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Trip Report Chasing whale sharks from Mafia Island

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Swimming with whale sharks...what an adventure (code for boondoggle).

On the final morning of our four day stay on Mafia Island the seas calm enough to venture out in search of the whale sharks who winter and feed there. Its the main reason we added this last bit to our safari in southern Tanzania. The mammoths have been spotted the week before in numbers as high as fifteen, but we have been sitting for three days unable to take up the chase because of high seas.

With great anticipation, we pile into an ancient van along with seven others from the neighboring resorts. Our driver is on two cell phones the entire way. He is talking back and forth franctically, while negotiating roads where no grader has ever traveled. Thirty minutes later we arrive at the shore -- an ugly industrial fishing port where not one boat looks as though it will stay afloat long enough to snap a photo. (Dare I even wonder if this is safe?) At this point, there is much shouted negotiations with bystanders and on cell phones. The driver never once turns off the van motor -- I feel certain it will not start again without jumper cables and maybe a wind-up key. But patiently, we wait.

Ten minutes later, "so sorry, no boat here, we must go on to another location". The boondoggle begins. But, O.K., we've come this far - in for a penny, in for a pound. Backtracking over those same rutted roads, we spend another 20 minutes before coming to a nearly deserted beach. In the distance there is a boat. I'm pretty sure it was made entirely from old packing crates.

Oh well, life is too short to be fearful - chin up! We wade through the muddy tidal flats, then through the waist deep water to fling ourselves over the rail and aboard. We're off!

Soon I realize that there is one guy on board who's only job is to pump the bilge so that we won't sink. Water is literally coming in as fast as he can pump it out. They have thoughtfully placed a woven mat over the bottom of the boat so that we aren't alarmed by the 6-8 inches of water underneath. I mention to DH that the "bilge kid" is soon fast asleep and doesn't seem to be keeping up his end of the bargain. But DH puts me at ease by pointing out that the kid has his bare feet hanging down and as soon as the water reaches a sufficient level, it hits his feet and wakes him up to pump before we sink. How ingenious!

Everyone is excited and bubbly. We suit up -- fins, masks, snorkels - telling jokes and holding cameras at the ready. We eagerly wait.

Its a big ocean - and really, whale sharks aren't THAT big. Two boys stand in the bow of the boat looking for a fin. One little fin (o.k.- one big fin) in all that water. A whale shark fin IS big - for a fish fin, but its not THAT big in a whole ocean. Let's just say that its the size of a sofa (which its not). Ever try to find a sofa floating in the ocean? We wait.

One hour....everyone has taken off fins, masks, snorkels and wet suits. Its hot, its really hot. We wait.

Two hours.....We've stopped laughing and making jokes. One couple had the foresight to bring a packed breakfast and the audacity to eat it in front of us. We all silently hate them! We wait.

Our seats are a 6 inch wide, flat board. Not quite wide enough for BOTH cheeks, so you have to alternate from one cheek to the other. Pretty soon my whole bumm is numb. I ask DH to retrieve one of the many life preservers in the overhead netting so that I might use it for a seat cushion. He tries, but they are all roped together and tied down - impossible to get out. (Hmmmm, would that meet safety regulations?) Pretty soon I'm sitting on one of my swim fins just to keep the seat board from sawing my arse in half! We wait.

I'm one of the lucky ones with an upright post to lean on. I fall asleep sitting up, leaning against my post. BIG EXCITEMENT ensues! A passing fishing boat (canoe) says they have seen whale sharks nearby. We speed off in the general direction they point and we wait.

Around and around in circles. By now - I'm pretty sure most everyone on the boat is wondering why we thought this was such a spectacular idea in the first place. I know, I am. And wondering how long we must keep looking before we can respectfully say we've given it a go -- and then give up. However, reputations are the line. The dive master is constantly on his cell phone making frantic sounding calls -- to who?

I doze again.

THERE IS IS!!! -- a whale shark right beside the boat! I am jarred awake just in time to see the spotted back (unmistakable) zip past. They are really, really here! How we found them in this vast body of water is a miracle.

But wait.....before we can suit up again, its gone. Disappears into the deep. Everyone is at the ready again. Have we really gotten this close for only a fleeting glimpse? Surely not. The chase is on and the boys are now determined. We've been given the instructions for how to snorkel with a whale shark -- "don't get too near " --- (AS IF ...!) We wait.

Now its been 4 hours or more. Time is running out and I can see that we are slowly heading back toward shore and our departure point. So much - for so little. Then just as we near the end of the excursion (and truly, right where we started out four hours ago) -- THERE IT IS AGAIN !

'"JUMP, JUMP, JUMP!!" Into the water. He seems to be staying this time and we're really, really, really going to get our chance to swim with a whale shark. The Holy Grail.

We're in! ----- But, hold on......I can't see a thing. The water, rich with the plankton that attracts the whale sharks to feed, is as clear as mud. I can't see my hand at the end of my arm. A whale shark could be a foot away. The swells are big and its hard to tell where anyone or anything might be. I stick close to our dive master, who is watching the boat. They can still see the whale shark from topside and point the way. (Why didn't I stay in the boat?) The dive master takes my hand and says "this way - its coming". So we swim as fast as we can to get ahead of its path and then we wait - one last time.

There it is! Gliding by, right in front of us. "Did you see it?", he asks. YES!

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