Glimpsing the cluster of huge, spotted heads in the water, I peer closer. I’m not sure if I’m hallucinating after slouching under the intense sun and sitting on a boat for an hour. But as our guide yells out and slings on his snorkel mask, I realize that this is real. We are surrounded by whale sharks, some as long as 40 or 50 feet and I will soon be swimming next to them, the largest fish in the world.
According to the preternaturally calm tour guides of Eco Colors Tours, there are only two places in the world to see whale sharks: Australia and Mexico. And although I later learn from other divers that whale sharks in fact inhabit all tropical waters, it is true that Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula is one of the most reliable places on earth to see and swim with these colossal creatures.
In Your Bucket Because…
- You want to swim in the open sea next to the world’s biggest fish.
- You want to experience the beauty of the Yucatan sea world.
- Good for animal and nature lovers.
My journey started inauspiciously at 6AM, with crowds and lines, followed by endless hours in a rocking boat that almost turned me, as well as my stomach, against this shark adventure. I had arrived at Puerto Juarez pier on the northeast side of the Yucatan Peninsula where the Caribbean Sea beckoned with tranquil waves.
A Mayan dressed as a warrior greeted me and the crowds of tourists. People in bikinis and board shorts were crammed into a small space waiting to be handed numbered stickers that would organize us into groups of 10 people per boat. I felt relieved that we wouldn’t be squeezed into small boats with scads of people. My comfort waned slightly as we were strapped into life vests and handed flippers that didn’t quite fit my rather long feet. Determined to keep pace with the whale sharks, I tried on several pairs until I found a pair that cradled my feet like webbed house slippers.
Not for Land-Lubbers
We sailed off toward the whale shark reserve of Isla Contoy and after about an hour, I realized that I forgot my motion sickness bands. I love the water as long as I’m in it but boating is another story. We floated deep into the ocean as our guides searched for whale sharks, while waves of nausea bubbled up in my stomach. The boat rocked. The sun blazed. Still no whale sharks. I looked around and noticed that my boat mates were also looking greenish. As I watched one woman discreetly hurl into the sea, I contemplated the practicality of going below deck to the bathroom.
Up Close And Personal With Whale Sharks
Although they share the shark family tree, whale sharks don’t attack or swim quickly. They are slow moving, filter feeders that spend most of their time near the water’s surface, which makes it possible to swim beside them. But it takes time to find them in the open ocean.
Finally, our guide saw them, and pointed to the faint dots floating beneath the water like spooky, speckled, boulders. As he shouted for us to get in, we spotted a baby whale shark swimming right next to the boat. It felt like a personal invitation. My eyes adjusted and I discerned three more whale sharks, covered in distinctive pale polka dots and rearing their wide, flat heads. Just watching them from the boat felt like a mystical experience, like I had spied a ghost out of the corner of my eye. My stomach twirled but I ignored it, pulled on my mask and splashed into the water.
Our guide instructed us not to swim in front of the sharks because their eyes are on the side and they can’t see in front. Instead, I swam around them and the huge fish swam around me, brushing up against my skin. The size, the scale, the pace, the feeling of floating with these creatures was a completely different life experience, like dipping into another realm.
We saw other sea creatures during the six-hour excursion but I don’t remember any of them. All I remember is the sensation of thick, rough skin rubbing against me, the otherworldly sight of spots looming below the water’s surface, and the sensation of being, if only for a few hours, part of this enormous creature’s magical marine world.
- Whale Shark season runs from June 15-September 15.
- Bring lots of sunscreen and medication if you suffer from motion sickness.
- Water, soda and lunch is provided but bring your own if you’re a picky eater.
- Arrange tours days in advance with hotel or tour operators, they fill up quickly.
Copyright 2012, Rosalind Cummings-Yeates. All rights reserved.