Chaos

"Let me lose everything on earth and the world beyond, but let me not lose what I'm craving for, let it be that I died on the way than retreating from getting it."
-- Michael Johnson


I created my 7 week Australasian itinerary based solely around the wildlife of the region.  My mum and I raced up Western Australia’s coast to Shark Bay to beat the school holiday crowds; I assured we would arrive at Dryandra Woodland’s marsupial enclosure midweek to avoid the weekend masses; and we specifically disembarked the Yasawa Flyer at Drawaqa island to drift through its channel with ominous Manta Rays.

Yet, Mother Nature does not always cooperate.  Off the northwest coast of Fiji’s main island (Viti Levu), the small Mamanuca grouping of islands rise out of the azure Pacific Ocean.  Stay on the boat – or seaplane – hours longer and eventually you encounter the idyllic Yasawa chain, extending from the mainland like an octopus' tentacle.

In Fiji, Manta Ray season typically runs May to October, so when Mom and I checked into our oceanside bure a.k.a. typical Fijian house on 6 July 2016, I immediately hiked through the sand to the dive shop to inquire about these giant gliders.  Sadly, the Mantas – whose wingspan extends 7 meters a.k.a. 23 feet, dubbing them the largest Mobula in the world – were simply missing. Twice a day the staff at Barefoot Resort searched the waters, but my quest for pelagic life on Drawaqa island proved a misfire.
Likewise, when I crossed into the Tropic of Capricorn in Western Australia – eventually settling in the sprawling, flat town of Exmouth – my first order of business was to confirm my expedition with Ocean Eco Adventures, slated for the next day.  Due to a turbulent forecast, it was postponed two days. Now, the endeavor fell on my last day in Exmouth (pronounced “ex-muh-th”).  I prayed Mother Nature would acquiesce because this was my absolute last opportunity to swim with the pelagic life that swarm Ningaloo Reef every April to July: Whale Sharks.

On the eve of the Whale Shark Tour, tropical rains tortured me throughout the night, pelting the Britz Hi-Top.  I indolently arose early the next morning to 100% cloud coverage, formidable humidity and a gray sky… but the expedition was a go!  I affixed a medicated ear patch to combat my horrendous seasickness and boarded the bus for the coast.  As the vehicle meandered through the Cape Range peninsula retrieving guests, I was surprised to bump into two vollies a.k.a. volunteers – Scots, Robbie and Louise – from my week in Monkey Mia, WA.
After everyone unloaded at the marina, we were ferried via rigid inflatable to Ocean Eco Adventures’ largest fleet member: Latitude 22.  In the small, 60 horsepower tender I could feel every crest and trough, and hoped the Scopalomine already absorbed into my bloodstream.  Ironically, the company’s photographer – Cindy – commented on the “smooth” surface of the water.  If that was smooth, I didn’t want to experience bumpy!

Latitude 22 ostensibly resembled a yacht rather than a sturdy seafarer with its sun-bathing deck, towering antenna, spread of homemade food, and stark white color against the cobalt Indian Ocean.  In contrast to the boat’s glitzy façade, the crew seemed amiable and comical as they greeted us.  Still groggy, my mind only retained the most crucial aspect of the crew’s briefing: the signal for help (one arm shot straight up into the air, hand in a fist as if you were an angry protester).
To prepare for the voyage outside the harbor protected by Ningaloo Reef, as well as test our snorkel equipment and swimming skills, the captain dropped anchor at a locale known as The Oasis.  After an introductory dip in the shallow – and surprisingly chilly – sea, our group of 20 tourists, hustled onto Latitude 22, through the fog toward the cerulean horizon. A Whale Shark had been scouted from the air! a frenzy as the ocean swells increased and people scurried to gear up. Though the Whale Shark was leagues away, it felt like the vessel had teleported because everything was happening concurrently and so quickly. To add to my anxiety, guests were informed of a potential Irukandji threat – a lethal jellyfish the size of an ant. Therefore, underneath my wetsuit, I also sported a tight, navy Lycra Stinger Suit that flattered every bulge but assured every inch of skin was protected.  I looked like I should be performing with Blue Man Group because – after all the equipment – only a small section of my insteps, forehead, chin and palm were bare.
Within minutes the captain positioned Latitude 22 to drop its first batch of passengers into the rolling sea.  As I sat on the wide platform my jaw chattered uncontrollably from nervousness. Ideally, my group would quickly plunge into the Indian Ocean, efficiently file into a line parallel with Jenny (our guide), and – when given the signal – dunk our heads underwater to observe this female Whale Shark on her journey.  However, as soon as my group splashed into the water, all hell broke loose.

