How a Whale Shark Eased the Pain of Watching a Friend Die

Pam Perkins
Oct 2 · 9 min read
Photograph by Pam Perkins

I met Kaye on a 30-day, 1500 mile bicycle trip in Oregon, where I rode with a bunch of amazing women, many of whom had cycled across the country the year before. An outstanding athlete who accomplished everything she set out to do, Kaye rode across America too. With a squatty build and muscular legs, Kaye climbed the steep Cascade Mountains like they were rolling hills. On the flat road she flew past me like a bird, laughing as she called out “on your left.” I never saw her competitive with anyone but herself. She had an adventurous spirit which meant she was fun. Everyone loved Kaye.

We rode bicycles together.

The year after that epic event in Oregon Kaye joined a 9-day ride that a friend and I organized. We were ten women in our sixties eager to challenge ourselves with a 420 mile ride from Mill Valley, California to Santa Barbara. We rode mostly on U.S. Route #1, which included the steep, curvy roads along the Big Sur coast. Like the rest of us, Kaye trained hard to stay in shape for these physical challenges, so six months later we rode together from Tucson to Bixby, Arizona and back, where the headwinds were so strong one day we were only able to ride 35 miles.

That’s Kaye on the left and me on the right catching our breath on the Tucson ride (photo by Penny Bradley)

Both in our sixties, Kaye and I knew we were at peak performance for our age, so we didn’t want to stop. That’s when I came up with the idea of doing something different. “How about a snorkeling adventure in the Philippines?” I asked. Kaye jumped on the idea and talked her husband and daughter into joining us. So we were a group of six with my husband, Bruce, me and another athletic super star and also a friend of Kaye’s, Penny. We booked a custom itinerary with an amazing guide, Lee, an American living in Manila. Lee is a PhD marine biologist, and an inveterate snorkeler and diver in those parts of the world. The trip was billed as “Swimming with Whale Sharks,” an adventure to top all snorkeling adventures, but what I didn’t know until we got into the water was that Kaye wasn’t a strong swimmer. Since she seemed eager to go on this trip, I never asked whether she’d ever snorkeled before, let alone questioned how much experience she’d had in the water. Perhaps I should have asked considering she grew up in land-locked Idaho.

This is Kaye and me at the whale shark site in Donsol, Philippines (photo by Bruce Berger)

For the first three days we snorkeled with whale sharks, the largest fish on earth, reaching up to 33 feet long. They are not whales, but feed like whales and are no danger to humans in the water. Snorkeling just a few feet above these awesome creatures, we had to kick hard to stay with them. Because Kaye had strong leg muscles from cycling, she didn’t have any difficulty keeping up. Speed was never her problem.

Whale Shark

Then we left Donsal, the whale shark capital of the Philippines, and flew to Palawan, a national park with pristine waters and home to some of the most exotic coral and fish in the world. We kayaked and snorkeled for five days, with every day its own unique experience. On our last day, before leaving Palawan and flying north for more exotic snorkeling, Lee suggested a drift snorkel which he said would be a lot of fun and very different.

Photo by Lee Goldman

Oh, yes, it was very different,

so different that during the drift snorkel Kaye ran into some sort of trouble, and said she couldn’t breathe. She had help climbing up the ladder into the boat, but her face immediately turned blue; then she collapsed and never regained consciousness.

An hour of pure hell

With the engine in full throttle and the boat speeding to shore as fast as possible, Kaye’s husband, daughter and our guide Lee took turns performing CPR with no response from Kaye, except some water bubbling up from her lungs. For the full hour it took to reach shore, Lisa and Bud never stopped trying to breathe life back into Kaye, while Penny, Bruce and I just sat, shocked and numb, realizing we were living a nightmare — one of the most horrific things we’d ever experienced. With no sign of life in Kaye, we eventually had to grasp the terrible reality that she had died. Stunned, shocked and speechless, we just looked at each other in horror. We couldn’t even cry; the situation just seemed surreal.

When we finally reached the dock, a local doctor based at one of the resorts, jumped on board with a blood pressure cuff and a hand full of needles which she began injecting into Kaye’s chest. We watched her do what she was trained for, but we knew she was too late. Not feeling a pulse, the doctor put her arm around Bud and whispered “I’m afraid she’s gone.” As hard as it was for me to see Kaye die, it was worse watching Bud and Lisa completely fall apart. With their lips swollen from an hour of CPR and their faces reddened from working so hard, they simply collapsed upon each other and wailed. In an instant they’d lost the closest person in their lives. In shock ourselves, Penny and I just lost a very dear friend with whom we traveled and cycled far and wide.

