When you’re face to face with a whale shark, does anything still matter?

There are many ways to leap into the unknown: quitting your job, facing an empty piece of paper with a pen, starting a long journey without a precise plan. In this vibrant tale, Eddie tell us about his own leap, trying to put into words a life-changing experience with a whale shark in the Philippines—an experience that left him speechless.

I should try to stay away from those viral videos going around on Facebook—those that keep reminding me that life is meant to be lived to the fullest. Because of them, I gave up the comfort of a steady job for the uncertainty of a nomad’s life. Because of them, I changed careers three times to follow my true desires—including all that came with a full-fledged mid-life crisis. Because of them, I spend more money than I have, because ‘a chance not taken is an opportunity missed.’ But I don’t regret it for a second.

The balance of my bank account never ventures far from zero, like a deep-sea diver clinging to his lifeline, but I still have no regrets. Because sometimes these experiences are truly worth living. Yes, there were times when I was disappointed—fortunately, just a few. But most were experiences of the kind that truly matters, so strong that they stay in your mind, stubborn, unfading, like you just lived them a moment ago. And it’s not like I’m one of the bravest souls around. But, as I’ve heard those viral videos say, you need to be strong to get the strength (a paradox worth reflecting on) to try something new, to jump out into the void. Sometimes literally.

I’m willing to admit I left ‘jump out into the void’ for last on my bucket list. Someone like me who suffers from vertigo would need a really strong push for that one. So, instead of climbing to the top of the world to find a little bit of the meaning this life can have, I decided to plumb the fathomless depths of the Philippines (I might be exaggerating, just a little), in search of that great beast: the whale shark. Just in case the words ‘whale’ and ‘shark’ together aren’t enough to make an impression, I should remind you this is the largest creature that inhabits the waters of this planet. So I drew up my courage from everywhere I could, even from my travelling companion—as ‘unity is strength’ after all, which I’m pretty sure is a real piece of wisdom, even though I haven’t seen any viral videos about it).

Unfortunately, my companion had somehow managed to come down with an intestinal virus, which kept him in bed for nearly a week. No whales for him, and no sharks either. But I’ve got a mantra that always helps: I repeat in my head, over and over, that if everyone can do it and it’s perfectly legal, it’s probably not going to kill me today. And it didn’t. But the experience had something else about it. Something truly ‘beyond’.

It all started with our group—myself and four sturdy Norwegians, who made me feel safer, as they looked much more up to the task ahead than my own skin and bones—sitting in an office, watching an informational video that explained how you should behave to avoid problems and minimize your impact on the natural environment. Then we were led out to the ship, and we set off in search of the whale shark. Here would be a good place to mention that I’m never quite at ease with the sea. I like it fine, and I enjoy swimming, on one condition: that I can see clearly all around me. The darker the water gets, the more nervous I get. And, if you were wondering, whale sharks can’t be found near the shore—you need to go out far from the coast. So the water was now a deep, dark blue, and I could hear the strong wind howling from the stern, the chitchat of the Norwegians, the shouts of the Filipino sailors watching the waters for the ‘black shadow’, as they called it, that signaled the presence of the Leviathan.

There was chaos on that boat, and so much noise, and the long wait only added to the tension, the anxiety mixed with disappointment mixed with a little hope that we would end up returning to shore without having encountered the watery giant. Until suddenly, the captain told us to put on our fins, masks and snorkels, go to the side of the boat and wait for his command. That moment when your heart starts beating like a hammer—the confusion all around, that final thought of ’what am I doing?’, and the shouted order to throw yourself in the sea—just to be surrounded one second later by that most absolute silence, that human beings search for in vain but can only find in the deep. Then, after the water takes me in, I open my eyes—and I am face to face with an enormous being, all white (that’s how my eyes saw it), peaceful, slow, watching me lazily—maybe bored, maybe annoyed that again some clumsy little being had fallen from the sky right in front of him.

It lasted all of ten seconds, in which I felt small, insignificant; fortunate, yet weak. Ten seconds in which nothing mattered but what separated me from the whale shark, and the faint lingering thoughts—would I survive? Would I be touched by the harmless colossus? (And they are, in fact, harmless—they eat plankton, and their enormous mouths have no teeth). Ten seconds when nothing else exists in the world, when you can’t help being thrust head-on into mindfulness—that awareness of being, of existing in that very moment, not knowing for how long, enjoying the tiniest instant as a generous gift.

Ten seconds that ended, as we tried in vain to keep up with our white whale, and had to get back on the boat—but then we went and did it all over again, and again, a few times more. Finally, as we returned to shore, we were joyous, having done an extraordinary feat, something above the mere human condition. Or maybe below—hadn’t we felt so insignificant? No one spoke much on the return trip. We didn’t even look at the photos we had taken with all our state-of-the-art underwater gadgets. We sat in silence, relishing every lingering moment of the encounter that had, just for an instant, shifted our sense of place in the world and given us a glimpse of our true measure—tiny, but somehow also great, courageous and curious, all in one.

Maybe it was all the fault of those viral videos. Or maybe it was that never-ending striving, that will to overcome born into us as human beings. Whatever it was, I know this experience made me feel in touch with the world, with the Universe itself, like never before. And thanks to this contact, this realization, this change, I grew a little as a human being.

What do you do after something like that? You get back on the boat, and throw yourself in again. Replay.