Friday, April 12, 2013

It's a whale!! It's a shark!! It's a WHALE SHARK

Hellloooooohhhh. Or shall I say "Harrroooo"

There are sooo many things to blog, you guys (we went to Nagoya, saw the tunnel of lights, Kyoto, Okinawa, the fact that I have LESS THAN A WEEK left in Japan...). But I just have to write about our whale shark dive before I forget it.

There are not enough words. I say that phrase a lot but seriously... amazing. epic. incredible. unforgettable. breathtaking. It was everything and more.

This was our second trip to Okinawa. Our first was in December of last year- we spent Christmas there, just John and I. This was one of our few trips away together, so Okinawa is a really special place to both of us. We had researched diving with whale sharks the first time, but only found places that required a SCUBA certification (which we didn't have). The absence of a whale shark dive hit John hard and I was constantly reminded of "the time we didn't swim with whale sharks." When we found out we would be going a second time, we (and I say "we" but I really mean "John") hit the research HARD. Found a company that would take us without any SCUBA certification or experience and made a reservation! Boom!! You all know what happened from there, I made sure ALL my facebook friends were well aware of the fact that I would be swimming with the world's biggest and most elusive fish.

Fast forward to the morning of April 8th. After giving a brief intro on how to scuba dive (1. breath  2. equalize  3. don't go up to the surface to fix your problems), we changed into wet suits and got on a boat. Our guide had told us "the water conditions today... are not so good. They are... uhh... bad." Fantastic. Exactly what I wanted to hear, as a incredibly motion-sick sensitive person. The boat ride out was rocky, but I kept my eyes focused on the horizon and tried to stay calm. There were about 12 other divers with us, all who were SCUBA certified and could therefore enter the net where the whale shark is kept. John and I were to remain outside the net, but were permitted to pet and touch the whale shark (and any other fish).

Our guide helped us put on our "packs" (not sure what the technical name is... the tank and regulator and stuff) along with some fins and red gloves. My red glove had a hole in one of the fingers, which the guide just said "Oh yeah, sometimes the fish bite". And then proceeded to pull the remaining bit of my glove over the finger glove. Like that was going to protect me from the human-eating fish below.

He told us to keep our right hand over our face, mask, and regulator, left hand over the back of the mask. And then just fall backwards into the water. Up until this point, I had been 100% excited. Something about the "backwards fall" made me feel all the fear I had been hiding. Like I was just supposed to throw myself backwards off the boat? The guide went in first, and then it was my turn. With my heart thudding in my chest, I fell backwards into the crystal waters of the East China Sea. It wasn't so bad. I didn't die, so that was a definite plus.

Once all three of us were in the water, we joined hands and Yas (our guide) took us deeper. Every now and then he would stop and give us the signal to equalize. I saw the first look of Takuya, the whale shark and gave John and tight hand squeeze. As we got deeper and deeper, the pain in my ear grew. I tried and tried to equalize but water just came out my mask instead. I gave Yas the sign for "PAIN!" and he took me up a bit higher so I could equalize. We worked on different depths for at least 10 minutes (meanwhile, John hung onto the giant net in the water and watched me make awkward faces in my mask). At one point, I was sure that blood was coming out of my ears. FINALLY I felt a giant POP! and the pressure was relieved from my ears. I could finally enjoy it.

Enough talking for now... Time for some pictures!!

We're on a boat!
First SCUBA dive!

 I was worried about two things:
  1. That my midget arms wouldn't be able to reach Takuya (the whale shark). While I struggled to pet him through the net, John could reach with ease.
  2. The fish would eat my hand through the glove hole
Ended up that... I COULD touch Takuya, kiss him even as he swam right up against the net. Andd the hole in my glove allowed me to feel a whale shark's skin. Super neat!! When I asked John what he thought of how Takuya felt, he replied "Uhhh yeah, he felt like glove!" Ended up being lucky to have that hole in my glove. 

Look Ma! I'm riding a whale shark!!!

Definitely felt him swim up my body while I looked at the camera

 We were down in the water for about 40 minutes, and they kept Takuya by us nearly the entire time!! We were the only divers outside the net so it was only for our benefit. And we are soo so grateful for it.

Whale shark eat your face!!!!
You can't tell but I'm feeding Takuya!!!
 There were SCUBA divers who had bags of krill and shrimp and would use the food to lure Takuya to our spot near the net. At one point, the diver reached for my hand and gave me a handful to feed to Takuya! I immediately released my hand but he gestured to release it slowly in a grab-and-release kind of motion. Takuya opened his mouth and it was like an underwater vacuum. I was almost positive my glove/arm/head would be sucked into his mouth!! It was incredible!!! A little while after, John got to feed him too!

The gentle giant

My glove with the hole in it.
 After our 40 minutes with Takuya, Yas signaled that it was time to go back to the boat. As we slowly made our way to the surface (taking the extra time to equalize), I could feel the current taking it's toll on me. The water sloshed us back and forth, making us well aware that we were at the mercy of the sea. When we finally reached the boat, I was signaled to climb on the ladder. This was a LOT easier said than done. I knew the tank would be heavy, but combined with the angry sea and a sopping wet suit- it felt like I was 100 lbs. heavier. I looked to the captain for help but he merely watched my struggle with an amused look and crossed arms. Thanks guy.

As I made my way onto the boat, I heard sounds of divers vomiting in the water. Beth had told me a similar story about a diver vomiting in the water and fish coming to eat the nasty remains. Sure enough, I could see fish starting to appear for a midday snack. As more and more divers came aboard, they all seemed to go straight for the edge of the boat to hurl. I found my happy place and tried to focus once again on the bobbing horizon. John came and took a seat next to me, but I knew that if we talked at all, I too would be bent at the waist, tossing my lunch.

Without turning our heads, we had a brief recap
"That was awesome"
"We'll talk about it later"

A forced smile as we tried to keep our food down.
I honestly could not have asked for a better experience (maybe better water conditions...) but the memories are unforgettable. Being in the water with a gigantic fish, being able to touch it AND feed it was simply amazing. Thank you John for doing the research and finding such an incredible opportunity for us! I could not imagine sharing this with anyone else.

Another thing checked off the bucket list!! Oh, and I am UBER proud at the both of us for not yacking like the seasoned pros did. Yay for noob divers!!

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