Alistair Caldicott

Into India, Out of Africa

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Excerpt from Chapter 12 - Mozambique - Swimming with Whale Sharks

The sun rising over the Indian Ocean soon warms the tent and I wake to the glorious vista of empty sand and ocean. Little over a week ago a destructive cyclone passed through here in Mozambique, but there is no sign of the damage and destruction it caused. The atmosphere among the thatched huts and tents is slightly reminiscent of the film, The Beach, in that it exudes detachment from normal life.

For some reason the sand squeaks when you walk on it. The seawater temperature is 28 degrees. I've probably had colder baths at home and it is very difficult to come out of the gentle rolling warm surf once you are in. The sun is warm, but the sea breeze pleasantly refreshes. Gazing out across the water the next stop would be the island of Madagascar.

In the afternoon we head down to go snorkelling with whale sharks.

These amazing creatures are the largest fish found in the world and grow up to 12m long! They are surprisingly harmless enough to humans and eat mostly plankton fish giving them the nickname cows of the sea for the way they 'graze' underwater.

Due to the threat of jellyfish stings we get kitted out in full body wetsuits and head to the beach. A few strong pushes help to get the motorised speedboat dinghy buoyant off the sand and on the water. Trying to keep up we leap into the boat clinging on, and practically falling into the thing.

Before I know what is happening Scott the Kiwi skipper has slammed the throttle down hard in true Kiwi style to give the boat some important momentum and prevent it being washed back onto the sand by the waves. The front of the boat dramatically shoots upwards and I reach out to grab something. Finding nothing but thin air through my hands, I hurtle backwards crashing my arm into the heavy engine at the back of the boat. I am fighting gravity and very nearly roll out of the boat altogether before desperately hauling my body back up into a secure position. Scott looks round from the front, having missed everything, and smiles giving the thumbs up. The roar of the engine is too deafening to hear so all I can do is give the thumbs up back signalling everything is fine, which is not quite true.

After a few more seconds of tearing over the water like an adrenaline theme park ride at great speed I trust myself to hold on less tightly and notice my arm is bleeding slightly. This is not an ideal thing to have happen moments before you dive into the water with the world's largest shark, even though I was told they are completely harmless.

After around 20 minutes we cruise to a silent halt. Scott has spotted a whale shark and there it is in the water, a giant dark blue submarine like object hovering just below the water. We need no second invitation to hurriedly throw the snorkel and flippers on to plunge in and join it. I stick my mask into the water and suddenly smack bang in front of me is this enormous moving object.

It is quite surreal to be in the water together with such a majestically cool creature. Never mind coming face to face with it as it comes straight at me. Only yards away from me it calmly moves past. Aware of my presence it eyeballs me with eyes the size of tennis balls on the side of its head. It is absolutely huge, bigger than a minibus, yet graceful in its movement.

I follow its movement swimming above it, almost able to reach out and touch it. At one point I even have to back away to avoid making contact. This is because humans can do these creatures a lot of harm when they touch them by transmitting diseases. To watch and observe in awe is enough. They have white blotches on very thick blue, grey skin. Even the tail on its own would be a sizeable object to be reckoned with. I repeated the process of swimming over and around it a couple of times, utterly captivated by the wonder of it. Then water sneaks into my mask and I am forced to go above the surface to adjust it.

A few seconds later I go under again, but all I catch is the large blue shape disappearing away from me into murky water. It was gone. It was perhaps fitting that one quality spell with these magnificent creatures would be all that I was granted.

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