Friday, August 15, 2014

Swimming With Whale Sharks

After three hours by ferry, bus, and boat, the Cancun skyline disappeared over the horizon.  Nothing was visible from the mid-size speedboat but gentle swells of ocean under a few cumulus clouds. It began to sink in that we were at last about to get into the water with the largest shark in the sea.

Our dive master, Junior, assured us that we'd be seeing plenty of whale sharks very soon. Earlier boats had radioed the position of the giant fish to the boat captain and Junior's dad, Elmer. Elmer didn't speak English and was quiet most of the trip, holding the steering wheel in one hand and the radio mike in the other. Elmer looked like he belonged more in the desert than the ocean, with a striped cloth tube pulled over the bottom of his head, its top snug with the bottom of his mirrored sunglasses. Occasionally he muttered into the mike in Spanish, as he scanned the ocean ahead of us. 

Then the engine slowed a little. At least two dozen other boats floated into view. Right away we saw the wingtips of a manta ray - about eight feet apart - lift gracefully above the  water's surface. Last year, we were assured, there were at least a hundred mantas swimming and feeding alongside the whale sharks. This one glimpse was the only time we saw a manta on this year's excursion.

Previously Junior had divided us into 5 groups of two. Ted and I were Group 2. Junior's instructions were for us to get ready as soon as Group 1 spilled into the water by donning our flippers and mask and dangling one foot over the water as we sat straddling the side of the boat. As Junior called "1, 2, 3, GO" to Group 1, I felt my heart start to race. The points of the whale sharks' dorsal and caudal fins stuck up everywhere the giant fish swam, oval mouths wide, feeding on tiny invisible dorado eggs. 

Waiting for our turn I watched the fish maneuver lazily just under the surface. They don't seem to be going very fast - maybe I'd be able to keep up with them for a long time. We'd been told that ten or fifteen minutes was about all we could expect of ourselves. But this is what I've been working out several times a week for. I knew that the longer I could swim beside the massive shark, the longer Ted and I could extend our turn in the sea with these majestic creatures.  

And suddenly Elmer was lowering the swim ladder for Group 1 to climb aboard, Junior was shouting and pointing for us to target the nearest whale shark, and "1, 2, 3, GO!" Holding my mask with the snorkel jammed into my mouth, I tipped into the warm water. Instantly the snorkel flooded. Sputtering, I cleared it, and started to kick as hard as I could, that's not a very good start, jeez there it is, an enormous shadow ahead that resolved a few kicks later into the long undulating spotted skin of our first whale shark! 

Watch to the end for me to give two thumbs up!

Holy cow this thing is fast! I was kicking with all of my strength to stay even with the shark's eye. It ignored me as it continued its feeding, gliding along with deceptive ease. As I began to suck air through the snorkel I glanced at Ted. How can he be making this look so easy?

Tiring, I dropped back to swim level with the shark's gills. They opened and closed rhythmically, soundlessly letting the water swallowed and filtered by the shark back into the ocean. There was no way this first time out to comprehend the whole length of the animal. I swam with its head, then with its gills, and finally let it slide along past me. The tail fin barely swayed as the whale shark left me behind, watching it gradually fade out of sight with its tiny hitchhiker, my husband, churning along beside it.

Back on the boat I learned that Ted had found the sweet spot to draft beside the whale shark. The shark's swimming had literally helped pull him along, and that is why I was fatigued and he was not. I don't know how long that swim was. It may have been twenty minutes, it may have been two. The experience was overwhelming both mentally and physically.

Because all five teams on our boat were pretty fit and followed directions well, everyone had a total of four turns. By my last swim every leg muscle was protesting. My arms felt like lead. But at last I was relaxed enough mentally to realize the enormity of what we were doing. I could appreciate the strength that lay behind the speed. I watched the sunshine dappling the shark's back and saw what good camouflage the white spots on dark blue skin could be. I wondered at the nonchalance of this huge animal that could brush me off so easily, but seemed completely unconcerned at my presence.  I realized that to the whale shark, I had no more importance than the smaller fish cruising under the shark's belly for protection.

Finally, exhausted, I hung at the surface, mask down, and watched my final shark corkscrew slowly, head down, into the depths. It followed the vertical daily migration of the plankton, cued by the angle of the afternoon sun, not to return until the next morning.

We climbed aboard the boat, Elmer giving assistance at the top of the ladder. Now the celebration started as the first Coronas were popped. There were smiles, laughter, and chatter on the long ride to the dock. Did you see…did you feel…are you as tired…wasn't that the most amazing thing? 

Yes. Yes, it was the most amazing thing. 
And the whale sharks didn't give us another thought. 


  1. OMD fabulous just awesome. That must have been such an experience. One of those precious memories that will stay with you forever. Thank you for sharing.
    Have a super Saturday.
    Best wishes Molly

  2. super cool!! that's the ONLY shark I would every be interested in swimming near. ever. ;)

  3. Ms. Amy if we had 87 thumbs we'd be giving you 87 thumbs up. OMCs....
    bravo bravo. We did not know whale sharks had polka dots!
    Just gorgeous
    Hugs madi and mom

  4. So beautiful!! I have only seen a whale shark once when it buzzed over us while diving the Flower Gardens Marine Sanctuary off the coasts of Texas and Louisiana....I still count it as the most beautiful dive experience I've had in the 15 years I've been diving!!
    Wonderful video!!


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