How do I begin to express my feelings right now. This is the fastest I’ve ever rushed to “pen & paper” to jot down a memory, a special moment in my life. Yesterday goes down in my own history as the day G. went swimming with the world’s largest fish – the Whale Shark.
While for some people this may not be a big deal as these huge creatures are so inoffensive, for me it was one of those “once in a lifetime” experiences I shall never forget. From the moment the captain yelled “Jump! Now! Jump!” – until I swam back to the boat and climbed on board, out of breath, and with my heart pounding out of my chest, I felt like I had conquered a primal fear. And I ended up having one of the most exhilarating experiences ever.
About the Whale Sharks
Not a lot is known about these enigmatic marine giants, especially about their early years from birth to young adulthood. What we have learned is that they’re highly migratory, embarking on epic voyages across the planet’s warm oceans. They travel alone, but can be seen in pods in areas with abundant plankton, which is their main source of food. They are filter feeders – they feed by opening up their huge mouths and filtering these tiny microorganisms from the seas. Whale sharks follow the path of nutrient-rich seasonal aggregations of plankton around the world. From May to September, they can be found feeding in the waters just off the coast of the Yucatán Pensinsula in Mexico – and this is where I went for my whale shark adventure.
Arrival to Cancún & Isla Mujeres
We arrived in Cancún on a sunny – and sweltering – day. From the airport, we made a B line to a Peruvian restaurant – Lima 12°05′. If you know a bit about me, you know I’m crazy for food from my country. I had a chance to meet the young chef, Alan Banda, who hooked us up with a perfect tasting menu. We tucked into a few typical dishes like causa (pictured below), lomo saltado, arroz con mariscos – and, of course, Peruvian ceviche. There would be time for Mexican food later.
After our delicious meal, we hopped aboard the ferry that took us across to Isla Mujeres, where we planned a few nights stay. Our welcome to the island was a spectacular sunset. We were scheduled to be picked up next day at 7 am and we were told by our tour operator to get rest, so after checking out a bit of the nightlife, we turned in.
As you book your whale shark experience, one of the things you have to be aware of is, obviously – weather. Responsible tours go out to sea only when it’s safe to do so. We received a call that night from our tour operator telling us that due to inclement weather, our trip was cancelled and would be rescheduled for later in the week. We spent the next couple of days relaxing and exploring Isla Mujeres. (By the way, if you want to get away from the noise and crazy party atmosphere of Cancún, Isla Mujeres is an excellent alternative. Our hotel was right in front of North Beach – a perfect spot to enjoy island life).
Three days later, our whale shark trip was confirmed. We checked out of our hotel, grabbed some coffee, and headed to the dock. Our tour operator picked us at 7:30 am; we were sailing from Isla Mujeres straight to the Cancún marina to join the rest of the passengers. At the operator’s boat docks, we were fitted with our gear, received a safety briefing – and most importantly, we learned the Rules for swimming with the whale sharks. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the species as vulnerable – that is, they’re at high risk of extinction in the wild.
Rules for Swimming with the Whale Sharks
1. The most obvious – you cannot touch the whale sharks. If you do, you’ll be pulled out of the water and the rest of your swimming trip will be cancelled by the captain.
2. Never feed the whale sharks.
3. You are to keep your distance – a minimum of 3 feet – while swimming alongside the whale shark.
4. You can only snorkel, not scuba dive.
5. On the day that you’ll swim with the whale sharks, you are not to wear any suntanning lotions. Also, you can only use biodegradable sunscreen. Our tour operator required that we show them what kind of sun protection we were using to determine if, in fact, the products were biodegradable.
6. Only two swimmers plus the professional guide are allowed in the water at any one time. Each boat has a maximum of 10 swimmers, who take turns during their trip
7. When jumping from the boat into the water, you’re doing it in a controlled manner, from a sitting position, and only from the boat’s gunnels.
