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Bluffing your way into travel journalism

I had reached the zen-like state of tranquility. I was on a small island surrounded by white sand and turquoise sea. Palm trees wilted, their leaves creating an oasis of shade allowing me to hide from the scorching sun. A loud, violent beeping noise was the only disturbance.
When I woke up I couldn’t remember anything about my dream except where it was: The Honduran island of Utila. My London life was a routine of perpetual boredom. The gray clouds of winter had amassed once again over the city skyline and the thought of digging myself in for another cold and miserable season was too much to bear. I had to leave and follow my dream to the sun. I cashed in everything I had, quit my monotonous job at one of London’s many financial institutions  and bought a one way ticket to paradise.  My  hope was that fate would make my difficult life decisions for me and provide the answer to the sixty four million dollar question: “What will I do with my life?.”

I hadn’t put much effort into researching my destination. My dream had given me sufficient insight to know that glorious beaches and crystal clear waters awaited me. This was to be the first mistake. Utila, is far from being a tropical oasis. Its streets are crammed full of diving shops, guesthouses, bars and restaurants. Being one of the cheapest places in the world to dive certainly attracted a host of budget conscious travels.

My first three weeks on the island had passed in a blur. I had filled my lazy days with diving, drinking and eating. I was having a fantastic time never-the-less and had almost forgotten about my reason for being there. The hope that fate would somehow change my life.

However nothing had happened. There had been no revelation about my future path in life. At this stage even a calling from god himself would have been something to follow. Fate was becoming a right pain in the arse. I had been robbed of my dream and I decide then and there I would no longer hold such wishy-washy mystic rubbish in such high regard. Better still, I would definitely not throw valuable financial resources to fund such nonsense.

With my finances running low I decided to leave.  No sooner had I bought my ticket off the island my luck began to change. Luck for me, but the poor girl who got attacked by the shark certainly would have felt decidedly unlucky.

The attack had happened when the diver jumped into the water to swim with a whale shark one on of the many whale sharking expedition the islands dive shops offer . As well as this harmless, plankton eating giant, a more  dangerous shark was busy feeding on smaller fish at the same time. The poor women jumped straight into the middle of a feeding frenzy and got bitten by the shark.  The bite was not life threatening, but she was taken off the island and to hospital with a broken leg and cuts to her thigh.

Having seen other countries handle relatively respectfully the whale sharking phenomena, I knew that things on the island could and needed to change. The only thing that I thought to do was write about the islands total mis-management of this resource. Before leaving the UK I had spoken to the editor of a diving magazine about writing for them. Of course the response was always, “we cannot commit to anything.” With the shark attack and through my own experience I suddenly had the angle that I was looking for. Lets be fair, everyone loves a shark attack story!

Having no journalistic clue about where or how to start, I figured that the most prudent port of call would be the whale shark research institute. I introduced myself to D’Arcy Kelly the General Manager and explained my intention to write an article for a UK diving magazine. I felt a total fraud by introducing myself as a freelance writer. Me, a freelance writer from a leading UK diving magazine? They asked what other pieces that I had had published and lying through my teeth I replied “I had had one or two published by the magazine in the past.” This actually only referred to the letter I had written and was published about almost shitting myself in Indonesia whilst on a diving trip. This was hardly constructive journalism.

My lie seemed to be holding water and after a very interesting chat about the whale sharking situation I was invited to join the researchers the next day on one of their boats to tag the sharks as part of their tagging program. Things were definitely looking up. Who’d have thought that the words “I’m a freelance writer” could open so many doors and hold so many opportunities.

There were seven people in total on the boat and we were all introduce to the group in turn by D’Arcy. There was one BBC wildlife cameraman (gulp!), two professional underwater photographers (bugger!), two members of the coral conservation project funded by the World Bank (shit!), one marine biologist (f–k!) and Mark Burton, free lance writer for a UK diving magazine. Initially, I had just assumed that they were people that had just paid to join us on the boat. I had no idea of the caliber of my company. I felt like a fish out of water and totally out of my depth. The BBC cameraman had very professional camera set up, as did the two pro photographers. And there was me, Canon digital with underwater housing. My camera looked as out of place next to their state-of-the-art Nikon SLR’s as I felt inside.

The day, however, was incredible.  After about an hour we saw and tagged our first shark. It was a five-meter female. Unfortunately, after having a sharp arrow shot into its dorsal fin by the marine biologist’s spear gun it dived into the blue and I was unable to catch a glimpse. A natural reaction one would suppose to being harpooned whilst snacking on some tasty whitebait. The shark soon surfaced again a few hundred meters away. As we cruised alongside it, we could see its enormous mouth gaping wide open at the surface filtering the huge quantities of gushing water for more whitebait. The shark was almost vertical in the water, its tail thrashing beneath it to keep it stable while the black hole of its mouth that lay idly open must have measured at least two meters in diameter.

After several more ventures into the water we packed up and headed home. Each time I was swimming, I was constantly reminded of the fact that these were the very bait balls that could contain an altogether different type of shark. A shark that had been responsible for the attack on the women a few days prior and one that could leave a nasty bite mark. This made me very cautious and I was forever checking the boats position and the blue for signs of more sinister shark activity. This could explain why I didn’t actually get to see the whale shark at all. I comforted myself in the knowledge that my angle for the article was actually focusing on the “pack hunts” that occurred daily by the other dive companies and not the actual shark sighting themselves. At the end of our day I had plenty of ammunition against the dive company’s behavior.

Once back on shore my luck just kept on getting better. I was invited to an evening barbecue and presentation that the research and dive center was giving to the Honduran Fisheries Ministry, who were in town to discuss conservation problems on the island. On this occasion I had to introduce myself and give a brief synopsis of my article to the ministry officials. Again, I felt decidedly uncomfortable fabricating my credentials to the group, which now included the wealthy owner of the whole operation who had funded my day and now my consumption of the free alcohol and food that was being dished up. Maybe I was just being paranoid, it was difficult to tell, but I was relieved when the night started to wind down and I could make my excuses and leave.

I had survived the night and put a reasonable dent in the bar tab as my reward. I made a swift but smooth getaway to a nearby bar to put my notes in order. Here I was extremely fortunate to bump into the owner of the Shark Diving company whose expedition had led to the shark attack a few days previously. He was drunk and was more than forthcoming with juicy quotes that I could use in my article. I felt content with my progress and a little numb by the whole event of the day and so I went back to my hotel to sleep.

After what seemed like a whirlwind two days I packed up and headed back to the mainland. The article was written, submitted and accepted by the magazine and was published as a news feature in the July edition. My pay cheque, a cool $200, landed on my London doorstep soon after. “Faking it” as a journalist had provided me a glimpse at a new and exciting life. Fate had come up trumps and my crazy decision to follow an obscure dream in hope of a better life had proven to be well worth the effort. Mark Burton, “Freelance writer”, had a nice ring to it.

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