Magazine article Natural History

Fish Story

Magazine article Natural History

Fish Story

Article excerpt

Most anyone who's ever put on a mask and flippers knows the thrill of tropical reef snorkeling. You've slathered on j the SPF 45, rubbed spit and seawater into your mask to clear the view, waded into the warm, clear waters off the beach, and kicked across the lagoon to the reef. The underwater world is mesmerizing, and you watch in fascination as stylish little Moorish idols skitter among the sea fans, and long, impossibly thin, almost transparent needlefish hang motionless above a growth of staghorn coral.

Then you sense a murky form, almost invisible in the distance, much larger than anything in your immediate vicinity. Brain flash: how safe are these waters, anyway? If it's a shark, do you stop to avoid the splashing that is said to attract them, or do you make a quick U-turn and head for shore? Whew! It's just a sea turtle-but, oh, what a turtle! Four feet long from stem to stern, and big enough to ride. You swim with the creature while it drifts along, allowing you within touching range, and for a moment, until it tires of the lazy pace a human swimmer can manage, you feel as if you've met a visitor from another planet. Such a close encounter can be life-changing.

Imagine, then, the frisson of coming nose to nose with a thirty-five-foot version of the leviathan that appears on our cover this month, the whale shark. Steven G. Wilson ("The Biggest Fish," page 42) doesn't need to imagine; he swims with them for a living. "I felt a jolt to my lower back," he writes, "and suddenly found myself being propelled through the water. …

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