I’ve experienced something like this before: whalesharks as “gentle,” great white sharks as “graceful.” 

An adult whaleshark is a 20-ton fish.  The power in one flip of its tail, the amount of water displaced by one plankton-seeking gulp…it’s just astounding.  I got to swim amongst hundreds of them one morning off Isla Mujeres in Mexico.  And the word I came away with that felt most apt in describing what they are like?  Gentle.

I’ve also gotten to go cage diving with great white sharks off Guadalupe Island in Mexico. Though at the very end of the trip I had one mildly harrowing experience of just how powerful a great white shark can be, my overall impression from hours of watching them swim so efficiently, quietly, effortlessly through the water?  Graceful.

I’m on the Nai’a in Tonga, living out a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I’m now hoping will become twice, thrice, and four-ice in this lifetime instead.  We’re in the presence of 30-ton animals whose clear conscious awareness of us is simply mesmerizing.  

We only approach to within a healthy distance of the whales.  And we don’t scuba dive—this is snorkeling only.  It is entirely up to the whales whether or not to have an encounter with us. Some choose not to.  Others seem to relish the opportunity, occasionally coming so close as to seemingly be seeking physical contact.

Though weather and sea conditions have taken a turn for the moderately-worse, the first four days of our trip were replete with dozens upon dozens of full breaches near and far, bull runs and other activity best viewed from the surface, a sublime encounter with a sleeping humpback bobbing vertically and silently in the water column, a baby humpback showing off its newfound skills with a barrel roll right in front of my buddy, Craig, and I, and a handful of other close encounters.

One afternoon, we were floating amongst three mature humpbacks, who were alternately weaving around one another and coming in for closer looks at us.  This silent, elegantly-choreographed symphony lasted for about half an hour, I think.  But it could have been just a few minutes.  Or most of a day.  It was kind of like that.

When this trio swam off some time later, and we popped our heads back above the water, Craig simply said to me: “That’s the most peace I’ve ever felt in my life.”

Yes, that’s it: Peaceful.

banner photo by Scott Friedman