Swimming with sharks
“Actually, nobody wants to swim with sharks. It is not an acknowledged sport, and it is neither enjoyable nor exhilarating.” — Voltaire Cousteau (Paris 1812)
I have done a few crazy things while researching travel articles, but I never imagined myself leaping out of a boat into shark infested waters. Even harder to fathom is the thought of my husband doing it with me.
As we waited to board our boat for a whale shark snorkelling tour near Cancun, Mexico it was brought to our attention that our tour guide didn’t know where we were going — not exactly anyways. whale sharks migrate en masse to inhabit the waters between Isla Mujeres and Holbox Island during the warm summer months and tour operators use radios to communicate to each other once they find a large group of them in one locale.
The air was warm and humid and the sky was slightly overcast as we pulled away from a dock near the Dreams Resort in the hotel zone area of Cancun and headed for open water. The 27-km boat ride was a little rough to say the least, but we finally came to a stop in a place our guide referred to as “The Blue.” The excitement was almost tangible amongst our little group of snorkelers when we spotted the first whale shark. One of the well-travelled couples in the group with almost 300 dives to their credit had been to several locations around the globe attempting to see one of these elusive creatures and had never been successful – until that moment.
Whale sharks are the largest creatures in the sea — reaching lengths of up to 12 metres and weighing more than 21 tonnes. Getting up close and personal with these behemoths is only possible because of the fact that they are not meat eaters. They are filter feeding sharks that suck up plankton and fish spawn like giant vacuum cleaners.
Whale sharks can be found in tropical areas throughout the world, but they migrate to several places around the globe at certain times each year – coming together in large numbers coinciding with coral spawns and plankton blooms. Between the months of May and September the waters near Cancun are teeming with whale sharks and last August Yucatan researchers counted 420 – the most ever seen together in one place. Some tour operators in the Yucatan are so confident they will see at least one of these giant fish that they will take customers out a second time for free if they fail to find a whale shark on their first excursion.
No free trips were offered on the morning of our tour, because our boat was surrounded by about 100 whale sharks. Our guide, Gabriel reassured us of the gentle nature of these creatures and offered one small warning, “Whale sharks are filter feeding sharks that feed on plankton, krill, and macro-algae, so they are not interested in eating you,” he said. “Just steer clear of their powerful tail fins.”
The warning was all well and good, but somebody should have informed the whale sharks. As I eased myself into the water and swam out towards the sharks, I heard my husband exclaiming excitedly. Quickly popping my facemask and snorkel on, I glanced into the water and saw what all the excitement was about. A massive whale shark was directly below me and its tailfin was coming my way. When something rivaling the size of one of the largest dinosaurs is coming directly towards you it’s hard not to feel intimidated. In that moment, I felt like a mosquito about to be hit by a semi-truck.
Fortunately, whale sharks are very agile in the water and can sense the presence of other creatures around them. Though the creature appeared as if it was going to hit us, it glided right past. I pulled my head out of the water and spotted another triangular fin a few metres away and began swimming to intercept it. As the whale shark neared, I popped my head back into the water to get a better look. Once again I panicked as it came towards me with its massive mouth open and then glided right past.
After the initial sightings, I began to relax and enjoy the experience of snorkeling with these gentle giants. We snorkeled in the area for a couple of hours while the whale sharks swam all around us feasting on plankton and krill – their large mouths open as they skimmed the water’s surface.
Though I had some doubts as I jumped out of the boat, swimming with sharks was more fun than I anticipated. Being so close to these amazing creatures was an experience of a lifetime.
If You Go:
-Cancun sits along the migratory path of whale sharks and they can be found in the area in large numbers from mid-May through mid-September annually. The hurricane season falls between June and mid-October and weather tends to be hot and humid with occasional rain showers during this time.
-We experienced our whale shark tour with a company called Solo Buceo in early July. The tour costs $165 per person, lasts about 4 hours and is suitable for ages 10 and up. For reservations or information visit: solobuceo.com.
-It’s a good idea to go early (7 am or earlier) if possible for a whale shark tour. Ocean waters tend to be calmer in the morning and less tour boats are on the water making for a better experience.
-There are many hotels in the Cancun area. We stayed at the family-friendly all-inclusive Fiesta Americana Condesa resort. Rates start at $325 USD per night for two people. For reservations or information visit: fiestaamericana.com.
-For more information on travelling to Cancun, visit the official website of Cancun Tourism at: cancun.travel.
Cool Facts about Whale Sharks
-Despite the name, Whale sharks are not whales at all. They are filter feeding sharks and the largest non-mammalian vertebrate, rivaling many of the largest dinosaurs in weight. The whale shark is the largest fish in the sea.
-The largest confirmed whale shark was 12.65 metres long and weighed over 21.5 tonnes.
-Plankton is a favourite food of the whale shark. They feed by swimming close to the water’s surface and scooping up plankton and small fish into their capacious mouths, but they can dive to depths greater than 600 meters.
-Scientists still have much to learn about whale sharks. No one knows how long they live, how many there are, where they breed or what triggers their oceanic migrations.
-Whale sharks are currently listed as a vulnerable species, but they continue to be hunted in parts of Asia. A single Indian fishery is believed to have killed more than 1,000 whale sharks between 1999 and 2000 to supply a lucrative market for shark fin soup. Some environmentalists hope that ecotourism could provide an economically viable alternative to hunting, as long as it is properly managed to minimize the disturbance to the animals.
Debbie Olsen is a Lacombe-based freelance writer. If you have a travel story you would like to share or know someone with an interesting travel story that we might interview, please email: DOGO@telusplanet.net or write to: Debbie Olsen, c/o Red Deer Advocate, 2950 Bremner Ave., Red Deer, Alta., T4R 1M9.