Monday, March 31, 2014

Swimming with Gentle Giants

It's barely past dawn in Cancun and I'm up and headed off to swim with what's been referred to repeatedly as the "gentle giants."

Apparently we have to leave at this ungodly hour because this is the best time to see these elusive denizens of the sea before the area "gets very crowded."

We've been told that this is an "experience of a lifetime," and something that shouldn't be missed. This is no ordinary snorkeling trip. We're about to frolic with the legendary whale shark - the largest fish on the planet - in their watery world. Measuring up to 40 ft. and weighing up to 15 tons, we're also told that their mouths can extend up to five feet when open.

Note to self: Stay away from their mouths.

We arrive at the pier where our licensed guide, Jesus gives us the "101" on swimming with whale sharks. Equipping us with life jackets, fins and snorkels, he instructs us to use biodegradable sunscreen to "protect the ocean."

"Just follow my instructions once we're out there," he tells us. "We'll be holding hands and once we're in the water I'll be holding two of you at a time. You have nothing to be afraid of so just stay with me and do exactly as I tell you and I'll take you as close as I can."

"They don't eat humans, they eat plankton," he adds. "Just stay away from their tails so they don't hit you when they turn around. That would definitely hurt. And don't make any sudden movements."

Another note to self: No sudden movements. Beware of tails.

We're off in one of the many boats lined up along the dock and, after a bumpy 45 minute ride out into the middle of the ocean, we get to "the spot," where sure enough, we're surrounded by scores of huge grey beasts, speckled with white dots that gleam in the early sunlight.

They take no notice of us as they gracefully glide around our boat, accompanied by hundreds of small shimmering fish.
We're told to jump two at a time and to wait for Jesus by the boat. As soon as I do, I find myself very close to one of these gentle beasts as she swims by me, seemingly unfazed by our unsettling appearance - orange life jackets and snorkels protruding above the water. 

As promised, Jesus grabs us by the hand and leads us in a watery waltz around these magnificent creatures. After about 10 minutes he signals us to return to the boat so that he can "escort" two more snorkelers onto the oceanic stage. 

After we've done this three of four times for a total of about 45 minutes, it's time to head back to Cancun and I feel a sort of sadness at having to leave my newly-found friends.

Once back on the boat we find that about 20 other boats have circled around us. It's gotten too crowded for comfort and I can't help but feel sorry for the whale sharks and the dent this audience is making in their carefree existence.

I'm also aware that most of the people in our group have gotten very seasick while waiting onboard the rocking ship while we took turns snorkeling. In fact - out of eight snorkelers - only two of us have escaped the wrath of the roiling ocean.

I'm grateful for my sea-worthy constitution - and for the amazing adventure that nature has just afforded me. It truly is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

If You Go

  • Whale sharks can be seen from May - September, although they are most prevalent in July and August. 
  • Tours can be booked through your hotel, or directly at the dock at Punta Sam or Isla Holbox.