In truth, it was a trial to remain in a constant line while the ocean churned.  During my first plunge I fretted about being disobedient because – legally – no person except Cindy was permitted to encroach.  The rest of the staff and visitors had to maintain a ten meter circumference around any Whale Shark.  After feverishly treading water for a few minutes and trying in vain to correct my heading, my gang received the “heads down” behest.  Now, fully submerged, I saw nothing but a gorgeous, deepening blue gradient.  Eventually, to my right, the hint of a figure caught sunlight three feet below the water’s surface.

She had arrived.

Every person was temporarily paralyzed in the water, transfixed by the female’s commanding approach.  Attached to her monstrous body was a dorsal fin that did not seem as sharp nor menacing as other sharks’.  Her comparatively tiny eyes were easy to descry since they paralleled her wide mouth, which traversed the entirety of her head, giving her the semblance of an overgrown sock puppet.  Her face was more spread out more than I expected.  Who could miss her bright spots -- an array that separated her from every other Whale Shark on the planet, as fingerprints do humans.
Like the rest of the gang, I snapped out of my hypnotic trance as the Whale Shark swiftly overtook us.  Simultaneously, we realized we had better get moving! The others closed in around her and fins whipped about as everyone mercurially attempted to stay alongside the benign giant.  I bonked into people and absorbed flailing arms.  The overabundance of bubbles kicked up obscured the seascape, so I purposely slid to the end of the pack to watch the Whale Shark in peace.

It instantly became clear I would never keep pace with the world’s largest fish.  At roughly 6 meters a.k.a. 20 feet in length I [later] learned the female was merely a juvenile! As she pulled ahead of my group, I drifted nearer her rakish, boomerang-shaped tail which occasionally pierced the water’s surface.  With each methodical swish of her tail, I felt the water displace around it and impact me.
Whale Shark fading into the sapphire void, I launched myself onto the marlin board of Latitude 22.  My heart raced from the physical exertion and adrenaline.  The captain swung the vessel around and proceeded full steam ahead.  Basically, the passengers were playing a large-scale version of the childhood game, Leap Frog, with the Whale Shark; being dropped off ahead of her only to repeatedly fall behind.

During my third round in the sea, the waves became more violent and the chaos persisted.  Once again, my unit queued next to Jenny, peering left, until – at the last possible second – she realized we were misaligned.  With Jenny’s correction everyone frantically paddled 3 meters to the right, but the ocean current was so strong my insteps cramped and I made meager progress.  Meanwhile, the Whale Shark – and her symbiotic fish drafting below her trunk – held a steady pace, unfazed by our bum-rushing.  By now, I had learned to scurry as soon as I caught sight of the Whale Shark since she would briskly surpass me anyway.

After the Whale Shark deserted us again, I prepared to beach myself on Latitude 22’s platform.  As I braced my hands on the marlin board, a gigantic swell lifted me, slammed my shins into it, and washed over the stern.  Feckless from the calisthenics, I started to feel odd, though I couldn’t pinpoint where on my body.  I thought it best to sit out the fourth round and take my blood sugar.

