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Weighing up to several tons, whale sharks are also notable for their markings. Each pattern of spots is unique and scientists identify individual fish using computer programs first developed to study star constellations. (Brian Skerry)

Swimming With Whale Sharks

Wildlife researchers and tourists are heading to a tiny Mexican village to learn about the mystery of the largest fish in the sea

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(Continued from page 2)

It had taken an hour for De La Parra, Hueter and others on the tagging expedition to reach the sharks. The water was smooth and thick with reddish plankton. “There’s one of them!” a researcher cried out, pointing to a large, shiny dorsal fin. We motored closer, and I found myself gazing at the largest shark—about 23 feet—I had ever seen. Its skin was dark gray, glinting in the sunlight, with mottled white dots.

Suddenly it seemed as if whale sharks were everywhere, though we could see only a fraction of their massive bodies: their gently curved mouths, agape as they sucked in volumes of water, or the tips of their tails, flicking back and forth as they glided through the sea.

I donned a mask, snorkel and fins and prepared to jump in. Hueter had told me he thought the sharks’ cruising speed was one to two miles an hour—slow enough, I thought, to swim alongside one without much difficulty.

Wrong.

I made a rookie’s mistake and jumped in near the shark’s tail. I never caught up.

I tried again, this time hoping to swim out to an animal half a dozen yards away. It didn’t wait.

Finally, I managed to plunge into the water near an animal’s head and faced an enormous, blunt-nosed creature, coming toward me at what seemed like a shockingly rapid rate. While I marveled at its massive nostrils and eyes on either side of its head, I realized I was about to be run over by a 3,000-pound behemoth. Never mind that it doesn’t have sharp teeth. I ducked.

It cruised by, unperturbed. By the time I climbed back into the boat, everyone was ready with quips about how I had had to scramble to get away. I didn’t care. I had seen a whale shark.

Adapted from Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks by Juliet Eilperin. Copyright © 2011. With the permission of Pantheon Books, a division of Random House, Inc.

Juliet Eilperin is the national environmental reporter for the Washington Post. Brian Skerry, a specialist in underwater photography, is based in Uxbridge, Massachusetts.

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