Swimming with the Whale Sharks

Jaws. It’s all I can think about as we race towards the feeding ground of the great whale sharks. From a distance I can see the familiar black triangles moving ominously across the water. Suddenly one is upon us. Its cavernous mouth grows larger by the second, as it drinks in the ocean with each arc of its massive body. I am sure this is to be my Jonah moment when the creature just as suddenly veers right and swims past. For a split second my fear is usurped by the awesome beauty only inches from my outstretched hand, but it’s short lived as Captain Eduardo shouts, “Vamanos! Into the water!”

All my life I have dreamt of swimming with whales. Perhaps it’s because I grew up on the Canadian prairies, or maybe it’s a metaphor for something much more profound. Regardless, it was on la bonita Isla Mujeres that I leapt into the sea with over 100 whale sharks.

Our trip started from Merida, an easy 4 hour drive and 20 minute ferry ride away. A friend offered us her beach house and we jumped at the chance to wake up to the sound of the sea.

If you’ve never been to Isla Mujeres, bypass Cancun and head straight there. For 4 days we ate our bodily weight in the freshest ceviche this side of Manzanillo and walked the white sand beaches and narrow funky streets. It was here that we met up with Bonnie and Ariel of Sea Hawk Divers. Theirs is a tale as old as time – beautiful Canadian girl from the prairies falls in love with handsome Mexican boy from Veracruz. For over 25 years they have been guiding people around the waters off Isla Mujeres, and the Whale Shark tour is one of their most popular.

At 8:30 a.m. we shimmied into our wetsuits and Bonnie sent us on our way with Ariel, Captain Eduardo and our guide Tito, along with 8 other people from Japan, Sweden, Denmark and San Francisco. Captain Eduardo radioed ahead to get the exact locale of the whale sharks, which on this fine morning was a 45-minute boat ride over relatively calm seas. We spotted flying fish and dolphins along the way, and you could feel the collective hum of anticipation.

Words cannot describe what we saw. Eduardo guessed there were over 100 whale sharks, going back and forth across the surface of the ocean, eating their bodily weight in tobico (fish eggs). The biggest fish in the sea, these whale sharks average 20 tons and reach the length of a city bus. Imagine that coming towards you. I elected to go last because I was personally talking myself down from the anxiety of being in the water with something that had ‘shark’ in its name. The teeming throng had subsided once I jumped in the water but as I spotted the first one coming toward me, my only thought was, “Do not drown, and do not crap in your wetsuit”. Thankfully, neither happened. I conquered my fears and now have an experience surreal beyond my imagining and one I will never ever forget.

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