West Richland man dives with whale sharks

Loretto J. Hulse, Tri-City HeraldJanuary 4, 2014 

It's unlikely many bucket lists include "swimming with 10-ton fish." But Ken Gatherum's did.

The West Richland man crossed that one off in October, when he and friends hung out with whale sharks in the Sea of Cortez.

Whale sharks are fish, not mammals, despite their name. The gentle giants can reach lengths of 40 feet and weigh more than 10 tons, making them the largest fish in the ocean.

They have a massive mouth, about twice the size of a manhole cover, which could be scary up close. But they eat plankton, not other fish.

"They're so gentle I'd let my 10-year-old daughter, if I had one, swim with them," Gatherum said.

He was one of eight who went on a trip to La Paz, Mexico, led by a member of the Marker Buoy Dive Club from Seattle. They rented a charter boat and, wearing wet suits and toting masks and snorkels, quickly located two of the gargantuan creatures, one about 30 feet long.

"They came right up to us," he said, the memory bringing a note of excitement to his voice. "Whale sharks feed near the surface of the water, so all we needed were snorkels."

In his photos, the sharks appear to be holding still, but Gatherum said their speed is deceptive.

"A flick of their tail sends them moving pretty good through the water, faster than we could swim," he said.

The tour guides are more worried about people bothering the sharks than the other way around, Gatherum said.

"But they didn't seem to be bothered by us. In fact, we were excited when they turned and swam back through us. It was fantastic," he said.

So why did he want to swim with such a humongous fish?

"Just because it's so big," he said, laughing.

"We were told a flick of their tail could knock you out. But even though their eyes are on the sides of their heads, which likely gives them a blind spot as they swim toward you, they always seemed to know where we were and made an effort to swim out of the way," he said.

Gatherum was able to cross another item -- swim and play with sea lions -- off his bucket list during the same trip. They took a charter boat to Los Islotes, a group of small islands about an hour away from their hotel.

It's home to about 350 friendly and curious California sea lions.

"The first thing I noticed was the sea lions were having as much fun as the people. They swam all around us and, if they spotted anything loose, like a mask strap, they were right there pulling on it with their teeth," he said.

Gatherum began his scuba diving bucket list about 18 months ago when he retired from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

"I was knocking around the house and suddenly a light bulb came on in my head and I told myself, it's time to get back into diving," he said.

Gatherum, a former Navy photographer, learned to scuba dive in 1965 while stationed on Guam.

"Back then there was only two things to do on Guam, ride motorcycles or dive," he said.

He dove for fun and for work -- sometimes taking underwater photos for Battelle's marine research lab in Sequim -- until around 2000 when he became busy at work, leaving no time for diving.

So what else is on Gatherum's underwater photography bucket list? Swimming with manta rays for one, moray eels another. So is swimming with sharks, with and without a cage.

Asked what his family and friends think of his list, Gatherum said, "it depends on if they're divers or not. Divers understand."

-- Loretto J. Hulse: 582-1513; lhulse@tricityherald.com

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