We are sailing in the Gulf of Aden towards Djibouti. Our captain, Maurizio, who is a barista in his spare time, is standing behind his espresso machine preparing a caffè latte macchiato. Suddenly the calm is disturbed by one of the crew: “Whale shark!” Leaning over the rail of the 38-metre schooner, we scan the water’s surface but can see nothing but waves.
“Whale shark!” the sailor calls out again and gestures towards the waves. Suddenly we see part of a tail fin emerging above the surface, slowly cutting through the water.
We abandon our coffee and upon Maurizio’s directions Marco, an Italian photographer, and I get into the Zodiac with our underwater cameras and our snorkeling gear. The sailor takes us to the place where we spotted the whale shark last.
Whale sharks are the largest fish on earth, measuring more than 12 metres in length and weighing up to 21 tonnes. There are only a few spots in the world where these animals gather to mate and this area off the Djibouti coast is one of them.
“There he is!” the sailor exclaims and we see a shadow disappear under the boat. I put on my diving mask, bite on the snorkel and spend a few seconds considering whether it is a good idea to get into the water with a beast that weighs the equivalent of several mid-class passenger cars. I decide that a real man isn’t afraid of a couple of mid-class passenger cars and let myself fall backwards into the water.
As soon as the air bubbles have dissolved and I have oriented myself I start looking for the Big One. The sailor has spotted him from the Zodiac and points: “He’s coming!” he calls out. Is that excitement or worry I detect in his voice? Marco and I start swimming, but I soon stop and just peer ahead in awe. An undefined shape is moving toward me and getting bigger by the second. Oh help, I am on a collision course! I distinguish a one-metre-wide mouth with two small eyes on either side. The colossus is swimming right at me and is only a few metres away.
“Easy boy!” I think with all my might. I know these fish are plankton eaters, but I have no doubt that I would easily fit into this mouth that is the size of a garbage container. A metre and a half before impact the whale shark appears to notice me and dives down to pass underneath me. I walk my hands over his back, which feels surprisingly smooth. After about eight metres of fish I see an enormous tail fin coming at me – it looks more like the sail of a wind surf. As though he knows where I am, he steers his tail clear of me as well.
Strangely enough, when I come up to the surface the world hasn’t changed… I just had a close encounter with a whale shark! “Wow!” I try to scream, but because I have a snorkel in my mouth it comes out a bit differently. I pull myself up onto the boat, fall onto the floor of the Zodiac and realise that I can cross one item off my Bucket List – one down, nine to go!