"Jump now!” shouted our guide, Ali. I stumbled down the deck trying to pull on my oversized fins and frantically scouring the floor for my misplaced snorkel.
“Hurry, hurry!” he called again, more urgently. Mask askew, I leapt from the boat into the warm Indian Ocean. Spotting the tip of Ali’s snorkel up ahead, I plunged my face underwater, ready to begin a speedy, front crawl pursuit.
And there, facing me – behind a haze of bubbles – was the looming head of a 6-metre whale shark.
I was on a whale-shark safari off South Ari Atoll in the Maldives, with a team of local experts who know the waters as well as they know the land.
Whooping Whistling & Clapping
Whale sharks, though daunting in terms of size, are harmless to humans, feeding mainly on plankton. Our guides stood atop the cabin, pointing out passing sea life – turtles, dolphins, manta rays – where before I’d seen nothing but a vast expanse of ocean.
Aboard our beautiful pine-wood yacht, Thari, we had spent the morning meandering between the small islands dotted around the atoll, in search of the Maldives’ largest sea inhabitant.
After a morning of sunbaking, intermittent stints of snorkelling and a rather lavish, not-so-light lunch (despite the chef’s prior assurances), the lack of shark sightings was beginning to worry me.
However, looking anxiously up at Ali and his crew, I could see they appeared unperturbed.
A sudden commotion of whooping, whistling and clapping signalled the appearance of something exciting. We raced up to the front of the boat to see the outline of a whale shark vanishing into the depths with unexpected velocity.
Next time, we would need a much speedier response if we were to see this magnificent creature up close. On an eager second attempt, I was into the water even before our guide – I wasn’t about to let a second shark disappear without an intimate encounter.
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Alone With A Shark In An Underwater World
For a few seconds my body was suspended and I was captivated by the graceful movement of this terrifying yet enchanting creature, four times my size and just inches from my fingertips.
The silence served only to intensify the sense that in that moment it was just the shark and me, alone in an underwater world.
Though the animal seemed to move slowly, I could feel the strong surge of current generated by a mere flick of its tail.
A gentle nudge from Ali reminded me to start kicking my fins if I wanted to keep this huge creature in sight. I continued to swim alongside it, never averting my eyes from its spotted back, until it took the plunge and returned to the depths.
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This article was written by Victoria Monk from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.