Wad­ing into whale shark ter­ri­tory

They aren’t great whites, more like gi­ant cat­fish, so just re­lax and en­joy the dive

Toronto Star - - TRAVEL & LIFE - PAM LEBLANC

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.

JOHN S. PIERCE/TRI­BUNE NEWS SER­VICE

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.

JOHN S. PIERCE/TRI­BUNE NEWS SER­VICE

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.

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