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

NewsMail - - ESCAPE - WORDS: RAE WIL­SON

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

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