Nadja was one of those people who thought she would never have the nerve to try something as daring as diving. Her mother, her sister and her best friend were all convinced that she was not cut out for the sport, and I could never get her interested in it.
Then, two years ago, we spent a week in the Maldives. Nadja did a lot of snorkelling, and made me a very happy man when she told me she was finally prepared to take on the challenge of a diving course.
I didnt want to take any chances with a quickie resort course, and possibly a too-busy resort instructor, and proposed that she join my BSAC branch back in Holland, where she could train and become properly qualified. Nadja already knew some of the members, and agreed.
Back home she completed her pool training with some of the best instructors in our club. She had no real problems, although it took some effort to master the art of mask-clearing, which remained one of her least favourite exercises. But we could not persuade her to sample diving in the cold and often murky waters of Holland. Later that year our club took a trip to the Maldives, and we were presented with the perfect opportunity to get Nadja into open water. By the end of the week she was a qualified diver with more than 10 dives under her belt, and a surprisingly good posture under water, given her initial lack of confidence.
However, she kept saying that she liked the small reef fish and was not interested in seeing anything bigger.
The following summer I was keen to visit one of the outer islands on North-east Ari atoll. Nadja was a little reluctant to go because it was the rainy season, but in the end we agreed to take our chances.
As we stepped onto the doni that would transfer us from Male airport to our resort, the sky blackened and it started pouring. Nadja gave me that look. Half an hour later the sun was out and we saw a school of dolphins and a couple of sailfish. It took a few more dives for Nadja to feel at ease again in the water and to start enjoying herself. On the third day I decided to take the camera in, because Nadja no longer needed too much looking after.
I had almost finished the film towards the end of the dive when I looked to my left into the blue and saw a 10m whale shark. We managed to get pretty close and take a couple of shots before it took off.
Back on the boat, it became clear that only Nadja and I, the divemaster and one other guest had seen it. All four of us were grinning from ear to ear, with Nadja, as happy as a child, repeating: I wasnt even a bit afraid!
That evening in the bar a lot of divers wanted to hear about our encounter. They kept saying how lucky Nadja had been to see a whale shark when she had just 17 dives to her name, and how frustrated they were to have missed it.
A couple of days later, Nadja and I were relaxing with six other divers on the doni on our way to Manta Point. Suddenly the captain cut the engine. It all went very quiet before he started shouting: Whale shark! Whale shark!
A quiet panic broke out on the boat, everyone rushing to retrieve snorkelling kit from their bags, not being able to find it, fin-straps breaking and so on. Luckily I was sitting close to the entry point. Grabbing my kit and camera, I jumped in and swam straight towards the creature.
This one had a streak of curiosity, and started coming towards me too. We were face to face.
Shortly afterwards the other snorkellers arrived but by then the whale shark was diving and we could not follow it far. Back on the boat, and the same thing happened all over again 10 minutes later.
But then came the dive itself. At one point Nadja and I both looked up and saw the silhouette of a whale shark directly above us. It was impressive to be swimming in the shadow of this massive creature, and it turned out that we were the only two to have seen it during the dive.
The other divers on the boat were happy enough to have seen one on the surface, although they all said that seeing one during a dive must be something else.
When word got around back on the island, some of the German divers who had chosen to go to another site stopped saying hello to us. I guess they didnt appreciate Nadjas crazy luck: three whale shark sightings in a total of 20 dives.
We had visited another good site a few days earlier, and I asked if we could go there again. Twenty minutes into the dive the current suddenly changed, which meant that we had to go against it to reach some large overhangs.
After a few minutes I realised that Nadja was struggling a bit, and decided to turn and drift with the flow. A couple of other divers followed us for a while - afterwards they said they did so on the off-chance that we would see a whale shark again!
When our hour was almost up, I went to signal to Nadja to start ascending and do our usual safety stop. As I turned towards her, I saw that a whale shark was lying right beside her.
Nadja was looking at me, not realising what was happening. Then she saw the look on my face, turned her head and saw the creatures huge mouth. Later she told me that her heart missed a couple of beats!
This was the smallest whale shark we had seen. At one point it came right up to us, opened its mouth and displayed its array of tiny teeth as if it had come for a dental check-up.
Ive never seen such a beautiful and gentle creature in my whole life, Nadja said to me later. That was the ultimate experience.
By the time we surfaced, everyone else was on the boat, dry and waiting for us. Nadja stepped aboard bursting with enthusiasm and couldnt stop talking about her long and close encounter with the whale shark.
It quickly transpired that no one else had seen it, and as we both started noticing some long and frustrated faces, we decided by mutual consent to drop the subject!
By now Nadja, nicknamed The Whale Shark Girl by the diving school, was hooked. A proud Sports Diver, since then she has even done some drysuit diving back in Holland.