I am not a huge fan of cilantro, raw tomatoes, spicy food, tequila shots or wearing sombreros, which is why traveling to the touristy towns in Mexico is typically not high on my list. But, there was something in Cancun that I would eat a habanero pepper covered in tomato salsa while wearing a silly hat for.
Swimming with whale sharks.
I had been intrigued by their massiveness on television and read about their gentleness in magazines. It has been on my bucket list ever since and potentially a great addition to my list of the top things to do before you die. Fortunately, Cancun was not only the perfect layover on my way to a Blue Osa Yoga Retreat in Costa Rica, but it was shark season too. Lucky me.
The Whale Shark Daddy tour company, whom I found online, picked us up from the hotel at the early morning hour of 6:30. About fifteen minutes later we were at the marina, having a briefing to learn the dos and don’ts of swimming with whale sharks.
Surprisingly, no one asked if a whale shark could swallow you whole. But, that’s what was on my mind.
These gentle giants are the largest fish in the world, growing up to 60 feet, that’s over ten times the size of me. Their mouths can extend five feet when open. That’s absolutely large enough to accidentally suck me in.
Whales sharks are found in the Cancun area from the months of May through September, but mostly during the months of July and August. We were there in a prime month.
After the informative talk, renting a wet suit and purchasing a bottle of biodegradable sunscreen, our captain Irving took us on a 45 minute boat ride to the area where whale sharks are typically seen in the season. Of course there could be no guarantee to how many would be there, just that there’d be at least one.
I was hoping for at least a dozen whale sharks. Greedy.
We knew we had arrived when we saw an area in the ocean with a circle of boats. As we approached these vessels we saw 10-14 whale sharks leisurely swimming about, unfazed by our presence.
Each of the eight of us on the boat were going to get three opportunities to be within feet of these massive creatures.
Peter and I were up first.
The boat pulled up to the front of one of the whale sharks and the captain yelled “go”. This is when I should have jumped into the water, but fearful hesitation caused me to miss the opportunity and the ginormous fish swam away.
Why couldn’t you just wait for me Mr. Shark?
This experience is true to its name, it is called swimming with whale sharks, not whale sharks swimming with you.
Again, the captain set the boat in a position that was believed to be a perfect viewing angle. This time when he said “go” I did.
One large whale shark swam in front of me and then two more came by. Stunned for a moment by their huge tails swaying back and forth I couldn’t turn my camera on fast enough, but at least Peter had the GoPro ready. We stayed in the water for about ten minutes then let the next group have their turn.
After the first swim, Peter was stricken with a severe case of seasickness even though he took medication beforehand.
So, the second time I went solo, just with my guide Mosquito. As soon as I jumped into the 70ish degree water a whale shark was staring me in the face, just a foot away from my head.
We played a momentary game of chicken. I lost.
I veered to the right paddling alongside him, feeling the pressure of the water from his close proximity. I grabbed my camera, snapping photographs as quickly as possible. And then he was gone.
There were a few others swimming by, feeder fish attached to their sides, but nothing compared to the one gigantic one who had the perfect opportunity to take a taste of me for lunch. Luckily it was more interested in eating Plankton instead of me.
After this second jump, with the swaying motion of the boat, my stomach wasn’t feeling so well either.
I am typically not a motion sickness sufferer, but the last of the whale shark viewing would have to be done from above water.
After the main adventure, the captain stopped us in some of the clearest blue water that was waist deep. Here we would be having our guacamole and shrimp lunch with a little cerveza.
Swimming with these gentle giants was an incredible experience. So, take your Dramamine, chew your ginger tablets, stick on your patch and sniff an aromatherapy stick. If you are not fully protected from motion sickness you will not be able to enjoy this once in a lifetime bucket list adventure.
Cancun is not the only place in the world to swim with whale sharks. You can also do it in Belize, Honduras, Mozambique and the Philippines.
- Bring an underwater camera or GoPro as there is no professional photographer there to purchase the typically overpriced photos from after. (You can also rent an underwater camera there)
- Turn your camera on before you jump into the water.
- Wetsuits can be rented for $25, but in the middle of August it wasn’t really necessary.
- Bring biodegradable sunscreen with you (or it can be purchased there for $15)
- Take your seasickness medication at the right time, knowing that the boat ride is 45 minutes long.
- Be ready when the captain says “go” because he is telling you at the perfect viewing time.
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