We leave the hotel at 5:06am. Our driver is a shy young guy named Rodi. He’s arrives at the hotel early and I’m a bit surprised that he’s already outside waiting for us as soon as we’re ready to go. Rodi is wearing a bright yellow polo shirt and heavily starched white pants with a well-defined pleat down the front. He’s clean cut and reserved, and we spend our first thirty minutes in the car snaking our way out of Cebu City through dark back roads. The only other people outside at that hour are runners and cyclists. We are groggy and quiet. Out of the corner of my eye I see a Harrod’s department store and I think of the last time I was in London – delayed for 12 hours at Heathrow, a visit to the iconic establishment was in order.
Out of the city, we drive through an industrial district and as we pass the port the sun starts to peek up over the horizon. By 6:00 the radio is on and we are chatting. I munch on some corn flakes that I picked up at the grocery store the day before. We pass through the suburbs, then the landscape changes dramatically. Dense urban areas give way to lush green banana leaves and palm fronds. We wind our way down the coast and just before 8:00 we arrive in Oslob at the aptly named “Whale Shark Briefing Center.”
There are a lot of people milling about and I start to question whether this is going to be the serene underwater experience I had hoped for. The sand is covered with tumbled pieces of white coral reflecting the sun. As my nephew would say, it is so shiny outside. Bright orange life jackets hang across the ledge of the open air Briefing Center; I notice the contrast of the bright white sunlight and sand and blue water. We sign in, then sit down in front of a big diagram of the ocean, canoes and a whale shark. We are told not to try to ride the whale sharks or to wear sunscreen in the water. Eager pupils that we are, we ask if any whale sharks have been spotted so far that morning and the instructor looks at us incredulously (what a stupid question) and nods.
We rent underwater cameras and then we are led to a canoe. The canoes are loaded down with tourists, but somehow my colleague and I get our own boat. Two guides paddle us out into the water for no more than two minutes. We can’t be more than a hundred feet offshore, but we stop. The guide points at what looks like a big shadow about fifteen feet from us and says very matter-of-factly, “There it is. Jump in.” I am in shock that the whale shark is just right there, I mean literally right there, and so I do as I’m told and I jump in.
The guides jump in right behind us, take our cameras and say, “Please dive down ma’am. Okay, one more time, please ma’am, thank you.” The guides are relentlessly committed to getting the perfect shot. I keep diving down swimming by the creature’s fins, feeling the water moved by his giant tail. I watch his mouth open and close in search of food.
There’s a school of fish around the whale shark’s tail and a few larger fish swimming under his belly. I look down and see a group of scuba divers near the ocean floor about thirty feet below. My skin and the whale shark’s skin are marbled in rays of sunlight. I dive down and swim beside this biggest fish of sea, following his tail through the water. His movements are slow and graceful. I come up for air and the whale shark comes up to feed on crill near the surface. I tread water watching him swim along.
We swim around for 30 minutes or so. It’s utterly surreal – the entire time I cannot believe what I am seeing. Two more whale sharks come by. I felt the urge to wipe my eyes to verify that what I was seeing was actually a reality. On a total high we climb back into the boat and paddle ashore. We sit at a nearby beach cafe and take it all in. We acknowledge how absurd the whole experience is and then proceed to rehash every detail. All of our sentences start with “can you believe that…”
And, quite honestly, I kind of can’t.