As the boatman and Lee lifted Kaye’s lifeless body on to the boat’s hatch cover and transported her to the dock, Bud and Lisa followed close behind. A van waited to take them all to a hospital nearby. Penny, Bruce and I motored back to the beach where we had spent the last several nights, knowing we had to pack up our gear. The itinerary called for us to fly north to a new location for the last few days of our trip, and our plane was leaving in a few hours. We were in a quandary as to what to do.

Photo by Pam Perkins

Fast forward a day or two

Once we were assured that Bud and Lisa had connected with the American Embassy in Manila, Penny, Bruce and I continued traveling with Lee for the last few days of the trip. We really hated to leave them, but Lisa and her Dad were very busy dealing with the daunting logistics of taking Kaye’s body back to the United States, and our being there only complicated things.

Our hearts ached as we proceeded with the last few days of the trip, while Lee kept in close contact with what was happening back in Manila. We all tried to appear happy and jocular — we were at a beautiful resort — but it was impossible. While we snorkeled in silence, our thoughts were always about Kaye, remembering that frightening hour on the boat — watching Kaye die, watching Bud and Lisa collapse. What happened? Was it her heart? Did she have sports-induced asthma and take too much water into her lungs? We analyzed the situation from every angle, but had no answers. To obtain a reliable autopsy in Manila was impossible because of the bureaucracy, not to mention the bribes. Lisa and Bud were anxious to take Kaye back to California where her sons and grandchildren were waiting, totally devastated by this tragic news.

Kaye and her daughter Lisa (photo by Pam Perkins)

A miracle during our last day in the Philippines

While we were traveling on the boat taking us from the small island to the mainland where we would catch our flight back to the U.S., a lone whale shark appeared and swam along side. I could have reached down and stroked her, she was that close to the surface. Although we snorkeled with these gentle giants at the beginning of our trip, we’d left the whale shark area long ago. We were now hundreds of miles from where they congregate. In fact, whale sharks are never seen in this area because there isn’t food for them, so no one on our boat, except us, had ever seen a whale shark. She was small, “a teenager,” Lee told us, but she was still pretty big, about ten feet long. The ones we swam with were 30 feet long. Whale sharks are elusive fish and do not swim up to boats. But this whale shark was different. She swam slowly around the boat and very close to the surface. Others on the boat were so fascinated by this miracle they turned the motor off so we could just watch her swim. For at least ten minutes, maybe more, she swam around and around the boat, giving us all plenty of time to observe her. Finally, Lee grabbed his underwater camera and with his clothes still on jumped in the water to swim with her and take photos. Then another boat came along, and a few other people jumped into the water too. The whale shark seemed unperturbed and did not swim away. When Lee eventually climbed back into the boat, all four of us (Penny, myself, Bruce and Lee) looked at each other and just smiled. There was nothing to say — we just knew.

Photo by Lee Goldman

Strange as it may have seemed to the others on the boat to see a whale shark,

it didn’t seem strange to us. We felt sure this whale shark was Kaye coming to say good-bye, to let us know not to worry, and that everything would be okay. None of us doubted this phenomenon because the scene was other worldly and the situation profound. Those ten minutes of silence when the whale shark swam around the boat provided enormous comfort, to know that our dear Kaye was by our side.

Photo by Lee Goldman

We do not understand the spiritual world.

Kaye was a devout Mormon all her life, something I didn’t know until the memorial service when the pastor of her parish ward referred to her as Sister Kaye. Perhaps I should have figured it out, since she grew up in Idaho and didn’t drink alcohol. But she never mentioned religion or anything close to sounding spiritual, and someone’s religion is not something I think about.

Kaye and her Shirley Temple drink (photo by Pam)

Kaye’s Memorial Service

Bud and Lisa hadn’t heard the whale shark story, but a close friend of theirs, who knew about this experience, encouraged me to share it at the memorial service. At first I wasn’t sure it was appropriate, but during the service, I felt a strong need to speak up, and I’m very glad I did. After the service Lisa and Bud hugged me tight. With their hands clutching mine, they cried and said how much my story comforted them, just like the whale shark comforted us when she swam slowly around our boat.

Kaye was a kindred spirit, a good friend, and someone who had a zest for life. Her relationship with God was private, and one I wish I’d understood so I could appreciate what God meant to her. What I do understand and appreciate was Kaye’s constant desire to try new things, pushing the envelope so to speak, and challenging herself, like riding her bicycle across the country and snorkeling with whale sharks. At 66 Kaye died too young, but she will always be my role model. Even though she’s been gone for seven years now, I still miss her. Some people come into your life for a very short time, but they affect you, make you think about things that change you. Kaye taught me about life. The whale shark taught me about death.

Pam Perkins

Written by

World traveler (75 countries & all 7 continents), photographer and writer, who has ridden her bicycle more than 50,000 miles.

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