Swimming with Whale Sharks
The waters off of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula near Holbox (pronounced: hole bosh) Island are beautiful, blue and after an hour and a half of riding on them in a 12 person boat on choppy seas I was ready to be on site. I was out to see Whale Sharks not take a cruise. My companions, a mix of French, Mexicans, Aussies, and Americans were ready to be on site too. The captain was confident but it had been three days since any Whale Sharks had been sighted and there was no guarantee that we would see any today.
Rhincodon typus or the Whale Shark is the largest fish on the planet. Growing up to 20 meters long and 34 tons in weight it is hard to believe that these behemoths survive by filtering almost microscopic plankton from the seas. Little is known about the life cycle of these magnificent creatures but it seems they are highly migratory and follow plankton blooms around the planet. Although they are often found on the surface of the ocean they also spend significant amounts of time at depths of over 1,000 feet. The Whale Shark wasn’t fully described in scientific literature until 1829 and in 1986 there had only been 320 recorded sightings of this animal.
Finally, we slowed giving hope that the lookout riding on the bow had spotted something but he was apparently just keeping us away from coral heads. Slowing caused the boat to wallow in the water and some people were starting to turn green. After ten minutes or so the look out retreated from the bow, we sped up and the boat started stabilizing again. Encouragement came again when the lookout started handing out snorkeling gear. He explained that he just wanted us to be ready in case he spotted something.
Finally, we spotted another boat floating alongside what I can only describe as some sort of otherworldly black submarine just below the surface with several topside rudders. As we got closer I could see that it was in fact a Whale Shark slowly moving through the water. I thought that they would want to avoid humans but this one appeared to be totally indifferent to the activity going on around it. The other boat withdrew we all put on our gear and divided into groups. The captain then positioned us beside and slightly in front of the giant and ordered us to jump.
I swam as hard as I could and in less than a minute I was right next to the Whale Shark. I could hardly keep my snorkel in my mouth because I was laughing and giggling underwater. She was beautiful. At about 10 meters she was not record size but she dwarfed me. Even though I was only inches away she made no effort to get away and remarkably I felt no turbulence in the water from her. I looked closer and I could see two pilot fish cleaning near her pectoral fins. She continued swimming but I couldn’t keep up for long and soon she was away from me.
I returned to the boat and the captain repositioned for another pass. This time I wanted to take some underwater video with my Canon G12 and case so the captain placed me in front of her so she would swim toward me. I jumped in the water but before I could start the camera she was already passing under. I started swimming with her just a few feet away. If I swam hard I could keep up but I slowed a little to let her pass. Everything was going great until I remembered the tail fin and how she swam with it out of the water. I crossed my fins to avoid getting hit in a very uncomfortable place and braced for impact but somehow she seems to sense my position and the tail whizzed by me just off to the left.
This was one of the most amazing encounters I have ever had with another being in the ocean. Seeing this brings home the need to protect and preserve our oceans. How anyone could not be moved by an encounter like this is beyond comprehension to me. I really hope that we humans as a species wake up soon and realize the impact our activities and buying choices have on our oceans and find ways to keep them safe for its inhabitants and hopefully save ourselves in the process.