BALLERINAS OF THE BIG BLUE

MEX­ICO'S WHALE SHARK WON­DER

The Observer - - FRONT PAGE - WORDS: RAE WIL­SON

IN­SIDE WEEK­END

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.

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