A WHALE OF A TIME
IT’S A DEEPLY MOVING EXPERIENCE GETTING TO SWIM JUST CENTIMETRES FROM GRACEFUL GIANT WHALE SHARKS AND RAYS IN MEXICO
As soon as the first drops of rain fell and traffic slowed to a snail’s pace, the delay was inevitable. Mexico City’s early evening thunderstorms had been a daily but accepted reality during summer – not unlike Queensland but colder. Even more reason to escape to paradise. Typically, on exiting security at Mexico’s largest airport, the boarding gate kept changing as rain caused havoc to flight schedules. With every minute the plane was delayed, it grew on me that public transport options from Cancun airport to my Airbnb at Puerto Juarez were soon to be nought. On one of the gate changes, I met my lifesaver – Wilma, a wedding planner in one of Mexico’s most beautiful locations, she was a Cancun local of 30-something years. She agreed my options were limited and, as we neared a midnight arrival, worried about the distance to my accommodation. While my guest room was chosen to enable early and fast passage to Isla Mujeres for one of life’s great adventures, it was far from the airport and Cancun’s main drag. When we got off the plane, my journey to Puerto Juarez was seamless. Not only did she offer for her husband to drive me into downtown Cancun, but we met up with her brother-in-law Jorge, a taxi driver, to take me the rest of the way. Jorge told me I would be his last ride for the night but he wanted to ensure I got to my bed safely and offered to pick me up in three days for my return to the airport at a discounted price. By the time I arrived at Africa’s home in a gated community, it was well after midnight but she greeted me with open arms. I had missed dinner in all the confusion of the evening, but she offered me the most delicious sweet bread and a glass of apple juice. The perfect host. She also helped me sift through the ferry schedules so I made it to the island in time for my reservation a mere five hours later. Dragging myself out of bed after just a few hours in the air-conditioning, my sleepy eyes were tempered with growing excitement. Whale sharks. I was about to swim with whale sharks. The season runs from May to September but the reviews all said they were most prolific in July and August. They were not wrong. Within about 40 minutes of setting forth from the dock, we spotted one, then two, then so many it was hard to count. There was not another boat in sight on the glassy turquoise ocean before us. As I slipped into the tropical waters and peered through my snorkel mask, I audibly gasped. The first of these magical creatures drifted into my view. I was mesmerised as its oval mouth opened to filter feed any plankton in its path and then glided past me with the grace of a ballerina. The dots and stripes on its snout and body almost glowed, like it could light its own performance under the sea, and its gills, rippling in concertina fashion, had me transfixed. The docile creature was so long, it took an age for it to pass. As the tail fin finally passed, it flicked up and came within centimetres of my body. While we could not go deliberately within 2m, they did not mind practising an underwater tango of sorts. Before I had another moment to fully appreciate its beauty, another swept past on my other side. Then another and another. And, just as my Gopro died, I encountered another wonder – the biggest ray I’ve ever seen. The devil manta also had an oval
mouth and its wings swept through the ocean like curtains rippling. I have been lucky enough to swim with many kinds of sharks and rays in Australia and nearby Bahamas, Belize and Panama, but whale sharks are next level. With only two humans allowed in the water at a time, we rotated through three turns each. I could have stayed there all day. But, alas, we left these beauties and “parked” our craft in the waters of Playa Norte – an Isla Mujeres beach with picture-perfect Caribbean water.
As we slipped from the boat again into the turquoise bathwater, our Searious Diving hosts passed out cervezas and plates of ceviche while we floated in paradise until it was time to leave. Next on my to-do list the following day was diving MUSA – an underwater museum of art. The statues, arranged about 9m below the surface, ranged from groups of people to a car, house and other random objects, all the more fascinating because coral and fish have made themselves at home among these human-made reefs.
Unfortunately visibility was a mere 1m the day I went so we could only see the art once upon it. Conditions were similar with a second dive to nearby natural reefs, though the fish were stunning on each outcrop we discovered. While I did a certified dive, because the museum is only 9–10m depth, they allow introductory dives too. Don’t bother with a snorkelling tour if visibility is bad. There were plenty of other marine activities available, including swimming with dolphins and visiting a turtle farm, but Isla Mujeres is postcard material in itself.
Common on many Caribbean islands and a stellar way to get around are golf carts – and taking in the salty air and the incredible coastal vistas leaves troubles far behind. Drop in at a beach for a dip and a cocktail or gander at the sculptures at the lighthouse. There’s even an ice bar to escape the heat. But there’s little more satisfying than soaking up the cruisy lifestyle on a deck chair on the northern beaches. I was so chilled between dips in the idyllic water and having tacos and cocktails delivered to my throne that my Fitbit thought I had a long snooze.