MANY OF HER MOST treasured memories, of course, are of her whale sharks: “I think there’s something really special about being alone with a shark and that they let you be there with them. If they don’t want you there, they would just leave, so it’s very humbling when they stick around.
“When I arrived back in Madagascar last year, around 11 or 12 September, it felt so strange. These huge, life-changing things had happened to us in the year I’d been away – Trump becoming President for one – but we had no idea what these sharks had been doing.
“Eventually I saw a shark I really like called Clasperfin, and it was so touching that, after everything, we’d both returned to Madagascar at the same time.”
Incredibly, Stella not only names all her sharks but also memorises their spot patterns by heart. Each one has little scars or distinctive dots, she tells me, which makes it easier to recognise them once you get your eye in: for example, Hydrus has a hidden infinity sign in his markings, Theodore has four dots in a line and Michel has a “pizza dot”.
At first, I couldn’t quite believe that someone could recognise each individual shark, but the way Stella talks about them fondly, like old friends, makes it clear that she really does know them all: “I wanted to be able to tell who they are from sight, because it makes my life much easier.
“So I’ve committed them to memory, like memory cards. I think it’s quite fun to come back on the boat and know that ‘oh, it was Ernest out there today’.”
Michel, easily recognisable by his distinctive cut tail, is the most sighted whale shark, having been seen nearly 40 times since he started visiting Nosy Be in 2015. While beautiful and photogenic, the 5m male is very shy, and never hangs around for long.
Knowing all the sharks so well makes it difficult to pick a favourite: “I like Sirius because he always comes to check you out. Raymond was my favourite but he must have now become an adult and has gone off to do… whatever adult whale sharks do, as we haven’t seen him since last year. We really don’t know.
“He was huge, with a massive scar on his head where he’d been hit by a boat propeller. It must have been a bad injury at the time – I think his head must have been almost hanging off – but it has healed surprisingly well, and makes him look pretty badass.”