Peder with a D

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Sapodilla Cayes, the String of Pearls and Swimming with Whale Sharks

Posted by Peder on 19 June 2009

Last week I went on a dive trip to the Sapodilla Cayes (Hunting Caye) with some friends. A late night, nearly last minute decision that lead to one of the coolest experiences of my life. (Similar to my decision to move to Shanghai.)

Dive Prep

Dive Prep

Our first dive was to be an easier affair and a chance for us to re-acclimate ourselves with diving. There were a few divers who hadn’t been in the water in a while. Not me though, I recently got certified. I saw a very large green moray eel and a spiny lobster on the dive. There was also a section of rock with large coral colonies that had fallen off during the recent earthquake (7.3 mW off Bay Islands, Honduras, June 2009). I swam in a couple crevices and regained some proficiency with my buoyancy.

When we came in from the dive we cleaned up and immediately started on some dinner that our host was making. It wasn’t just for us. An upscale time-share group called Tradewinds had moored two large catamarans off the caye and brought about 20 guests onto the island. Our host had a weekly contract with them to provide a few dinners and a presentation on wildlife around the reef, and provided us our opportunity to dive. Because our departure from shore had been delayed a bit and because of the length of our afternoon dive, we had precious little time to get the four courses ready for the guests. Everyone helped prepare the dinner. Meanwhile, we prepared for our night dive.

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Sunset on the Caye

Sundown was a beautiful vision on the caye. Looking west where paradise eventually reconnected with land, the sun touched down on the Caribbean lagoon with a bath of reds and oranges, magentas and yellows. Once the sun was below the horizon we were ready to look for the “String of Pearls” phenomenon. This is one of the more rare sites for any diver to encounter. In select few places around the globe around the time of the full moon, if one were to venture onto the water in the period after sunset and before the moonrise, they would see one of the most peculiar displays of bioluminescence on this Earth. Once we were underwater and accounted for, we gathered together and shut off our lights. Slowly and all around us, new young star constellations began appearing in the water. Some were close, and some were far away. After just a few minutes the water was transformed into a young Milky Way galaxy as thousands of small lights surrounded us. But these three-dimensional constellations were actually small critters. (Here’s one explanation I found for it.) The effect was amazing. The lights seemed to cascade down – newer dots lit below older ones – as the whole array appeared to move upward. It was difficult to tell if the upward movement was real or just a visual effect caused by the wriggling shimmer of the light bearers, but seeing this behavior – this String of Pearls – was awe inspiring, utterly poetic in an underwater universe.

The String of Pearls wasn’t the only amazing visual that evening. Water, or perhaps saltwater, is inherently phosphorescent and small air bubbles produced by regulators, fin kicks or a hand being swept side to side produces small, glowing orbs which you can watch float to the surface. Light from our flashlights attracted small one-inch worms ranging in color from tan to blue which would swirl around in our light beams. Benign as they were, those little creatures were spooky in their voracious swimming and we had fun moving our lights onto each others’ arms to bring the swarming masses ever closer to our dive buddies.

That evening, when the diving was done we sat down to enjoy some of the dinner we helped prepare and shared our stories with some of the Tradewinds guests. We relaxed and enjoyed a peaceful night on a tropical paradise. I slept outside in a hammock that night and had a wonderfully restful night.

Let's go diving!

Let's go diving!

It’s a good thing I got a good meal and an even better rest because the next day would prove to be one of the most memorable days of my life. We planned to make one dive that morning and then head back to town around midday. After a breakfast of eggs, bacon and homemade tortillas we got our gear ready and headed back to the reef.

Lime Caye Wall (link, scroll down to “Sapodilla Cayes”) was a fantastic dive site. About 20 feet below the surface was the reef, full of corals, trigger fish, parrot fish and small to medium snappers. As you swam to the east the reef wall dropped around 100 feet as the continental shelf started to drop into the open ocean. Two of the divers immediately took off down that wall with their cameras. Of their various photos, one of my favorites was a video of a green moray eel who was sharing a small cave with a spiny lobster. (Seen below.) The rest of us stayed closer to the top of the wall, but as far as we ever were from the other two, we could always see their bubble streams. Visibility must have been over 100 feet.

Actually I didn’t really stay on top of the reef wall the whole time. I was anxious to see the side of the wall so I swam down along side of it. That’s where some of the larger fish were hanging out. I swam over a coral head through the middle of a school of dog snapper and explored under some of the ridges in the wall. Meanwhile off to my left was the open ocean – any matter of creature could have been out in that blue abyss, including the largest fish in the world.

My depth gauge was apparently malfunctioning. My whole time along the wall it never recorded a depth lower than 25 feet, though our dive master said we were closer to 60’. Around the midway point of the dive my equipment had another malfunction. My secondary second stage – affectionately referred to as “the octopus” and used as an emergency air supply if a buddy runs out of air or if the primary mouthpiece malfunctions – began to “free flow,” uncontrollably spewing air upward. The dive master and I both looked at it underwater, and after exhausting the PADI-approved techniques as well as the “hit it until it behaves” broken TV technique, we agreed the only solution was to hold it mouthpiece-down through the rest of the dive, as if I was navigating with an underwater compass. That stopped most of the leak, though it continued to expunge air whenever I exhaled. As a result, the deeper portion of my dive was over, as I stayed closer to the surface so as not to run through my remaining air at too fast a clip.

