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Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

A few years ago, three close girlfriends struggled into their snorkelling gear and jumped into the deep ocean off the coast of Placencia, Belize. Their mission: to swim with a whale shark. One of that fearless threesome was me.

It was quite a feat in itself, but since these three musketeers were well into their septuagenarian years, this open water adventure was extra special. Friends for decades, our kids had finally left and gone on to have children of their own. That left us wondering what fun we could have now that we were free of work and child-rearing responsibilities.

After a short discussion and one (or more) glasses of wine, we decided to travel in search of the unforgettable adventures we’d not been able to manage in our younger years. “Retired but not tired,” was our daily mantra.

Once in Belize, a dive boat transported us from Placencia to the Gladden Split, a remarkable locale where the ocean shelf drops to great depths. It is about an hour and a half boat ride from Placencia’s shore on wild ocean waves. Once a year, whale sharks swim here. If we were lucky and the animals accommodated us, we could swim with them.

During the full moons of springtime, whale sharks (which can reach up to 32-feet long) rise to the surface to feed on the roe of spawning snapper and other fish. The remarkable animals simply open their giant mouths and swim through large groups of roe, filtering their catch as they glide along. Their mouths can stretch to four feet, but their teeth are tiny, which I found to be a comforting fact. We also learned that whale sharks can feast on shrimp and use their gill rakers as suction filters.

Whale sharks are elusive animals and the hope for all visitors is that the mammoth creatures choose your tour guide’s area for their swim. Our best viewing chances seemed to be during the full moon of May.

Once we arrived in Belize, we set out three or four times to find the sharks. If a whale shark was spotted, the dive boat driver would yell, “Shark!” and in we would jump. This was always a leap of faith as we never asked what type of shark he had spotted.

On a few occasions, to lure the whale shark from the ocean depths, divers would sink about 40 feet below the surface and blow air bubbles to attract the hungry shark as we snorkelled above them. The bubbles simulated the yummy bait balls it was looking for and up it would come swimming slowly through the bubbles, thinking they were food. Upon realizing these bubbles didn’t satisfy its craving, the whale shark would eventually disappear into the dark depths to await a real feast.

We’d read that whale sharks are the size of school buses. We did not truly appreciate this fact, however, until we were lucky enough to see them up close. Picture a gargantuan grey animal with white spots and then multiply it by about 100. Swimming with them most definitely topped our bucket list and after having experienced this once, we decided we needed to go again, and again. Some trips, we were disappointed when the whales did not show, but we remained resolute in our quest.

During one trip, I vividly remember rolling waves pushing me closer to an open-mouthed whale shark. My flippers weren’t working fast enough to propel me backward in the rough waters. Luckily, my friend, a stronger swimmer, grabbed my waist and pulled me away as a shark glided effortlessly by mouth agape.

The eye contact I had with that shark was mesmerizing. Certainly not to ever be forgotten. Apparently, if I had been swallowed by the gentle giant, it would have to spit me out as its throat narrows to almost the size of a quarter and isn’t wide enough for a human. (This information begs the question: What type of whale swallowed Jonah?)

My friends and I aren’t crazy, but we are adventurous. Our fearless threesome – ages 79, 82 and 83 – have also enjoyed swims with not so placid reef sharks, stingrays, dolphins and schools of barracudas. We’ve come face-to-shell with turtles, endured a few jellyfish stings and have lived to tell our wondrous tales. But the thrill of seeing the massive, gentle whale shark was not to be equaled.

A pleasant bonus of our ocean escapades was the realization that once in warm waters, arthritis pain disappears, as do any outside stresses. Age is merely a state of mind and only made our girlfriend adventures more captivating. We did try a remote jungle walk with a guide once. It wasn’t to be repeated after my eyes locked with a large, lounging boa constrictor stretched out on a log. Its stare was so hard it sent shivers down my spine. Couple that with the largest spider webs I’ve ever seen (have I mentioned that I’m arachnophobic?) and my fondness for the ocean increased. At almost 80, I’ve discovered that jungles aren’t really my thing.

If our bodies continue to co-operate, and if dive boats could replace their tricky, steel-rung ladders with comfortable staircases leading into the sea, we spirited (and slightly arthritic) gals can become octogenarian shark whisperers. In the mean time, we are busy planning our next adventure.

Judith McMurray lives in Toronto.

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