Swimming with the Whale Sharks
We were ready to go. Our captain gave us another short briefing about safety and the rules before he powered away from the marina. One thing he said really stuck with me: “You’re about to embark in an extraordinary adventure. Give it your all! Swim with passion!” I’m not sure how you swim with passion, but I took it to mean not take the experience for granted and be focused on the whale shark.
The day was stunning – clear skies and calm seas. Our 20-mile trip towards deep blue waters was smooth; the salty air and the sun invigorating. One of the things we were told was to listen to our captain at all times. When he yelled jump! we had to jump and swim – fast. See, the whale sharks are not stationary – they are constantly moving. And while they are not fast swimmers, generally, they can swim faster than you. After the guide jumps into the water and locates the whale shark, he signals the captain. And then the captain gives you the order to jump and swim. If you do not do this fast enough, you’ll miss your chance and you have to get back on the boat, and it is then someone else’s turn.
We were only 8 passengers on our boat. The captain told us we were going second. At that moment, I was mentally doing whatever I had to do to drown out my fears, i.e., thinking about good wines, dinner later on that evening, the beautiful sea waters, drinking more wine, etc. I watched as the first two swimmers jumped in the water. Because the whale sharks swim close to the surface, you can sometimes see their fins sticking out of the water. The moment I spotted them, my whole body clenched tight. They looked to me very much like the fins of a real man eating shark – I mean, like the ones with big teeth that attack people.
I couldn’t stop staring at the water, searching for more fins. But before I could give into my nonsensical imaginings, the captain ordered us to jump. I felt a rush of adrenaline as I jumped in. After all the bubbles around me dissipated and I cleared out my mask (I hadn’t put it on tightly enough to begin with), I suddenly saw a huge whale shark swimming right below me. I had already wasted some time with all my anticipatory shenanigans, and the shark was beginning to dive deeper. Nevertheless, here’s my first sighting! I couldn’t believe my eyes.
I tried to follow as the whale shark dove, but I was losing sight of it. So, it was time to get back to the boat. I was bummed. Once I got out of the water, I promised myself I would jump and swim right away, no matter what. On my second turn, I felt more comfortable and was able to swim better. Here are a couple more photos.
One thing that soon became clear, though, is that you better make a decision early on – whether you’ll take photos or concentrate on swimming as much as you can with these beautiful fish. I was so intent on photographing the experience, that I started to miss out on enjoying the moment. I needed to swim with passion! 🙂
On my final jump, I was able to get a really good look at one of the bigger whale sharks. I also felt like I had a lot more time to swim with this particular one. The feeling was unbelievable. I turned to my guide and handed him the camera. He took this final shot. I think he was too close, so he couldn’t get the whole shark. But still – I love this photo.
The guide said that this last whale shark probably measured about 10 meters (32 feet). Some of the biggest whale sharks have been measured at 14 meters (almost 46 feet) and weighing a whopping 22 tons – that’s just over 48,000 pounds!
This 2015 season, the Mexican Conservation Authorities drastically limited the number of authorized whale shark boats. It is expected limitations will continue for the protection of these animals. Whale sharks live to be 100 years old – and even older, which is remarkable. I truly hope conservation efforts help keep these incredible creatures remain around for hundreds of years to come.
About our tour: We booked through Cancun-Holbox Whale Shark Tours. The booking went smoothly and we got all the information we needed before our trip. The local boat captain and guide showed great respect for the whale sharks, making sure everyone understood and followed the rules. I felt safe at all times and appreciated the love and dedication for what they do. I would highly recommend this outfit. Keep in mind you need to make reservations early, as there are limited spaces. The next season in Mexico will begin again in May 2016.
*To schedule your whale shark adventure, call 305-396-6987. Don’t be surprised if you speak directly to the owner, Rodney, the Whale Shark Daddy. He has a hands-on approach to managing the business.
*There are package deals for group tours (maximum 10 people) and private tours, where you get to go out in a boat by yourself, your captain and guide.
*The packages generally include transportation to and from the marina, a light breakfast, lunch on board, all snorkeling equipment, and a stop at Isla Mujeres to swim and relax with a couple of ice-cold beers, fresh ceviche, and guacamole.