When I Swam with Whale Sharks
Featured destinations: Mexico
Published 21 February 2017
“GO, GO, GO!” The sound of our captain’s voice resonated through my ears. I didn’t hesitate for fear of backing out. Instead, I took a deep breath and tipped myself backwards off the boat, crashing into the dark blue sea below and hearing that initial rush of water across my ears. I surged to the surface, and my next sensation was the feeling of something huge behind me. I gripped onto my snorkel, spun around and plunged my face back below. There it was: my first whale shark.
A bumpy ride
When you’re told to bring along a dose of Dramamine, you know you’re in for a rough day at sea. En route to Cancun from Mexico’s Riviera Maya, I looked across from the coastal road and out to the water – I couldn’t help but think how calm it seemed, not choppy at all. I was wrong. We arrived at the marina, were treated to breakfast and a safety briefing, and quickly boarded our tiny vessel. We couldn’t have been on the water more than 15 minutes when I realised the need for anti-sickness pills. We were hurtling across the waves as if they were solid, our bodies flying from side to side and skywards. This must be the quickest way to get bruised buttocks.
We went on like that – full speed into open water, the land disappearing far behind us – for nearly 90 minutes. It felt like forever. And I was luckier than some. Even with the tablets, one of my fellow passengers had been forced to hang off the back of the boat when her breakfast made a reappearance.
One thing I probably ought to mention is that I’ve got a bit of a fear of the ocean. It is, unquestionably, mesmerising, and I love the mysteriousness that fills its depths. But that unknown is what scares me too. What lurks beneath the surface? So you can imagine how I felt when our captain cut the engine suddenly, and we were silently bobbing atop the big blue – not another boat or patch of land in sight. Just us and the open water… A crackle on the radio broke the silence (and my moment of worry), and our captain exchanged a few words with another boat that had left the port some 10 minutes before us.
We were off again, and soon caught up to the now-stationary other boat, along with several more. What had halted them? We’d been out in the Gulf of Mexico for nearly two hours, and not even seen a glimmer of a whale shark. The boat was still now, and so were we, but still nothing. A few minutes passed and I lost hope – the first boat had obviously seen some whale sharks, but now they were gone. We’d missed them. But then, as I gazed out into the water, I could make something out within the blue – several clusters of white spots. The whale sharks were all around us.
Into the water
Four of these magnificent beasts – the largest fish in the world – were preoccupied, munching on plankton just beneath the surface. At speed we pulled on flippers, goggles and snorkels and, in twos, were sent into the water in drill-like fashion. When our turn came, I was petrified but excited. As one passed by the boat, the captain issued the yelling command for us to enter the water and we did. My partner, Brad, was seconds ahead of me and, as we both turned in the water; he was forced to leap backwards as the wide-open hoover mouth of the 12-metre behemoth propelled towards him.
This whale shark was beautiful, and now we had the chance to see it, and its white spots, up close. The sheer size was beyond comprehension, but at the same time it was incredibly graceful, its fins cutting through the current with ease as it casually enjoyed its lunch. We swam alongside for as long as we could, our flippers furiously powering through the waves, but the whale shark moved effortlessly fast. After what could have been no more than a minute, it powered off into the murky sea and we were left behind, treading water and reeling from the fin-to-face encounter.
Looking around, our boat was miles off – we’d been too busy desperately trying to keep pace with the whale shark, that we’d powered a fair distance. We gave our captain a little wave, and he returned the gesture. As we waited for his arrival, we couldn’t help but glance downwards and all around us. The whale sharks had long gone now, but in their place were a plethora of manta rays – all different shapes and sizes – gliding through the water. You couldn’t see the bottom, just inky blackness beneath our flippers. It was terrifying and blissful at the same time… much like this whole, once-in-a-lifetime experience. As we were yanked back onto the boat, my thoughts drifted back to the moment when we first clapped eyes on the whale shark. I hoped it wouldn’t be the last time I saw such a wonderful creature in the wild.
Swim with whale sharks on Round the World Experts' Coral Coast holiday to Western Australia, which includes a Whale Shark Discovery Tour in Exmouth. Alternatively, take a look at our Mexico holidays, all of which can be tailor-made to include Riviera Maya.