Ever since I saw photos of divers coming face to face with the giant mouth of a whale shark, I’ve wanted to swim with these creatures, which are the biggest fish in our oceans. I always imagined a whale shark encounter would be part of a trip in the distant future to a far away place like Indonesia or the Maldives, because I had no idea I could swim with them much closer to home. As soon as I found out that not one but two parts of Mexico (the waters off the tip of the Yucatan Peninsula in the summer and the Gulf of California in the winter) offer prime whale shark viewing, a trip to Cancún was in the works for their whale shark season.
After a briefing from our guides about whale sharks (yes, they’re sharks, but vegetarian ones; no they’re not whales or whale-shark hybrids; no, you – probably – can’t sucked into their mouths accidentally) we boarded our boat and headed out in search of them. In this area, the whales tend to congregate where the Gulf of Mexico meets the Caribbean Sea near Isla Contoy. The mixing of the different waters forces plankton – in other words, whale shark food – to the surface where its easy for them to eat. The trip to the area with the whale sharks took about an hour and a half from Cancún, but the time in transit was by no means a waste, since we were treated to sightings of a pod of spinner dolphins and several large sea turtles.
I’m not really sure what I thought swimming with whale sharks would be like, but I suppose I was imaging it would be something like my experiences snorkeling with sea turtles and sting rays. I figured I’d jump into the water, calmly put on my snorkel and pull out my camera, and look around as whale sharks floated gently around me. In reality, it was nothing like that. Once we located the sharks – we got lucky with a large group of 25-30 of them in the same area – the captain positioned our boat directly in the path of a shark while we jumped two at a time into the water, frantically pulled on our snorkels and masks and did our best to chase something that was swimming away from us at a shockingly fast clip for an animal that’s regularly described as “slow-moving” (the only explanation I can come up with for that description is that it’s slow for its giant size, because it sure seemed a lot faster than just about every other fish or marine animal I’ve been in the water with). Once we had lost the shark we boarded the boat and did the whole thing over again, with different people getting their turn to jump. Although I pride myself on my ability to swim a slow breast stroke pretty much indefinitely in warm water, a member of my high school swim team I was not, and as a result my first glimpses of whale sharks were mostly of their backs and tails as they swam away.
Even as I watched them leave me in the dust, it was thrilling just to be so close to these giants.
Thankfully, since there were so many sharks in the area, each pair on our boat got to jump about a dozen times. Some of my jumps were disappointing and I didn’t see much except fins and spray from the faster people in front of me, but I had a lot of jumps where I got very close to the sharks and there were even a couple of times I was quick enough to end up in front of the shark or looking down on it from above.
Since we jumped in pairs and there were about 12 people on our boat, we did spend quite a bit of time out of the water, but because whale sharks are filter feeders who spend most of their time near the surface this wasn’t such a bad thing. In fact, we could actually see the sharks very well from the boat and we had the benefit of not trying to chase them while struggling with snorkel gear, which made it much easier to take photos. Although I didn’t capture it with my camera, a whale shark even surfaced just a couple of feet from our boat at one point, so it’s safe to say I wasn’t bored even when I wasn’t in the water.
We ended the day bathing in the warm waters off Playa Norte on Isla Mujeres while enjoying freshly made guacamole and ceviche that was well-deserved after an exhausting day of whale shark chasing.
Although I can cross this activity off my bucket list, in all honesty this experience really just whet my appetite and made me eager to swim with whale sharks again some day (although I think I could also say the same thing about pretty much every other wildlife encounter I’ve had…it’s never enough!)