Whale? Or Shark?

After leaving Isla Pedro Gonzalez, we decided to head south around the tip of Isla Del Rey and make our way back up north. We stopped at Punta Cocos, Isla Canas and Isla Espiritu Santo for a night each. We found a really great snorkeling spot on the seaward side of Isla Espiritu Santo around some small islands. The visibility was marginal, but once you dove down twenty feet or so toward the bottom there was a lot of sea life. We saw huge schools of jacks, sierra mackerel, lots of snappers and all kinds of reef fish.

Here is our view coming into the channel next to Isla Canas…

As we headed around a shallower point at the end of one of the small islands with lots of rocks surrounding it, we saw our first lobster! We had seen the local fishermen with lobsters and knew they were around the Perlas, but after looking under what seems like hundreds of rocks and in cracks and crevasses around the islands, we hadn’t seen one. This little guy was too small, but we kept looking. Eventually we discovered about 5 or 6, but unfortunately none that we could keep.

We’ve tried to keep a very sustainable policy aboard Adagio when it comes to fishing. As much as we like fish and seafood our policy is generally: (1) We don’t take more fish than we can eat; (2) We don’t take large game fish (like marlin) that are not sustainable or fish that we know are overfished; and (3) We try not to take anything that is small or juvenile (the exception here would be if it is damaged from fishing gear and not going to survive.) When it comes to lobsters, we do not take the females (you can see the eggs) or small ones. So, no lobsters for us on this occasion.

We would have stayed longer at Espiritu Santo, but in the last three stops we have gotten eaten alive by mosquitos and no-see-ums. Despite having screens on our hatches and portlights, there are clearly some gaps or holes where these buggers found their way in. We woke up each morning with itchy bites all over. Ugh.

We headed out of Isla Espiritu Santo after breakfast. We still had some fish in the freezer, but Mike really wanted to see if we could catch a yellowfin tuna, so we put the trolling lines out. No yellowfin tuna, but the fishing that morning was crazy. We caught 5 sierra, 2 dorado (mahi mahi) and 2 jack crevalle. It was all catch and release, so those fish lived to see another day.

Just as Mike was about to put the lines back out after letting one of those fish go, he said to me, “I just saw a fin.” My response was, “What kind of fin? Shark?” Just as I was saying those words, I looked off to port and saw a couple of large fins coming out of the water. We both thought it must be a shark, but we pondered aloud what kind of shark was in these waters that was that big. None that we knew of.

As we started to get closer to the fins and were both peering over lifelines, we identified our culprit at the same time as we both shouted “whale shark!” Neither of us had any idea that whale sharks were even in Panama.

Despite their name, whale sharks are not related to whales. They are sharks and are the biggest sharks in the ocean. Our guides tell us that whale sharks can grow up to 60 feet long. That is one hell of a shark! These sharks were about 20-25 feet long, which is still a really big shark. Whale sharks are very docile and not dangerous. We’ve seen them one other time, in the Sea of Cortez last summer when we were able to jump in and swim with them. They are filter feeders with huge, wide mouths that open to filter all of the plankton and other small creatures in the water.
Not only were we shocked to see a whale shark in Panama, we were shocked to see the large number of them. Last year we encountered just 2-3 inside a small bay where we were anchored. This time, we were on a passage between islands and came across a school of at least 50 of them. Our books say that they are usually solitary, but this was a huge school of whale sharks.

They also were either curious about the boat or simply not bothered that we were there, because each one seemed to come right up to the hull or cross right in front of our bow. Some swam right next to us for several minutes. As soon as we came across that first whale shark, we reeled in the fishing lines and put the boat in neutral. There was a favorable current and we simply drifted through the school of whale sharks marveling at them for almost an hour. An incredible experience that made our day.

I really couldn’t get enough of these guys. Here are some photos of the experience. I’ll work on getting video up a little later when I have better wifi access…

Whether it is our sightings of the majestic humpbacks, the docile whale sharks, or all of the colorful reef fish, the experience of being closer to nature gives us the feeling of responsibility toward these creatures. One thing I’ve noticed here in Panama is all of the trash, particularly plastic in the ocean and washed up on the beaches on these beautiful islands. I can’t say that it is all Panama’s fault. If you look at the geography and the prevailing currents into the Gulf of Panama, you can see how this area could end up as a repository for all kinds of things floating in the ocean.

We recently watched a couple of documentaries that another boat gave us about the environment and climate change that were educating but really just reinforced what we already knew – that each of us is responsible for our contributions on this planet. When you see beautiful creatures such as the whale sharks and then see the plastic bottles they have to swim through, you feel sad that humanity is not doing its part. So, my plea to anyone reading this is to take the small, simple steps in your everyday lives to protect our oceans and our planets. And, I encourage everyone to get out there and enjoy nature and its many wonderful creatures. It will change your life!



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