Due to the lost air from the octopus free-flow, I had to end my dive earlier than the rest of the group. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed with the dive’s result. It was a beautiful location and it was my last dive in the foreseeable future. To have it shortened by malfunctioning gear was a bit hard to take. So fun is diving that anything that takes it away from you equates to a major buzzkill.

After the rest of the group surfaced we headed back to the island. En route the captain saw a congregation of birds over the open sea. As we approached we also saw the “boil” that indicates tuna feeding. According to the more experienced naturalists on board these were telltale signs of whale sharks feeding and we maneuvered the boat closer to look for the fins that would confirm their presence.

Whale Shark

Whale Shark

I was told to put on my mask and fins in anticipation of finding the gentle giants. Once they were confirmed we immediately dropped into the water. I entered on the port side of the boat looking past the bow and immediately saw a whale shark vertical in the water. To the right was another animal in a horizontal position. When I came up for air I yelled, “There’s two of them!” Someone else yelled, “There’s a third!” When I went back under I looked to the starboard side of the boat to see the additional shark. I was amazed. The water was littered with chum – the bits of baitfish that had been shred by the sharks and tuna. Both bonita and the larger yellow fin were present. I spent a minute or so sitting under water, surfacing for air and watching the mêlée in front of me. I looked down. Below me was only unfettered blue, streaked by the occasional tuna tens of meters below. Light streaked upward from some unknown horizon point in the depths. As I would later think about the experience, I was surprised by my lack of fear for swimming in the open ocean next to a feeding frenzy. Adrenaline was coursing through my veins.

At one point one of the sharks started swimming toward the stern of the boat on the opposite side of the boat from me. I shadowed it from the port side and eventually found myself behind the boat with the beast a mere ten feet from me. For one reason or another it made a hard, right hand turn and aimed itself directly at my position. I froze. What should I do, I wondered. I decided I wasn’t going to move, I was going to let the animal dictate the situation. So I went up for one more breath and re-submerged my face in the water in the classic “dead man’s” float. The whale shark – a juvenile at around 20 feet in length – swam toward me. I could see its small beady eyes fix their gaze on me. And then I remained motionless as it coolly swam directly underneath me. I was paralyzed in excitement. As its head passed underneath I reached out my right hand and grazed the top inch of its dorsal fin as it passed. I touched the whale shark!!

Say "Cheese!"

Say "Cheese!"

I gave a light kick so as to get out of the way of the animal’s massive tail fin which I hoped wouldn’t hit me. The animal must have been diving because we missed each other as I remained on the surface. I popped up and screamed my excitement to the group. Two of them had been nearly as close themselves. Neither had touched an animal, which is the appropriate protocol around these passive creatures. In fact, it’s illegal to touch them and molestation of the animals can come with a BZ$10,000 fine. But as I explained, the animal swam toward me and I simple extended a hand to see how close it truly was to me. (Diving masks magnify underwater visuals and it can often be difficult to accurately gauge size and distance below the surface.)

The Beast Approaches!

The Beast Approaches!

I swam over toward the rest of the group on the starboard side of the boat. As I looked back at my whale shark I saw a silhouette of a more traditional shark in the distance. Swimming at a depth of perhaps 15-20 meters, it had a rounded body around 10-12 feet long, an extended top pectoral fin and it was swimming away from me. In later conversations, others would speculate it was a lemon shark, though it could have also been one of the more common reef sharks found in the area. The other two whale sharks were still off the starboard side of the boat and I joined my companions to watch them. Immediately off to our right we saw a large manta ray gently gyrating its wings through the water about a meter below the surface. What a menagerie!

As the feeding frenzy moved away from us we boarded the boat and recounted what we had seen. We then waited about 20 minutes and set out for another swim with the pelagic predators. The second time we entered the water we only swam with one whale shark, but it was a true behemoth and was clearly a full-grown adult. It was hard to say whether that was the fourth animal we had seen or part of the original three, as it had been hard to track each animal as the bait ball dissipated and moved away from us. I used my fins and a freestyle swim stroke to come up to the animal at an approximate 7 o’clock position a few meters off its tail. It was swimming fast and quickly eluded us. But it was of little matter … the experience was set. We swam with whale sharks!

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4 Responses to “Sapodilla Cayes, the String of Pearls and Swimming with Whale Sharks”

  1. Lee Hanson said

    Wow, that sounds like a great trip! Does your mother know what you do???

  2. Peder said

    No doubt she fully supports any crazy adventure I get myself into! 🙂

  3. […] in the wake of fin kicks, but we’ll have to wait for a night with less moonlight to see the singularly Caribbean phenomenon dubbed “strings of […]

  4. […] Sapodilla Cayes, the String of Pearls and Swimming with Whale … […]

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