“Ol’ Tom?” I asked.
“Dats what we call da whale sharks here on da cays,” she explained. “We wuz lookin for da Bonita ad we saw lotsa birds flyon’ about. Den we seen all deese bubbles and a great big shadow, bigger dan da boat come up beside us.”
“Did you get in with it?”
“Mnnnhh, mnh. No way.”
The fishermen in the cays often tell stories of “Old Tom”, which was a legendary barnacle encrusted Whale Shark seen off Utila for decades that ranged somewhere between f40 to 60 feet, depending on whose mouth the tale is told. The name came to refer to all whale sharks and the fish have come to take a sort of mythological role for the islanders.
Sightings of whale sharks (rhincodon typus) in the waters off the Honduran island of Utila are common enough through the months of April and May that nearly every islander has seen one of the large fish more than once in their lifetime, even if they aren’t looking for them. During these months visitors descend on the Bay Island to swim with the whale sharks, which can weigh as much as 20 tons and can reach as much as 65 feet in length, and swim with them as they feed on plankton.
The whale shark is Pelagic, an open ocean dweller, and it is the largest fish in the ocean, though it is known as being extraordinarily gentle. They are usually spotted in tropical and temperate waters from 70 to 82 Fahrenheit, eat mostly plankton, and are highly migratory. One tagged whale shark was tracked across more than 8,000 miles in less than a 3-year period.
The following morning I went out with the Whale Shark and Oceanic Research Center, one of two whale shark research teams based on Utila, for an encounter trip. For the past week every boat that had gone out had seen at least one whale shark. It didn’t take us long. On the southwest corner of Utila, maybe thirty minutes from the municipal pier, we spotted a boil. Thousands of fish were flopping on the surface and several hundred seagulls were dive-bombing them. It was a chaotic splish-splash with the sound of Jacuzzi bubbles. We moved closer and soon glimpsed a faint shadow a dozen meters from the dive boat. It immediately dropped down and disappeared. We waited around for another half hour but the whale shark never came back up.
We moved to the other side of the island and instantly spotted a boil. In its vicinity were two other dive boats. Guidelines within the dive community on Utila state, and are generally respected, that more than one boat at a time cannot be within a certain radius of a whale shark and must not approach it. We watched from afar as one whale shark skimmed the surface of the water with his mouth open, his full spotted back within view.
Soon another shadow arose from the depths of the sea not far from the boat. Our captain circled us around so we were in the fish’s trajectory. Find and snorkels were thrown on and we jumped in the water. We looked straight down and there was nothing but blue. The bottom was nowhere in sight. Then the creature could be seen off in the distance. It grew closer and soon swam beneath us. We followed it briefly before it disappeared. We climbed back in the boat and watched as he repeatedly returned to the boil. Several more chances came where we could jump back in with one of several whale sharks we encountered during the four-hour excursion. No sign of Ol’ Tom though.
IF YOU GOT TO UTILA
Whale Shark Encounters:
Whale Shark and Oceanic Research Center (WSORC)
Writer and photographer Nicholas Gill is the editor/publisher of New World Review. He lives in Lima, Peru and Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CondeNast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, Afar, and Penthouse. Visit his personal website (nicholas-gill.com) for more information.