This is a re-post but in honor of Shark Week, thought it was timely. Plus, I love telling people about this experience; of all the things I’ve done on my list this is definitely one of my favorites.
Although I had already completed #2 by swimming with Dolphins in January 2007, when Alex and I were planning our vacation to the Mexico in August 2008, I was especially intrigued by one excursion that detailed a swim with Whale Sharks.
Apparently, there are only two places on Earth that whale sharks congregate for any significant amount of time; one is off the coast of Australia and the other is off the coast of Cancun, with the “season” lasting from about July to September. And, just in case you don’t know, Whale Sharks do have tiny little teeth, but eat plankton through a filtering system, and are not aggressive at all, but are large, docile creatures. In fact, the only aggression on record was a few that had butted sports boats, but only after having been provoked.
On vacation, the last thing I want to do is to wake at 5:00am, but we did, as we were staying in Playa del Carmen, and had an hour’s ride to Cancun. Once in Cancun, we boarded a boat with 10 others and began another hour’s ride into open water off the coast of Cancun. Once out, we began seeing fins all around, which immediately conjure up the worst scenes of Jaws. Everything you’ve been taught says NOT to get into the water!
We were to go in two at a time wearing a life jacket and snorkel gear, accompanied by a guide. Each couple got three chances to go in to swim with the whale sharks. We were instructed not to touch the whale sharks and while some of the sharks seemed to be curious, most slowly swam away from our boat, or began to dive deeper when we began to swim in their direction.
I had never snorkeled before so I unfortunately wasted my first trip into the water coughing and choking while trying to get a hang of the snorkel gear. However, that first trip into the water, our shark hung around for awhile and we got a few good looks at him/her under water.
Our second shark (we had to keep chasing sharks around with the boat as they swam away) was not as interested in us and began swimming away pretty quickly. We began swimming after it and as we did, Alex, who was behind me, grabbed my foot. I ignored him, thinking he was fooling around or trying to scare me. A moment later, a fin was next to me in the water! Alex had been trying to warn me that another whale shark had come up behind us. I yelped, which was echoed and amplified by the snorkel gear, and the guide laughed at me and began making fun of me to the others in the boat (I THINK he was anyway, he kept pointing at me. Thing to Do #51: Learn Spanish). I swam out of the way because, while I wasn’t afraid of the shark trying to eat me, his tail was sizable and a thwack! from something roughly the size of a Buick can still be considerable!
On our third and final go, we again set off after a fast-swimming whale shark when this time the guide saw that another had joined us from behind. He yelled for us to put our faces in the water and just below us, within arms length, a whale shark slowly glided by. We followed this one for awhile as he dove deeper and deeper, until we could no longer see him.
Of the 10 or so others on the boat, Alex and I were only one of two couples that took all three swims with the sharks. The others had grown seasick, which I had also been fighting off (we were mostly floating on the open sea and between the waves and the fumes from the gas, it WAS a bit much). Once we set off on our way again, I felt better and we soon arrived at a reef where I was able to employ my new found snorkel skills.
Many excursions like these that are sold in tourist-centric areas can fall short of expectations, but swimming with whale sharks 100% met my expectations. What was especially awesome was that it was in open water-these were not trained animals, they weren’t even being fed!
Anyone else swam with whale sharks? Seen a shark in the wild? I’d really love to find someone that has gone down in the cage with dangerous sharks…