Sunday, July 5, 2015

Swimming with the Whale Sharks

I suppose it's fitting that I write this post during "shark week," even though this particular encounter has been on my mind for several years now. Since I first saw footage of someone swimming next to a whale shark I knew that I wanted to swim alongside one myself.

It was one of those things that stayed in a little corner of my mind, labeled "some day." I spoke of it a few times when others would discuss ocean adventures, dreams and bucket list items.

I learned of the places where people can experience these creatures.  The Philippines, Seychelles, Galapagos, Belize, Australia, Mozambique, Maldives, Thailand and Isla Mujeres Mexico. As much I would like to (and intend to) travel to every place on the list, I knew that realistically Mexico was my best bet to make it happen.

A few months ago I was contacted about a travel agent trip taking place in late June in the Cancun area, and I knew that it was my time. Whale shark season was in full force in June and I couldn't pass up the opportunity to experience these amazing creatures.

I did some research online and chose to book a tour with Mexico Whale Shark

I liked the fact that their rate was inclusive of the resort transfers and food and drinks on board.

My driver, Juan, picked me up from my hotel lobby in the Riviera Maya. He was right on time, 6:50 A.M. We talked the whole way to the next resort, where he filled up the van with a group. Everyone was very excited as we made our way to the marina near Cancun.

The marina was a private little dock with an outdoor restaurant. We were offered complimentary continental-style breakfast, coffee and juice. We were briefed on the safety procedures and reminded that this is wildlife, and not a zoo.  It may take some time to find the whales. He said the initial trip out to sea would be about an hour.

We loaded into 2 boats since our group was large. They allow up to 10 people per boat to meet regulations and we were all required to wear our life jackets while on board. As we set off I just thought to myself how amazing it was and how lucky I was to be on my way to experience whale sharks.

We were going pretty quickly when all of the sudden the boat stopped and everyone became quiet. I knew we were too close to be near the whale sharks. Jimmy, the first mate and whale shark guide yelled out, " Dolphins!"

We all went to the side of the boat to watch as three dolphins swam around and jumped in and out of the water. What an amazing thing to see. After a few moments Archie, our Captain, started the engine back up and we were on our way. We saw a flying fish but did not encounter any manta rays as some others have seen during this tour.

Finally, we get to the spot. I had lost track of time but my guess is it was about 50 minutes. The engine stopped and we saw a few boats stopped as well behind us. The boats all formed a circle and you could see the captains and first mates of all of the boats looking around for signs of a whale shark in the water.

Jimmy had the first set of swimmers ready to go. They had their snorkels and masks on and their fins were secured. They sat on the edge of the boat and Jimmy held the back of their life jackets so they wouldn't fall in as the boat rocked back and forth. Finally, we heard Archie say Go! Go! Go! as the boat moved forward.  The two swimmers jumped into the water with Jimmy and swam alongside the whale shark.

A few minutes later they were back on the boat,with huge smiles. "Amazing." "Incredible." were the words I heard from the other side of the boat. Now the next two prepared and waited for the next shark to be spotted. There were a few times when it was called out, "whale shark!" but the boats that were in the circle would all take turns sending in their swimmers and we had to wait until it was our turn again.

We went through this process over and over until it seemed the whale sharks were no longer coming to the surface. Archie decided to go to a different spot in the ocean.

At this point there were four people on the boat who were already seasick. It seems the worst part is when the boat is not moving, but just rocking in the sea. Two of them were physically throwing up over the side and the other two were just lying down trying to feel better. When the boat started moving again they were relieved and started to feel better.

We stopped at the new location and it was my turn. Kristen, a girl I met on board was sitting next to me on the edge of the boat. She grabbed my hand before we jumped in.  It took a few seconds to catch my breath. I swam as fast as I could to catch up with the whale shark. I came within a few feet of the back end of this huge fish... and saw his tail move side to side. It was incredible to be so close to this animal in the wild.

The whale shark moved on and we climbed back into the boat. Jimmy asked who wanted to go again. Of course, I did. Kristen did too. We got on the edge of the boat and waited for the next whale shark to be spotted.

This time, Jimmy grabbed my hand and pulled me so we could get ahead of the whale shark. I saw it swimming right towards me with it's huge mouth slightly opened. That was when I felt it. The first experience was amazing, but this was life-changing. I watched as the entire creature swam right past me. I was close enough to touch it, but followed the rules and resisted temptation. Just those few moments made it worth the wait.  Not just the hours on the boat that day, but the years that I was waiting to experience this.

On the way back everyone was much more relaxed. We listened to music and everyone ate sandwiches, homemade ceviche, chips and fruit. Since I don't eat meat I just had the chips and fruit but everyone on the boat said the food was very good. I would recommend this tour company to anyone who wants to experience this.

Me & Jimmy 

Some advice:

1. If you tend to get sea sick make sure you take something before the trip and bring extra with you.

2. Only wear biodegradable sunscreen. You can't wear regular sunscreens into the protected areas of the ocean and they are bad for the environment.

3. Eat something before the tour, but not too much. Even if you don't usually get sea sick the water can be choppy at times and you don't want an empty (or too-full stomach)

Questions or comments? Want to book your trip to Mexico? Contact

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