Team Diver Sophia Pallavicini- First class, first whale shark. I never thought I’d have an experience like this while teaching a Level 1 Course.
On August 6, 2018, I was going to be teaching my first Level 1 freediving course as a newly certified instructor. Although, I was not on my own. I was with Johnathan, the owner of the shop at the time, and Matt, the course director. They were there to provide guidance but also to evaluate my teaching. Not nerve wrecking at all right?!
As soon as we were all loaded up on the dive boat, the captain began his safety briefing. He said, and I quote, “I will be just a couple meters away from you guys at all times… well except if a whale shark is in the area. Then I’m leaving you and going diving myself!” We all laughed and I thought to myself, we’re going to be way too close to shore for that to ever happen. Let me tell you, I’ve never been so happy to be wrong in my life.
At the end of each Level 1 Ocean Session, a safety skills test is to be completed which involves blackout and LMC scenarios. My class and I were just about halfway through our scenarios when the captain pulled up close to us. He shouted “How much longer? There’s a whale shark in the area!” I said, "No way" and sort of brushed it off. He proceeded to say “No, seriously! It’s just a mile away!” My eyes widen in disbelief. I turned to my students, who were all knocking their skills out of the park and said, “Let’s wrap this up quick!" We did just that as the focus and efficiency that my students had to finish the skills was unmatched.
Back on the boat frantic with excitement and steaming towards the area of the reported whale shark, Jonathan knew just how to brief all ten of us. He explained that for this encounter the captain will line the boat up just ahead of the whale shark and drop us all in at the same time with the hopes that the whale shark will stay on course and pass right by us. He explained the importance of not spooking it and that for us to all have the best chance of getting close that will we need to swim in a line, shoulder to shoulder, nice and slow towards the whale shark. And of course, no touching the whale shark.
The captain shouted from the bridge that the whale shark is in sight and for us to get on the dive platform ready to slide in. “Dive dive dive!” he said, and we executed the approach PERFECTLY. The whale shark passed by us so close that we nearly had to swim backwards out of his way. I’m pretty sure I saw some jaws drop and some happy tears filling up masks. I popped my head up and said, “Okay $100 bucks for the extreme encounter, fork it up!," joking of course.
I have traveled the world chasing different animal encounters and I never would have thought I’d see a bucket list animal in my home waters, with my two best mentors, while teaching my very first Level 1 class. It was so incredibly auspicious to start my career out with a once in a lifetime encounter and I think I can say the same for my students. It really goes to show that you never know what is going to pay you a visit while diving. I’ve always believed that if you put in the time and take care of her, Mother Ocean will always return the favor.
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