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How to turn a hangover into a whale shark

  • TEXT THOMAS KOSIKOWSKI, JOHANNES RIFFELMACHER
  • ILLUSTRATION JANA FEDEROV

On Saturday nights, we all occasionally go overboard. Most times you don’t even want to know what exactly happened when you wake up the next day. This time, however, we make sure we remember every detail. It is way past midnight and we are already on our way home, as we walk past a hut in the harbor. A few seasoned fishermen sit out front with a bottle of tequila, playing dice. We stop and peer at the tabletop with curiosity. What’s that game they are playing? Suddenly the oldest of the gang fires off a few salvos of heavy Mexican fisherman’s slang in our direction. He is obviously convinced that we gringos won’t understand a word. We, however, understand his invitation only too well: “Sit down guys, we’ll play for your cherry.”

His puzzled look when we respond in Mexican vernacular is priceless. We tell him that we would love to join him for a game. Before he realizes what’s going on we are sitting at the table. The game is easy: doublets win, plus a few other rules. At the end of the day, it is mainly a question of luck.

Some say that drunken people are always lucky. If this is true we must have been the most tanked-up of all of them, because only a half-hour later, we manage to win a day’s fishing trip on the boat belonging to our fellow gambler – at half price. He gives us his word of honor that he will wait for us at the pier the next morning. We don’t believe him, but nevertheless pack up some fruit, vegetables and our snorkeling equipment. Hung-over, we drag ourselves down to the fishing harbor. And incredibly, the guy is actually there. He’s standing somewhat lopsidedly, squinting at the sun, but is more or less physically present.

We greet him with a handshake, smiling somewhat sheepishly, and climb onto his small boat. As we sail along a thin coastal strip towards the open seas, the soft breeze feels great after the long night. Approximately half an hour later – we had briefly dozed off ¬– our captain suddenly makes a sharp turn that almost knocks us off the boat. Then he brings the vessel to an almost complete stop. We have no clue what is going on, and brace ourselves for a surprise act of revenge for the previous night. “Tiburon ballena,” says the captain softly.

We don't know it yet, but this will be one of the best days of our lives

We don't know it yet, but this will be one of the best days of our lives

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A beautiful giant, more than 26 foot long. We're so in awe that we almost forget to breathe

A beautiful giant, more than 26 foot long. We're so in awe that we almost forget to breathe

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Let's hope he doesn't confuse the fish tatoos with something he wants to feed on

Let's hope he doesn't confuse the fish tatoos with something he wants to feed on

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Playtime with sea lions: the “lobos” greet us with noisy barking

Playtime with sea lions: the “lobos” greet us with noisy barking

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We jump overboard to join them in the water. The boys want to play

We jump overboard to join them in the water. The boys want to play

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At the end of the day we chug along beside a school of whales. Hasta luego, gray giant – thanks for the show!

At the end of the day we chug along beside a school of whales. Hasta luego, gray giant – thanks for the show!

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A huge shadow glides through the water, just below the surface, which is as smooth as glass, and heads directly towards our small boat. Our jaws drop further then we would have thought possible. “Tiburon” means shark and “ballena” means whale. Seriously? A whale shark? We have only ever seen those in National Geographic. A second glance, however, confirms it is a whale shark, measuring a “diminutive” eight meters.

As quickly as possible, we get into our snorkeling kit and leap into the water. Our eyes have hardly had time to adjust to the underwater optics, when a huge animal appears seemingly out of nowhere, less than a meter away from us. For a few seconds we forget to breathe.

Imagine swimming next to a live truck. Apparently, and fortunately for us, this species normally does not attack people. In any case, we have chanced upon an apparently tranquil individual, whom we decide to name Herbert. Herbert scrutinizes us with curiosity, as we circle around each other in mutual fascination. Meanwhile, Jo secretly hopes that the shark will not mistake his fish tattoos for prey. We swim next to each other in this way for what feels like an eternity, cherishing the moment. Eventually, we climb back into the boat, leaving our new friend to continue on his way in peace.

Our captain suggests sailing a few kilometers further, to a small rock formation just off an uninhabited island. This is where the sea lions live. It sounds like a fitting continuation to our wondrous adventure. As soon as we arrive the “lobos” greet us with noisy barking. Some of them leap off the rocks into the water and frolic around our small boat. Not wanting to disappoint them, we jump overboard to join them in the water. We dive with the raft of sea lions, as though it was a competition – until we are out of breath. As the sun slowly approaches the horizon, we start making our way back.

At sunset the whales wander off - an image of their flukes engraved in our minds

At sunset the whales wander off - an image of their flukes engraved in our minds

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Suddenly, the captain stops abruptly once again. In the distance, we hear a loud puffing sound akin to a locomotive. Our hearts almost stop: only a few hundred meters away a humpback whale is blowing. Then another one. And another. We are right in the middle of a large pod of whales, which are leisurely filtering plankton through their whalebones in the sunset. While the captain is slowly navigating towards the animals we cannot stop shaking our heads in disbelief. The whales roll around the water directly next to each other, presenting their flukes, diving down and resurfacing. They are having a great time.

Everyone on the boat has fallen silent. We have unpacked the camera, and simply sit there watching this spectacle of nature. Now there are even manta rays leaping out of the water right beside us. They beat their pectoral fins and glide through the air at a height of about a meter. It’s incredible. Jacques Cousteau was not exaggerating when he called this stretch of ocean the world’s aquarium.