Wading into whale shark territory
They aren’t great whites, more like giant catfish, so just relax and enjoy the dive
I’m hanging in a bottomless abyss of bluegreen, peering through a mask, when a shadowy shape practically the size of an 18-wheeler glides into frame.
A12-metre fish swims past, its mouth so wide I can see down its throat as it scoops up millions of tiny, nearly invisible fish eggs. I’m awestruck. As a scuba diver with more than 300 dives under my belt, I’ve long dreamed of catching a glimpse of a single whale shark. Today, I’m surrounded by dozens of the giant plankton-eaters.
About a decade ago, Yucatan fishermen discovered that whale sharks were congregating in the warm waters off the coast.
The sharks, which they called “domino” or “checkerboard” fish, gather here during the summer months for food — they gulp the clear, pinhead-sized eggs of spawning little tunny, a type of tuna.
Big, graceful and toothless, the sharks soon became the perfect tourism attraction. In the last six or seven years, the industry surrounding the phenomenon has exploded, with visitors paying $150 (U.S.) or more per person for guided trips to the site, where they can jump in and snorkel alongside the animals.
“After a while, tour operators started to see that it was a great experience,” says David Oliver of Solo Buceo, a dive shop in nearby Cancun that we’ve hired to ferry us to the site.
Trips are also available from Holbox or Cancun. The trips are popular because, unlike scuba diving, which requires certification, even kids or grandparents can snorkel. Oliver still remembers the first time he saw a whale shark up close.
“The water conditions were not too good, it was green with no visibility at all,” he says.
“When I saw (the whale shark), it was already a couple of feet away from me, with the big open mouth.”
Who wouldn’t want that same experience?
Today, tour operators are required to follow a strict set of regulations — dropping no more than two snorkellers in the water at one time and limiting the amount of time each spends in the water — but that doesn’t always happen. Scuba diving isn’t permitted, snorkellers aren’t allowed to touch the sharks and they must stay at least a metre away from the animals. Only biodegradable sunscreen is allowed, because other types could harm the plankton the sharks eat.
We’ve timed our trip to coincide with the peak of whale shark season, mid-July, but the sharks can usually be spotted here from mid-May to early September. From the beach on Isla Mujeres where our boat picks us up, it takes about an hour to reach the site.
As we approach, we slow to a crawl. We can see the whale sharks from afar, their big black fins slicing the surface, mouths nearly as big as inner tubes breaking the surface.
Our guide gives us a quick briefing, then a few tips about how to best view them.
The sharks swim faster than humans, so it’s no use trying to chase one. Instead, he suggests, try to intercept one that’s swimming toward you. With a little luck — and we have plenty — you’ll get a drive-by you won’t forget.
It’s not at all scary, unless super deep water or school bus-sized fish make you nervous. These aren’t great whites — they’re more like huge catfish, minus the whiskers, with gorgeous neon blue dapples covering their skin. We hang in the water, listening for the whistle of our boat captain, who alerts us when one is headed our way.
“Incoming!” I holler as one approaches. Then I take a deep breath and duck under the surface for a fisheye view.
And what a view. The whale shark ignores me, gliding past like a silent, underwater freight train. I look in its ping pong ball-sized eye, admire the rows of dots on its skin and marvel at its huge, sweeping tail. And then it’s gone. We visit the site three consecutive days, and each day we find a bevy of whale sharks. We also find plenty of tourists — anywhere between 40 and 70 small boats, spread out, each carrying six or eight snorkellers. One day, a drone flies overhead, filming the spectacle.
The whale sharks don’t seem to mind the circus, but scientists know little about how they breed, reproduce or spend their lives, and it’s unclear what effect the influx of spectators might have. Most cruise the vicinity, mouths agape; a few hang nearly vertical in the water, in what our guide calls the “botella” — or bottle — position.
We’ve brought our own masks, fins and wet suits for the trip, but most companies provide gear if you don’t own your own. Our operator has also brought fruit, drinks and a stash of baguette sandwiches for when the post-snorkelling munchies hit.
“I wanted to swim with the whale sharks because I love seeing how animals live and move and feed in the wild,” says my sister Angela Pierce, a pediatric brain cancer researcher at the University of Colorado-Denver. “Because they’re so beautiful with their spotted skin. And because I like thinking about all the different fish and animals and invertebrates and plants in the sea and how their life cycles mesh together.”
It’s mind boggling, really. How can such a large creature get enough substance from food so tiny it’s barely visible?
And what do they think of us, mesmerized by their every move? They seem baffled by our interest, as if they can’t understand what all the fuss is about.
I could stay here for days, I think, pondering the mysteries of whale sharks.
Instead I’ll have to make do with a few days, and the hope of a return trip someday — if the sharks stick around that long.
Visitors pay $150 (U.S.) or more per person for guided trips to an area near Isla Mujeres, Mexico, where they can jump in and snorkel alongside the animals.
Try to intercept a whale shark swimming toward you, one guide advises. With a little luck, you’ll get a close pass you won’t forget.