The captain of our little boat pointed nonchalantly towards the horizon, to what appeared to be an innocuous gathering of seagulls. “It’s a boil,” he said in his heavy Caribbean drawl, although his explanation left me none the wiser. But as the boat inched closer I could make out a furious melee swirling just under the surface of the gently sloshing sea. Fish jumping in silvery panic, as though the water was indeed boiling, the seagulls swooping in noisily for easy pickings. And, in the midst of it all, a vast shadow, its cavernous mouth opening like an image from Moby Dick to filter gallons of water through its gills in one giant gulp. A whale shark.
As the captain killed the engine and gave the signal, I slipped into the bath-warm water, snorkel and heart in mouth. As I peered beneath me, there it was: the largest fish in the oceans. An eight-metre-long whale shark, the size of a minibus, sashaying effortlessly just inches from my fin tips. I held my breath as it glided past; its magnificent pointed tail propelling its navy and white-spotted body with ease. I kept pace for a few minutes, eking out every last second of this magical encounter. But with a flick of its tail it dived into the inky blue depths, just off Útila’s north shore.
I’ve always travelled to find wildlife — from the depths of the Brazilian Pantanal to the wilds of Alaska. Yet it was swimming with whale sharks in Honduras’ Bay Islands that was the true impetus for writing my book. The island of Útila is a mere blip of cay rising from the Belizean Reef. I’d gone there to take advanced scuba diving courses, and planned to stay three months. I stayed three years. In that time I had many special encounters with the descendants of Old Tom, a legendary and gargantuan, barnacle-encrusted whale shark that, locals say, once plied these waters.
It’s hard to say exactly why I stayed in Útila so long. It’s a question I ask myself years later. It’s the quintessential tropical paradise, where translucent waters wash over coral reefs buzzing with psychedelically coloured fish, and pelicans swoop over slithers of beach. But the allure of life on Útila went deeper than that. Here, the rules of life and society as I knew it were different to those of the outside world. Materialism was pointless, for there were few shops. Vegetables were scarce, yet the rum never ran out. It was rough around the edges, raw, simple and always unpredictable — like living in a Caribbean soap opera.
That’s because Útila revels in its eccentricity, its loud, charismatic inhabitants shoe-horned into one end of the isle by a gnarled and impenetrable mangrove forest. Stilted, pastel-coloured wooden houses line the waterfront; elderly fishermen standing in their doorways, loudly regaling passersby with the same stories they’ve told for decades. The rickety jetties of the dive centres jut into the horseshoe bay, and a handful of bohemian bars play the ubiquitous reggaeton music. Útila is too small for cars; in their place, scooters, golf carts and rusty old bicycles tootle up and down the main street, weaving between ambling pedestrians, scuttling red land crabs and prehistoric-looking iguanas.
I spent my days diving reefs that became as familiar as my hometown, chugging out on the dive boat into the pond-calm waters of the bay in the crisp early morning as pods of dolphins hundreds-strong leapt together in a choreographed dance. Evenings were spent under the starriest of night skies in the company of locals who are proud descendants of British and Dutch pirates, only understanding half of what they said. I’d slip silently through the mangroves by kayak, get caught up in the fervour of carnival, and quickly tire of the rainy season, despite it bringing respite from the sticky heat.
That first encounter with a whale shark was my most special. But there were many more during my years in Útila, and my fascination with a gentle animal we know so little about deepened each time. Old Tom and his comrades hold a special place in the heart of Útilians; their pride in and protectiveness of the placid animal that frequents the waters off their tiny island as infectious as their own exuberance and big personalities. I know I for one fell under the spell of the pirates of the Caribbean and their very big fish.
Ultimate Wildlife Destinations, by Samantha Wilson, is published by New Holland Publishers. RRP: £14.99. samanthakwilson.com
Published in the March 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)