Swimming with the Whale Sharks in La Paz


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It was a weird feeling, located somewhere between my heart and stomach.  Sort of like a tickle but more like dread.
By Judy Ristity

The sensation started moments after I’d said, “Yes.”  The word escaped my lips before my brain realized what my vocal cords had said.
Her young face glowed when she heard my “yes”.  I’d enthusiastically said “yes” to her question, “Would you like to swim with the whale sharks – tomorrow?”
Jen is the daughter of our friends and is visiting La Paz for the holidays. She’s young, tall and lean; she has the body of a Scandinavian…a natural athlete.  My shape and heritage come from Greece, so my center of gravity is well below my waist.  I have never been able to use my arms to pull myself out of a swimming pool.
If you get off the boat, how will you get back in? Fear was doing all the talking and he was scaring me. The water is freezing at this time of year.  How about jelly fish?  And currents?  If you get off the boat, how will you get back in?  Will there be a ladder?   Even if there’s a ladder, will it have just one step? What if you need to pee? Over and over Fear spoke and I listened.  And as Dread grew, my confidence shriveled.
Alex was looking at me. “Judy, you haven’t heard a word I’ve said.  What’s wrong?”  I told him about Fear’s tirade.  Alex said, “Don’t worry; I’ll help you onto the boat.  We’ll rent a wet suit so you won’t be cold and no jelly fish will get you.  Bring a really warm jacket with a hood and put it on when you get out of the water.  Judy, please don’t miss this opportunity.”  Alex was almost as convincing as Fear.  Almost.
Fear held me in his arms that night and in the morning he woke me.  I looked out the window hoping for high winds.  The palm trees slept quietly.  I searched for rain clouds.  Just two happy puff balls. Did my throat feel sore?  Maybe just a little.  And then the phone rang.
Jen’s excited voice convinced me that I couldn’t disappoint her.  Or myself.
At ten o’clock we met across the street from Burger King.  Hector helped us get into the boat.  The wet suit actually fit me (in fact, it was a little too big).  The boat had a three-step ladder.  My big, black LA Raiders jacket was warm.  The sea was flat.  After a short fifteen minute ride, Eduardo, the captain, slowed the boat.  There they were – right on the surface.  Huge.  Speckled.  And they seemed to be waiting for us.
I struggled into my fins and snorkel gear.  Meanwhile, Jen had slipped silently into the water.  My whale shark started to swim away from the boat.  I shuffled my fin-shod feet to the edge of the boat, elbowed Alex out of the way, and flopped into the water.  Alex later told me that he’d never seen me swim so fast.  I was after that big fish.
Alex and the boat captain had to help me back into the boat but I was too excited to be embarrassed.  Three times, I jumped into the water and each time was different.  The second time the whale shark was feeding.  His mouth was huge.  His body was almost vertical.
On the last occasion, two whale sharks were right next to our boat, which gave our friends in the boat a perfect photo opportunity.  And, from my position in the water, my eyes were inches away from his long gills.  I had imagined that I’d be afraid of his mouth, his tail or his massive size but no – no, it was those gills that opened and closed, opened and closed, that got to me.  This was a life.  Most likely the largest life form that I would ever touch.
As we headed back to shore everything sparkled: the color of the sea, the tall mountains behind the city and, from the water, La Paz glowed.  We are fortunate to live in a town that tourists pay to visit.  And, thanks to my young friend, Jen, I realize that, although I’ve lived here for more than fourteen years, there are still more amazing things to see and do if I challenge Fear and say, “Yes!” to new opportunities.

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