LIFE IN UTILA

Whale Shark

Q:**** Utila’s a quirky Caribbean place, isn’t it?

A: You could say that. Or quaint. Or tropical. Those are the words my mom and dad used when we moved here [Kisty still runs the lodge; Jim died five years ago]. The island just happened to have whale sharks swimming around it.

Q:**** Whale sharks. That’s a nice “Oh, by the way ...”

A: Yeah, and nobody knew much about them at the time or what they might be capable of. When we got here, the locals wouldn't even get into the water. They thought they might be swallowed whole, like Jonah.

Q:**** And there are your parents, the new neighbors from North Dakota. They had a lodge, a dive center and a little girl. How’d that go?

A: Fine. This is where I learned to swim. Dad told me to come to him at the end of the dock one day, and he tossed me in. I held onto some tires that were tied to the end of the dock until I couldn't hang on anymore. Next thing I knew, I was swimming.

Q:**** Swimming in a sea with sharks the size of school buses.

A: I'm not sure Dad knew they were out there. But I've always been pretty fearless, like him. The locals thought we were crazy. And then this family from North Dakota, us, wound up teaching them about the marine life.

Q: OK, brag a little. What's the big- gest fish you've seen?

A: About 55 feet. The people on the island used tell stories about one huge whale shark that would swim under boats and pick them up out of the water. They'd say it was always hanging around out there, striking fear into the community. They called it Old Tom. I'm not sure the one I saw was Old Tom. Actually, most people now refer to every whale shark as "Old Tom."

Q:**** None of the Old Toms have hurt anyone?

A: They feed on things smaller than your fingernail. I was always told they wouldn't harm me. Nothing's changed that.

Q:**** Do you get tired of talking about them, like right about now?

A: Not at all. I've seen them 75, maybe 100 times, and I still get excited whenever one is spotted. My main concern is educating people to respect them. We don't need a bunch of boats surround- ing them all the time, or dozens of people jumping in the water to agitate them. This is their habitat. If we scare them off, everyone loses. That's why Dad tried to get some guidelines enforced.

Q:**** You moved back to North Dakota for a couple of years in high school. What’s the biggest thing you saw in the water up there?

A: I only went swimming in a lake once. The visibility was low. It was cold. I didn't see any reason to swim there a second time. This place spoils me.

Q:**** Does anything scare you?

A: One time Dad lost his glasses in the lagoon, so we went swimming for them. The lagoon had been dredged, so the water was pretty murky. We found out there were some big saltwater crocs in there. I don't think they're very playful.

Q:**** Whale sharks. Crocs. Utila is starting to sound like Jurassic Park.

A: No. It's quaint, remember?

Q:**** With cattle roaming the airstrip.

A: You should see it when the cows come in on the freight boat. Πhey swim to shore and run up the street to the main cow pens. It's quite a spectacle.

Q:**** You must have a reputation on the island.

A: Everyone has a reputation on the island. That's the thing about a small place with only 3,000 people. Nothing's a secret. In North Dakota I was in a high-school class of 30 kids. There's more gossip here, trust me.

Q:**** You’re the little girl who swam with beasts. That must help.

A: It can also be a problem. Some people still look at me as that little girl from the lodge. They might find it hard to accept that I'm managing the dive operations now, and making business decisions. The attitude is obvious sometimes. So I go to the mainland [Honduras] or to the States every few months with my 3-year-old son, A.J. We can go to a water park or hang out on the beaches where nobody knows us.

Q:**** Do we detect a hint of island fever?

A: It happens. But this is home for me. Whenever I think about going back to the States to study medicine, something pulls me back. Like I said, it's home.

Q:**** With neighbors who talk.

A: I'll stand up to just about anything that comes my way. It's a tribute to Dad. He made a bold move here and was always ready to surprise people. So am I.