Whenever and however you seek fish, there will be fish stories. When you are seeking the biggest fish in the ocean — the Whale Shark — there will be big fish stories. As in, Moby Dick style fish stories. After our first dive the day after we arrived in Belize, when we failed to see a Whale Shark, we started to hear about the Legend of the Man Who Never Saw A Whale Shark. Actually, it wasn’t a legend. The man’s name is Patrick and he was staying right here at The Turtle Inn this week. The staff and the bartenders spoke of him in hushed tones. He was the man who has been to Placencia five years in a row, had dived every day of each ten day visit and had never seen a Whale Shark. By our second day of diving, during which we hadn’t seen a Whale Shark, we walked up after dinner in the large palapa covered common room, and introduced ourselves to Patrick.
“We hear you are the man who has been trying to see a Whale Shark for five years and never succeeded,” said Andy.
“If that’s what you are just hearing,” replied Patrick, “You are the last people in Placencia to know it. I’m legend. I’ve dived with every outfit here. Everyone up and down the Peninsula has heard of me.”
Patrick didn’t, at first, strike me as particularly Ahab-ish. He was young, healthy and athletic. But as we continued talking, and he unfolded his story, there were hints of Melville’s one-legged, obsessive Captain with maybe a hint of The Ancient Mariner.
Patrick runs an alcohol and drug addiction clinic in Maine that boasts some pretty impressive success rates. Although, Patrick himself acknowledged the irony of a man addicted to the chase of a Whale Shark being the man to help others break their addictions.
At times he waxed lyrical about his quest, then became philosophical about the fact that he may never see one no matter how many times he returns. As Patrick describes it: Imagine there are only 20 or so lions on the Serengeti and you want to see one. Well, at least you can get yourself up on the highest point with a pair of binoculars and several days supply of water and food. Then you can camp out, scan the horizon and probably have a fairly decent chance of seeing one. By contrast, the elusive and solitary Whale Shark only comes around Gladden Spit in small numbers. You have only 40 minutes on each of two daily dives to meet one, and your visibility is anywhere from 100 to 150 feet. So if they are there, or are just out of visibility range, or don’t show up until after you are back in the dive boat, you won’t see one.
We were taking a break from diving the next day and Patrick was going to make another attempt. He told us we’d picked the right day to do something different, as he was the guarantee that no Whale Sharks would be sighted that day.
Then a miracle!
We were lounging at the pool as Patrick came in shouting and waving his fists. He’d not only seen a Whale Shark, he’d seen two. And he’d seen them for such an extended period of time that he was able to photograph them. That last element is key, because if he didn’t have the photos to prove it, would anyone in Placencia actually have believed him? I asked him to email me one of his pictures and he promised to. He hasn’t yet, but I’m not pressing him. This is his moment and he should have nothing to do but revel in it. As he put it: “Gladden Spit has finally spit me out. It gave me my quest and now I can get back to my normal life.”
Despite his great work curing the addictions of others, we think Patick won’t kick his own obsession so easily. He’ll be back next year, mark my words.
In the meantime, I flashed back on a legend I’d heard — it wasn’t The Ancient Mariner — but it seems to me there was someone cursed to cruise the oceans until another person agreed to take on his curse, thus freeing him.
Andy’s out on his third day of diving for the Whale Shark. What if he has taken on the mantel of Patrick’s Ahab complex?
If so, we’ll be back in Placencia next year. And maybe the next. And the next…
And I only am escaped alone to blog this.
The Whale Shark photos were lifted from the About Utila website that is a wealth of information about Whale Sharks.