Connie Flora Champman: Missing; the world’s biggest fish

Today’s forecast; clear, sunny skies and a top temperature of 32°C – another glorious day. Whizzing down the coastal road, the breeze providing relief from the already sweltering morning sun, the smell of sea salt wafts through the jeepney. The excitement of soon submerging into the world below the surface builds. Once off the jeepney, each step brings you closer to cooling off with the giants of the deep, in today’s crystal clear blue sea.

And yet, peering at the water’s edge and out into the horizon, there’s nothing more to see than a rippling exterior. The clarity of the sky has not made it far enough below, and the murky water looks more of an entity itself than a home to some of the most vibrant life on the planet. The sand, the reef, the fish – all missing. Mask and wetsuit on, fins in hand, and camera at the ready, the descent is about to begin.

A place that left you awe struck now fills you with nervousness. Funny how once your head is underwater, anything could emerge from the depths, even if that depth is 30cm. Snorkelling through this green watery mass, sediment, seaweed and plankton drifts past the glass of you goggles. There’s no sign of any other life as you swim in what you think is a forward direction, and likely isn’t, as the rocks of the reef begin to appear. Twisting and turning, narrowly missing the homes of tiny teleosts and impeccable invertebrates, the rocks begin to drop away - you’ve made it to deeper water, the home of the whale sharks.

The search is on. The whale shark, biggest fish in existence, is currently unlocatable. These plankton-feeders are nothing to be afraid of, but the thought of sharing open water with these humongous creatures now makes you uneasy. They could appear at any moment, which today may come with a small fright – a fish of up to 18 metres unexpectedly swimming by could take anybody surprise. Your mind fills with gradually more ridiculous “what ifs”; “What if I swim into one headfirst?”, “What if the last thing I see is a huge open mouth?”, “What if I become the first person to be swallowed whole by a whale shark?”. Outlandish thoughts about whether today is the day whale sharks become mindless human-devouring machines occur as you kick through the murk.

From the corner of your eye, you notice a dark shape.  Before you know it, you’re swimming out of the path of a giant. The whale shark looks as though it’s coming straight for you, though it’s likely struggled navigating through the green-y gloom too. It gracefully swerves to your left, at what seems like the very last second, and continues forth.  Gathering yourself after the sudden appearance of a 7-metre shark, you watch its caudal fin swoosh side to side, propelling it to vanish once again.

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You set off after it, constellations of spots that decorate the shark finally have clarity as you approach. Diving below the surface, lining yourself up between the last gill slit and the pectoral fin to observe the shark’s unique spot pattern, ready to take a perfect ID shot and…SNAP!  You resurface as the shark vanishes, and you’re seemingly alone again amongst the sediment, seaweed and plankton. With one shark identified, and once again content to be sharing the water with the gentle giants of the depths, it’s time to go and find the rest of them, wherever they may be in today’s not-so-crystal, not-so-clear, not-so-blue sea.

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Connie Flora Chapman, is currently part of our whale shark research team in Southern Leyte. Originally from London, UK, she has a BSc in Zoology from Queen Mary University of London. For Connie "the ocean is full of mysteries, mysteries that come from some of the most beautiful and interesting creatures on the planet - we need to conserve the ocean to solve them!". Rivaling her passion for the ocean is her passion for onion rings, which peaked whilst watching Ep1, Season 5 of Orange Is The New Black, when 750g of onion rings disappear without a trace.