Ok, not whales, but a whale. Well, actually no whales at all, but one whale shark. Close enough.
When Raj told me that his coworkers wanted to go whale shark diving, I assumed this meant we'd take a boat to an area where whale sharks are frequently spotted. When looking at them at the aquarium, I'd thought it would be a little bit alarming to see one in the wild while diving, just because they're so big, but also pretty awesome. Because, you see, whale sharks are not interested in eating us or really even in taking a sample bite. They eat krill. Like many whales, they have baleen instead of teeth. I just hoped there would be some whale sharks in the area on the day we went diving.
Except when I read about it online, it said the whale sharks are kept in a large netted enclosure. They are accidentally caught by fishermen and kept here until they are well enough to re-enter the wild or to be transported to the aquarium if they can't be set free. In the meantime, scientists can learn more about these magnificent animals. So...not ideal, but still a nice thing. We'd definitely get to see some whale sharks and our money would support their rehabilitation.
But then I read a comment that said this is a sham. These whale sharks are intentionally caught for the purpose of making money. There's no science or rehab and the aquarium stopped working with them long ago over concerns regarding their treatment. Internet commenters are frequently angry types though, so maybe this was just a jerk trying to ruin a nice thing.
I was a little nervous, both because this would be only my fifth dive and several months out from my last one, while everyone else would be very seasoned divers, and because I'd managed to basically slice off my left middle finger tip while cooking the day before. But I knew that Raj would be a good and helpful dive buddy (and that the dive would only be 20-30 minutes, meaning he wouldn't be forced to ascend early when I ran low on air because I still nervously suck in more than I need while diving). I bought some dive gloves, covered the finger in saran wrap, and taped it off with surgical tape. Which actually worked pretty well.
I also have trouble sinking and staying down, meaning I require a lot of lead. When I told the woman at the dive shop that I needed 18 pounds, she was all Wow, I only use 12. Yes, tiny Japanese lady, I am far more buoyant than you are. I can't imagine why.
As it happened, I still didn't sink when we got in the water, so the guy from the dive shop who came with us got me another 2 pounds. We descended and went into the net, which yes, was not very big. I mean, the whale shark could swim around, but still, it made me sad. And I was getting very stressed out because wherever I went, I was always bumping into and kicking someone. There were five of us, plus two people from the base dive shop and two guys from the Japanese dive company, but there should have been plenty of room. I kept going up and down, trying to get my own space. I do have a little bit of claustrophobia, which hasn't previously been an issue with SCUBA diving, but this was making me a little bit panicky. It turns out that the whole problem was that the dive shop guy, in order to help me sink, was holding onto my tank. Then he saw how I kept rising and descending and kept holding on to try to help me manage my buoyancy. Except I was going up and down to try to get away from him, without knowing it was him or why he was there. Vicious circle.
I did get very close to the whale shark. Unintentionally close, even. You guys, I think I might have accidentally pushed off from the whale shark. There was the unknown presence right behind me and then another guy very close sort of above/next to me and I just wanted to get to some open space. Whoops. I guess normally, the Japanese guys don't let divers get so close to the whale shark, but we were a small group (the other group that would have come with us canceled because it was rainy and windy out) and a couple of guys even got to feed the shark.
I also got to spend some time floating and swimming on my own once dive shop guy let go. That was nice. And I still had plenty of air left when it was time to come out of the net and ascend. Then I had one hell of a time hauling myself up the boat ladder and into the boat wearing a tank and 20 pounds of lead. I'm seriously going to have to either get stronger, less buoyant, or some of both. I'm looking forward to just getting more practice overall. If Raj and I can start going somewhat regularly, I can get a whole lot more comfortable with the whole thing. On Okinawa, apparently you can pretty much walk into the water from any beach and have some good diving.
It did sound from what the dive shop guy said like this is not a rescue mission. He confimed that the aquarium had stopped working with them several years ago and told us there was only one whale shark there because one had recently died and another escaped when someone cut a hole in the net. So I'd have to recommend against anyone else going.
Allow me to leave you with this exchange Raj and I had on the way to the dive, regarding the cloudy and rainy weather.
Me: Do you think I can still get sunburned?
Raj: I believe in you.
Me: I appreciate your confidence.
Raj: I mean, you're not a redhead or anything, but I think you're still varsity.