Swimming with a school bus

February 8, 2012 | by Sean Howard

Sean Howard

As a Peace Corps volunteer you have virtually no control over where you end up in the world, which can work in your favor if you end up in a tropical paradise, or make the next two years a living hell. I could say a lot of negative things about the town I was assigned to in the Philippines, but all the drawbacks about my location were more than compensated for by the fact I was only two hours away from the whale shark capital of the world. The town of Donsol is like every other town its size in the Philippines, except that it happens to be at the mouth of a bay where hundreds of whale sharks come to feed (and potentially breed) between February and June every year. The butanding (whale shark in Tagalog) is the largest living fish and can reach lengths of over 40 feet. However, trying to imagine what a 12 meter fish looks like is very difficult. You can see their shadow from above the water and you know they are big, but nothing can prepare you for the monstrous apparition that materializes out of nowhere once you’re in the water with them. My first encounter was the only time in my life when I could actually perceive my brain not being able to process the information it was being fed. For a split second I was paralyzed as I tried to comprehend the sheer mass of the creature that was gliding so effortlessly through the water only a few feet away. Only when I regained my composure and started swimming alongside it did I truly start to appreciate how big the butanding really was. Sean Howard

Getting a proper perspective of size is difficult underwater, especially since at times the turbidity of the water made it difficult to see the entire length of the animal at once; all you get are 20-foot sections at a time. The best I could do was use my body length and arm span as rulers to map out the lengths of the various body parts. This was surprisingly easy to accomplish because the shark swam right along the surface at a speed easy to maintain with my diving fins. From my improvised measurements, I determined the width of the head was roughly 30 percent wider than my arm span (about 8 feet), the pectoral fins were a little shorter than a full arm span (about 5 feet), the tail fin was easily two of my body lengths (about 15 feet), and by my best estimation, the whole body was six of my body lengths (about 36 feet). The shark stayed at the surface long enough for me to examine its entire length, then as calmly as it appeared it quietly submerged to the dark depths below. Over the next two years, I went back to Donsol numerous times and swam with too many sharks to count, but nothing will compare to that first incredible encounter with a school bus in the water.

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