My glucose was fine, but – not feeling the best – I decided I must return to the blight sea once more before I called it quits since I paid $410 AUD for this excursion. More than the money though, this was one of the reasons I specifically visited NW Western Australia!  So much is still unknown about Whale Sharks: litter size, where they go when they’re not feeding, how they mate.  No one has ever observed a Whale Shark reproducing nor giving birth.  The closest scientists have come to unraveling the mysteries of the species was when they dissected a dead female harboring 300 embryos!

Back in the water and juddered by the Indian Ocean, my eyes scanned the water’s horizon until Jenny shouted that the female was instead ascending from a dive! Though these creatures skim the surface (as their main food source is plankton), they can dive up to 1,000 meters a.k.a. 3,300 feet!  Against the ocean’s fluid background, her outline and white spots distinctly stood out.

As the Whale Shark propelled upward at a 45º angle, I swam furiously to keep level with her, but she finally vanished into the blue yonder. I would never see her again… but would I ever see dry land or my mother again?  Effete after a morning snorkel and four rounds with the Whale Shark, my fellow swimmers pushed onward as the distance between them & me widened. I raised my head above water expecting to see Latitude 22 approaching.  Instead, white-caps surrounded me.  I submerged, thinking it’d be easier to breaststroke through the sea rather than float atop it.  Though I kicked with all my might, I felt the ocean’s resistance as its currents dragged my body back to my point of origin.
Even though I swam furiously to keep level with the Whale Shark, she finally vanished into the blue yonder and I would never see her again… but would I ever see dry land or my mother again?  Effete after a morning snorkel and four rounds with the Whale Shark, my fellow swimmers pushed onward as the distance between them & me widened. I raised my head above water expecting to see Latitude 22 approaching.  Instead, white-caps surrounded me.  I submerged, thinking it’d be easier to breaststroke through the sea rather than float atop it.  Though I kicked with all my might, I felt the ocean’s resistance as its currents dragged my body back to my point of origin.

To gauge how far behind I was, I raised my head again.  I only saw a few people and Jenny, but they were considerably further away than the last glance.  Then, everyone disappeared as a large crest swept in front of me.  I caught a few more glimpses of the group on the horizon before they were swallowed by another tempestuous wave; just enough to give me a bearing.  Enfeebled – but trying to ration my energy – I bobbed on my back in order to catch my breath.  In this position I used only my legs to accelerate, however I was constantly engulfed by waves.  Every inhalation resulted in ingesting salt water.  As I sank into another wave’s trough, I panicked at the realization that I was marooned in the vehement Indian Ocean.  In this sorry predicament, my mind morbidly questioned how much I resembled prey to the Great White Sharks that [I imagined] were watching my struggle from below? I pictured them patiently swirling, mildly entertained by my futility and misplaced hope of surviving alone in the wild ocean.

Forlorn and choking, I fully weighed my last resort: chucking my hand straight up in the air.  Would anyone from Latitude 22 even see my skinny arm when I couldn’t see over the waves?  I closed my eyes – to prevent seasickness and focus on survival – and willed my legs to kick.   The only time I opened them was to see if there was other life nearby, but each time the vision was the same: a bright, pale sky and waves crashing onto me as if trying to bury me at the bottom of the sea.

Truthfully, I don’t know how long I floundered in the open ocean, making single, deliberate kicks.  When the outlook is bleak, your body has reached its limits, and every breath is labored, macabre thoughts are all-consuming and moments translate to an eternity... but then, somehow, despite the pain, we persevere.  After an indeterminate period adrift, Latitude 22 materialized ahead of me.  With just 3 people left undulating with the ocean, I was the last to arrive at the marlin board.  I can't say that I would want to repeat that day; I can't say that I had faith I would survive.  Looking back, I'm proud that I hopped into the tumultuous Indian Ocean one last time despite my seasickness.  Despite the overwhelming feeling of imminent death, I continued to swim though painful and bleak.  As with all things in life -- from skydiving to enduring a chronic illness -- always die trying.  Keep chasing your dreams!

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