading water and screaming down their snorkels: bubble, slosh, splash… “…mazing” …splash, bubble “…did you see..?”
The sharks are out here, alright. And we’ve just swum with one.
Henry Wismayer is a travel writer nearing retirement. Applause will be cashed in for coffee or whiskey sours depending on the time of day.