DUCK-DIVING WITH GIANTS
It’s an overcast and breezy, yet warm, morning. I’m standing on the sea’s edge, looking out across the water imagining and anticipating what’s to come - I’ll be swimming with whale sharks for the first time today. This amazing revelation doesn’t quite hit though – my alarm woke me at 6:30 in the morning, after which I staggered around the house looking for breakfast before being gently herded into town, bundled onto a jeepney (public bus) and deposited on site, all in a state far from wakefulness.
Pulling on my rash vest, leggings and LAMAVE T-shirt, I follow a fellow volunteer to the water. Before long I’m donning my mask, pushing my feet into my fins, and after a quick nod to each other, we slip into the Philippine Sea. Swimming through the water, the occasional fish darts past, briefly grabbing my attention, but my main focus at this point is keeping up with my fellow volunteer – unfortunately, they seem to only have one speed, and several months more in-water exercise than me! Suddenly, out of the gloom a shadow emerges, and I meet my first whale shark.
Considering the size of these massive fish, the grace with which they move through the water is astounding, although their dopey expression does slightly subtract from their elegance. Remembering I have a job to do, I duck-dive down beside the shark and take some photos, before returning to the surface panting – syncing breathing and diving takes practice!
Here with LAMAVE, we use the shark’s unique spot patterns to take identification photos of each individual. Our main focus is the left hand side of the shark, between the gills and dorsal fin, which we can then upload to a database to distinguish whether the individual is new or returning. There is a fine art to perfecting an ID photo, first it’s too far away then too close, too high then too low, too forward then too behind, I’m sure you get the picture (pardon the pun)! Tying this all in with duck-diving, coping with swell, current, and manoeuvring yourself underwater requires a lot of perseverance, and a multitude of photos that don’t quite make the cut.
I used to think that doing the same thing every day would get boring, but when it involves jumping in the water, observing these marvellous animals, learning whois who and how they differ, it’s hard to even consider that this could be tedious.
Jenny Hardy is a Microbiology graduate, who got tired of spending every day growing bacteria in the UK and decided to work with the biggest fish on the other side of the world instead. You can usually find her avoiding the sun, getting eaten by mosquitos, and updating her twitter (@jensinstincts)