Great Blue Hope (Ko Tao)

Everyone around me is grinning.  Laughing.  Basking in the morning sun, joking and comparing notes.  “Did you see when it head-butted the reef?”  “No!  I was on the wrong side.”  “That was crazy!”  “I know!  I’ve never seen anything like it!”  “Man, he was beautiful…”  “I can’t believe we finally saw one!”

Today is my last day on Ko Tao.  After nine days at the Big Blue Dive Center I’ve just completed my tenth and final dive before I get the evening train to Bangkok.  I’m sitting at the picnic tables bolted to the upper deck with my hands under my knees staring at the shoreline as we motor back to the resort.  The two other divers from my group are huddled over the camera exclaiming at the images we managed to capture.  They hold out the screen for me to see myself pictured in the blue alongside the huge sleek body with the trail of fish streaming around him.  I manage a cursory smile and resume staring at the land.  Under my legs I bite into the wooden bench with my fingernails.

Ko Tao is known for its whale shark sightings.  It’s a primary reason diving from the island is so popular.  But sightings are rarer than you might think.  Gail left the island after a week and six dives without one.  We’d been warned that a sighting couldn’t be guaranteed.  That they were less frequent at this time of year.  I was even told about a master who’d worked diving every single day and somehow managed to miss every whale shark sighting for an entire year.  Clearly luck plays a significant roll.  Today I got lucky.

Chumphon Pinnacle is an incredible dive site.  Look in any direction across the reef and your goggle-view is crowded with color and life.  The variety and fecundity of the coral is mesmerizing.  Clown fish nestle in swaying pink anemones.  Trigger fish and trevally cruise through forests of ferns.  Giant pouting marbled grouper lumber along the murky floor.  Schools of flashing barracuda dart through the deep expanse of blue while nasty faced eels lurk in the shadows of the reef.  Tiny dancing shrimp cluster in the crevices and rays camoflouage themselves in a thin carpet of sand.  On an average day the Pinnacle is a wonder to explore.  Today we didn’t bother to look.

After only five minutes at depth another dive group came streaming past us, the leader tapping on her tank for our attention.  Her hand came up to her forehead in the sign “Shark!” and she pointed into the distance.  We turned just as a 12-foot baby whale shark swam out of the blue and arced toward the reef a mere 20 feet from us.  On the boat, our dive leader had explained that whale sharks tend to feed in a floral pattern, looping out from the reef into the blue before curving back in to the feeding ground again.  So when the shark swooped away I turned back toward the reef and positioned myself just above the edge of the pinnacle.  I turned back at the resounding thwump just in time to see the shark’s head rebound off the edge of the rock face.  But there wasn’t any time to wonder.  He turned around and up sharply and was suddenly swimming directly at me.  Unsure what to do I remained still, suspended above the reef.  A tiny voice in my head started to panic when, four feet from my face, he veered to my left and I turned with him, skimming along the side of the pinnacle an arms’-length from his vast flank.  I could see the gentle working of the gills on the pilot fish who feed in his wake.  For was perhaps two whole blissful humbling awesome minutes I swam shoulder to shoulder with a prehistoric giant before he veered away and disappeared into the blue.

Our second dive of the day was meant to take us to another site but the team chose to stay at Chumphon to continue our swim with the lone shark cub.  One of my dive buddies and I split the cost of renting a waterproof camera and managed get photographic evidence of the wonder we experienced.  After two hours under water in that miraculous company, we clambered back on the boat to head to shore.

Our dive leader joins us at the table 10 minutes from mooring, all smiles, the buzz still palpable in air around us.  “Always an amazing day when you get to see a whale shark!”  My shoulders feel like rocks and my fingers are cramped from clenching.  His gaze falls on me and his brow furrows.  “Are you alright?”  Thinly, I manage to reply “yeah… I’m just a little tense about the election.”  “Oh right!  That sound be finished now, hey?”  My nod is little more than a tic as I attempt a tight smile.  I don’t bother to try to explain what it means to me.  As an American.  As an ex-pat.  As a woman.  As a human being.  How this election could irrevocably damage my feelings for my country.  My feelings towards home.  How this election has become, for me, a near literal battle for my national soul.  Because frankly, true though it may be, I know how melodramatic that sounds.  How ridiculous it probably is.  He shoots me a glance now and then as he takes the others through the debrief but I’m barely listening.  They are all still high on the experience while I have the deeply painful foresight that should the election go against me, on top of everything else, this amazing day will be ruined.

At the mooring we pile into the small motor boat that takes us to shore and the dive master gives us the usual post dive speech about the unloading, cleaning and storage of equipment and receives a joyful shout from the passengers when she closes with “and thank you for an amazing morning!”  I try to distract myself by clapping along but the bar on the shore is growing larger and I know that inside the flat screen on the wall has been tuned to CNN all morning.  As soon as the motor dies I’m knee deep in water with two kit bags over my shoulder sloshing toward the bar.  On the dry sand away from the tide line I drop the bags and break into a sprint, leaping up the stairs.  I’m half way across the floor when I make out the banner across the bottom of the screen and I stop dead in my tracks.  Tidal waves of relief, jubilation and exultation crash over me in turn.  A near hallucinogenic image of the shark’s flank, the liquid lucidity of his eye peering into mine, passes before me and I break into a howl of joy.

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