The Whale Shark
Updated: Jun 7, 2021
“Life is a series of moments. The quality of attention and action that we bring to each moment determines the quality of our lives.” - Dan Millman
Can you think of a moment that changed the course of your life? Perhaps it was something that rattled you, bedazzled you, terrified you, or astonished you to the point that it made everyday life too ordinary. Can you think of a moment like that in your life? I can.
It was the moment I met this whale shark, and it changed my life forever.
In 2016, my husband Chris and I were on a week-long dive vacation in the Maldives. We had been living in South East Asia for the last two years, and I took advantage of the proximity to tropical waters by obtaining my dive certification. Chris, a veteran Navy diver and underwater photographer, was well versed in the water. I had logged only a handful of dives, but already I felt right at home.
A few days into our Maldives trip, we were on a dive when I heard a clinking sound, like that of silverware on glass..."clink"..."clink..."clink."
I looked around, but all I could see was a couple of my dive buddies, the sloping reef, and the blue abyss. I told myself, sound travels pretty far in water, so it could be coming from anywhere. But the clinking persisted, and my gut told me something was coming.
Eventually, I looked farther over my shoulder and I saw IT swimming up behind me. The whale shark.
Our Maldivian guide had been trying to gather our attention for the last 60 seconds by clinking a tiny metal rod on his air tank. The shark had been trailing behind us the entire time.
The sight of the enormous creature took my breath away. It was the biggest animal I had ever seen in the water. It swam swiftly, gracefully along the reef line. I thought my heart might explode with excitement.
Whale sharks are not in any way dangerous to humans. As filter-feeders, they sort out tiny animals like krill and plankton from the seawater, swallow the food and then expel the water through their gills. As the largest fish in the ocean, whale sharks can grow between 20 to 40 feet long and can weigh up to 20 tons. For a diver, spotting a whale shark is an experience of a lifetime.
And I suddenly found myself staring one right in the face.
Through my exaltation I noticed my husband moving to the animal's right side. Chris, the experienced photographer, was already positioning his camera when it occurred to me to ready myself for a stellar photo opportunity. I held my breath and drifted downwards with one outstretched arm.
"Click." Chris snapped the photo and my moment with the whale shark was etched in time.
We went on that week to have more amazing experiences, eventually swimming with mantas and sea turtles. But my moment with the whale shark stuck with me, having changed me forever.
Up to that time, I had spent my entire life searching for a passion - something special to love outside of a husband, a career, or kids. Meeting that whale shark was transformational, and rather than go back to normal life, I embraced the experience and it let guide me down a new path towards ocean stewardship.
When we moved from South East Asia to Virginia, I went back to school to learn everything I could about the ocean and its wildlife. I studied marine ecology so I could understand the connection between different species and their habitats. I was thoroughly committed to learning the science.
But nothing in the world worth having comes easy, and my journey was no different. I was a 33-year-old woman going back to school learning calculus and organic chemistry. I worked long days on a boat with young graduate students, I took intern jobs with no pay just for the experience, and I struggled to define myself as a scientist. When things got hard, or I felt lost, I'd often revisit my whale shark photo to remind me of why I had chosen this new path.
And as my knowledge grew, so did my understanding of who I was as an individual and how I could best leverage my talents . Try as I might, it was impossible for me to disconnect the story from the science, and to dehumanize the countless charismatic animals of the ocean. Instead, I found that relating the human element to the natural world opened up many possibilities for connection and a shared understanding.
In 2020, nearly four years after my encounter with the whale shark, I co-founded Media Evolve to share my passion for ocean animals and their habitats in a way that can educate, entertain, and inspire others to care for the ocean. This is the best way I know to use my voice and connect others to the magical underwater world.
Media Evolve has some exciting projects on the horizon, and Chris and I look forward to what lies ahead. As my journey continues to unfold, this time in the South Pacific, I'm eager to see what new adventures await just beyond the reef.