SWIMMING WITH WHALE SHARKS IN MEXICO
“We made it!” Angel, our speedy bus driver shouted as he pulled up to the port of the Mexico Whale Shark Tours. A younger lady with bright blue-dyed hair was there to greet us as we and 3 other couples got out of the van and stepped onto the start of the wooden boardwalk leading to our boat.
In case you are new here, we are Will and Katy. We are a travel couple that is traveling around the world. We are on year two of our travel adventures where we try and visit as many states as possible during our time in Mexico.
The blue-haired girl eagerly welcomed us and asked if we all spoke English. She led us to an area right next to the dock. There were picnic tables underneath a building with a thatched roof. The bar had coffee and a light breakfast bar, which we immediately helped ourselves to. I wasn’t sure about the others, but I woke up too early to make coffee.
We sat at the tables, and while letting the hot coffee enter my system, the lady with the blue hair had us all sign waivers. Throughout the whole process, from booking online to arriving in person, they reminded us that there were no guarantees of seeing the whale sharks. That allowed us to keep our expectations low and realistic. We were going out into open waters, specifically to areas the tour company knew were on the whale shark migration path. It was never promised that you would see them. What we were signing made sure they had documentation that we understood that. The fact that we were behind schedule didn't help our chances either. Angel was scheduled to pick us up at 6:15 am, but he didn’t get to our apartment until 6:40 am. To make up for the late pick-up he drove very fast. After just a few minutes at the dock and a quick debrief, they rushed us onto the boat.
As we approached the boat we were greeted by Esteban, our captain, and Toto, our guide. Toto began passing out life jackets and spewing out instructions. He grabbed everyone’s bags and hid them in the compartment by the steering wheel.
“Everyone is in luck, the water is very calm today,” Toto said to us as Esteban began driving the boat away from the dock.
The ride to the location known to have whale sharks was very smooth. The sun was shining down and reflecting off the sea.
We were on the boat with 3 other couples. A fair-skinned blonde couple, a couple from England (that’s our guess according to their accent), and a couple that lived in Florida who we chatted with most throughout the day.
Off in the distance, we saw dolphins. Then a few seconds later a dolphin jumped right in front of the boat. On the way there we saw a total of 15 dolphins in the water. The experience was already shaping out to be magical.
As we approached the whale sharks region, there were so many boats on the horizon it looked like we were coming up to land. As we got closer, the land looked more like boats. There were about 30 of them. I hope there are enough whale sharks for us all to see, I thought to myself. On the outskirts of the collection of boats, I looked to my right and I saw a whale shark fin, with about 4 people swimming alongside it. It was about to happen. We were going to swim with whale sharks! Something we didn’t even know we could do in this area until about 2 weeks ago. Even after looking into the tours and deciding that we wanted to book one, we weren’t positive that we would even be able to go out on the water that day. There was a tropical storm that had just passed by a few days earlier. But there we were, out in the middle of the sea, amongst the biggest fish in the world!
Esteban began looking for 'available' whale sharks in the middle of the crowded area of swimmers. The boats looked like they were about to run into each other and then they would quickly turn in another direction. Although there were many boats out there, it didn’t seem chaotic. The tour groups coordinated well with each other and everyone knew what they were doing.
Out of the 4 couples, we were the last to go. We were able to prepare ourselves by watching the 3 other couples jump into the water and swim with the whale shark. The couples who were not swimming had to sit down and wait. As our turn approached, Esteban handed us two sets of swim fins. We put them on, stood up, and then waddled our way to the back of the boat. Estaban then gave us our goggles and snorkels and we prepared ourselves physically and mentally to jump into the deep blue sea!
The couple from Florida jumped in right before us. As we waited in the back of the boat we saw them swim towards the boat and then climb up into it. They were ecstatic and gasping for air. We had a rush of exhilaration as Toto told us to climb over the side of the boat and sit on the ledge. We asked him if he could record for us on our Go Pro. We didn’t want to be distracted. We wanted to be fully present in the moment. He grabbed our camera and told us to be ready. When he shouted "jump" we had to jump in immediately.
Once Esteban lined up the boat with a whale shark, Toto shouted, “Jump!”
I grabbed Will’s hand, held onto my mask, and jumped off the side of the boat. Upon diving into the water, I first saw only bubbles. Once they cleared, I saw swimming toward us, a massive whale shark. He opened his football-shaped mouth wide as he swam closer, still in our direction. I knew he wouldn’t swallow us, but all my body could do at that moment was to swim out of the way! I went to my left and then realized I was still holding my breath. I went up for air, adjusted my snorkel, and quickly put my face back underwater.
Then the whale shark turned as if he was avoiding us. He gracefully bowed out of our game of underwater chicken. I then saw his side as he swam perpendicular to us. He was close enough to touch as his massive body glided through the water. We followed him and tried to keep up, but he was quicker than us. While in the water it didn't seem like he was swimming that fast. His vertical tail swayed back and forth as if it was happening in slow motion. He looked so majestic that we were almost in a trance. His gray skin with white spots popped against the bright blue water. Once he was too far, Toto, Will, and I swam back toward the boat.
It all happened so suddenly. We reached the boat and Toto took our swimfins off so we could climb up the stairs easier. I got into the boat and sat down, taking in all that happened. The couple from Florida asked how it was and we all shared our experiences.
