January 20 – February 15, 2022
Isla San Jose
Twenty years of scuba diving at some of the most exotic locations on the planet and thousands of dives each. Never had we seen a whale shark.
It had become a running joke – unicorns and whale sharks… both creatures of fable.
Now we were coming around Punta Cruz, the point jutting a mile out from Isla San Jose, southwestern most island of Las Perlas. That made it less than two miles from Ensenada Playa Grande (Big Beach Cove) where we planned to anchor. Less than half a mile from the shore in one hundred feet of water, just as we started to make a gentle turn towards the bay, we saw something dark cutting through the surface, not more than a couple hundred feet forward and starboard.
A big fin.
A big fin with spots.
We took Exit out of gear and let her drift. Lo and behold, what should swim straight out of the pages of a fable and alongside us?
That’s right. A fucking whale shark!
And a big one at that. Though over thirty feet long is possible, ten to twenty feet is more typical when you hear of whale shark encounters with people. This one was over twenty. Right about half as long as our boat. Wow!
Not a snorkeling experience paid for by a tourist – an incredibly rare treat. Not a scuba diving encounter – even more rare to occur. Rather, a visit of its own choosing while we are underway on our sailboat.
Incredibly large for a fish, yet absolute in its grace and gentle demeanor.
What a magical creature. Now we believe. As though a whale shark actually came out of a fable.
For fifteen minutes, time seemed to distort in opposite directions, elongating into something with an elasticity resembling the arms of an old childhood Stretch Armstrong toy while it simultaneously blinked past at the speed of a camera lens shutter.
And then it was gone. With both the incontrovertible absoluteness and longterm fragility of a snap shot, our first encounter with a whale shark became a memory.
And, as it turned out, it also was a preview of coming attractions. Our encounter as we arrived would become the embodiment of our our entire experience there. Within days, Ensenada Playa Grande would come to be known to us as First Day Bay. First day to have seen that…
Just minutes after anchoring, we had our second whale shark encounter. A different whale shark, this one not much over ten feet long, swam right up to Exit and slowly passed by. Amazing.
Second whale shark encounter; first one to visit us at anchor.
First Day Bay.
Moments later, another show commenced that would continue almost uninterrupted throughout our stay. The Rays Craze.
For a week straight, we watched and heard a non-stop performance from what had to be thousands of mobular rays, devil rays to be specific. Countless groups, each in the hundreds or more, moved about the bay constantly churning up a froth of water with their movement that looked and sounded like boiling water. Randomly, individual rays or entire groups started leaping out of the water, typically landing with a slapping bellyflop but sometimes in a fit of acrobatic flips (we referred to them as floppers or flippers). The scene was ridiculously amusing to watch. A group would disappear below the surface, only to return in a churning cauldron moments later. Sometimes the leaps were individual rays repeatedly bouncing across the water like a skipping rock. Other times dozens would erupt from the surface nearly simultaneously, comically reminding me of carefree and overly energetic children jumping on a trampoline or, even more, popping popcorn.
What those crazy rays were doing is anybody’s guess. Communicating with each other? Cleaning themselves of parasites? Just having a blast? Who knows…but it sure was an endless source of both smiles and laughter for us.
The morning after we arrived, Kris went for a paddle on her SUP. On the beach, she found fresh tracks from a turtle who had come ashore the previous night attempting to lay eggs.
But the real entertainment was in the water. Even though Kris had already enjoyed incredible encounters with schools of cow nose rays while we were in Bocas Del Toro, these were devil rays and the leaping was unique to them.
And never had a creature twice as long as the SUP swam within ten feet of her…yep, another whale shark.
First Day Bay.
One would think that would be a mic drop and walk offstage moment. Day finished. Might as well go to bed.
What could possibly upstage that surreal instant with another, all before lunch?
How about Space X-it drone footage of a whale shark swimming with a school of hundreds of leaping devil rays… BOOM!
First Day Bay.
So now what? It’s still morning. Fuck ya, let’s take the dinghy out. And so we did. Before we knew it, we were amongst the group of rays we had just flown the drone over. The whale shark was still there as well, and proceeded to swim right alongside the dinghy. Eventually it disappeared into deeper water, but the rays just kept circling about. We seized the moment and jumped into the water, snorkeling in a surreal and unforgettable devil ray soup.
First Day Bay.
Later, when we looked closer at the video footage, we actually saw a single cow-nose ray infiltrator hiding amongst the massive population of devil rays.
TO BE CONTINUED IN PART THREE…