Then it was time for round two. Each couple took their turn at the back of the boat. The girl from the couple from England had fallen seasick. She looked miserable. I offered her some motion sickness medicine in hopes she would feel better. She ended up not going back in, just her partner.
When the couple from Florida jumped in and swam toward the whale shark, we were in the back of the boat because we were up next. Esteban told us to look. I looked up and saw the whale shark was just sitting there not moving. Esteban said it was because he was eating at that moment, and when it is time to eat, they don’t move. How amazing that they got to be in the water without the whale shark moving! A little bit of jealousy arouse as I enormously wished that would have been us. That couple was experienced in snorkeling and diving. They easily kept up with the whale shark earlier. Why couldn’t that have happened for us, since we weren’t experienced divers or snorkelers? But that feeling quickly disappeared as Will said, "that experience couldn’t have happened to a better couple.” The whole time we were on the boat they just kept sharing in extreme excitement about all their water adventures. They truly were having the best experiences there in Mexico. In reality, we got to see the whale shark sitting still too, we may not have been in the water with it, but he was about 15 feet from us, and we got to see him sitting at the surface. I watched the whale shark and about 6 people from various boats just drift with the current. I could see the top of the whale shark’s head at the surface. Then the top fin popped up out of the water. Then the whale shark swam away. The couple climbed up into the boat and I turned and said, “You guys were so lucky! He just sat there for you.”
“I got video of her swimming right beside us,” he said as he was gasping for air. They walked toward the front of the boat as we got ready for our second jump.
We put on our goggles and snorkels and sat on the edge of the boat. I asked Toto if he could record for us again on the GoPro. Esteban was driving the boat looking for another whale shark. After about a minute I heard him tell Toto to get us ready. I looked out into the water and I could see the whale shark just barely at the surface. Once again he was swimming right toward us. I turned to Will and pointed in the direction of the whale shark, “he is coming directly toward us, so when you jump in just look straight ahead.” After the first jump Will told me it took him a minute to locate the whale shark in the water since he wasn’t wearing contacts. So this time he was prepared.
“Jump, jump,” Toto shouted to us.
This time I was to Will’s right side as we jumped in. Somehow I jumped right onto him. But with a better grasp of where to look, I was able to see the whale shark instantly. He was swimming in our direction, but at an angle. He was beginning to descend. I didn’t need to adjust my snorkel this time so I was able to keep watching him as he continued to swim deeper into the water. This time I noticed his tiny little eyes on either side of his blunt-sided face. A ray of light was shining through into the water directly onto the whale shark. I could clearly see his white spots. He had about 20 little fish swimming alongside each of his sides. This whale shark didn’t open his mouth during the time I saw him. As he swam this time I noticed how long it was. His tail swayed from side to side. As I was watching him I noticed I had water in my goggles. Frustrated, I got up out of the water released the water, and adjusted the goggles as quickly as possible before going back under. He was even further now, deeper into the water. The ocean water was such a bright blue and the visibility was so clear that even as the whale shark was descending further away from us I was still able to see him plainly. As he disappeared into the blue abyss, Toto motioned for us to swim back to the boat.
We didn’t get to see him sitting in one spot, but we did get a unique opportunity to see him descend into the sea. These fish don’t need to come to the surface to breathe, like dolphins or other whales. The only reason they do so is to feed on plankton. So once they feed on plankton and get enough sunlight to warm their bodies, they swim back into the depth for long periods. We had the opportunity to see it go back to where I assume it's most comfortable.
As we climbed up into the boat I had such an overwhelming feeling of joy. We just had the privilege of swimming with two different whale sharks. An opportunity that not many people get to do! We took off our swim fins, passed them back to Esteban, and made our way back to our seats. Toto was following right behind us to give everyone further instructions.
Toto told us we were going to go dock near Isla Mujeres for lunch and then if we were all feeling up for it, we would go snorkeling near a reef. Everyone quickly responded "yes" to the option to snorkel! Esteban pulled away from all the other boats and made his way toward Isla Mujeres. On the ride back we talked some more with the couple from Florida, sharing future plans and ideas. They were fun and full of life!
When we made it to Isla Mujeres, Esteban docked the boat and we all went for a swim while he prepared lunch for us. Lunch was fresh ceviche with sliced-up fruits. After all the ceviche was gone we set sail for our snorkel spot. Snorkeling was very enjoyable. I saw a wide variety of fish. There were tons of blue and yellow fish, many parrot fish, and some cool-looking iridescent fish. We didn’t need to swim, we just floated with the current. We reached a section with some kind of peace sign statutes underwater. And next thing I realized, Toto was diving down into the water. He picked up a conch shell, brought it up to show us, and then dove back down to put it away. I was really happy we were all able to go snorkeling in addition to swimming with the whale shark. It has really sparked a desire to go snorkel more! Esteban must have been following us because when we were done he was right there with the boat. We all climbed up into the boat, found our seats, and made the trip back to the dock where we started that morning.
After docking the boat, Toto congratulated us in broken English, “Congratulations, you swam today with the fish biggest in the sea. It is not possible to do so every day.”
We understood what he meant. This is one of the most unique experiences to do. Not only did we swim with the biggest fish in the sea, but with a species that has ancestry back to the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods (245-65 million years ago). It’s a species that there is not much information on. Researchers still don’t know how they breed. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience!
Until next time... What could possibly be next?