Monday, November 29, 2021

Swimming with whale sharks

Our day begins at sunrise. We are 13 adventurers on a trip with Natural Habitat Adventures to swim with whale sharks, the world’s largest fish. Anticipation is high as we are anxious to get started on our excursion.

Whale sharks are 5 time my length.

Our group had arrived on the tiny fishing island of Holbox (pronounced Ol-bosh) by ferry the day before. Situated off the coast of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, this laid-back village has quiet beaches but no paved roads. Transportation is by golf cart, substitute for a traditional taxi.

Larry rides from the ferry to our hotel via taxi.

On our way

Golf carts shuttle us the short distance from our hotel to the main dock of Holbox where we board two boats that will take us 20 miles out to sea. The ride will take about two hours and pass through the Gulf of Mexico into the Caribbean Sea. Around 8:00 a.m. we stop and consume breakfast sandwiches and juice on the boat to fortify us for the rest of the trip.

I'm forming the l in Holbox sign at the beach where we board our boat.

It’s a warm, sunny day in August--ideal conditions for locating whale sharks. Soon we arrive at an area where plankton, food for the sharks, are plentiful and near the surface. Dozens of whale sharks have gathered here to feed. Everyone is ecstatic since this means that opportunities to spot and then follow sharks in the water is great.

However, we are not alone. Many other boats have gathered in the same location. The tourist industry has recognized the economic value of tourists swimming with the sharks over fishing for them and reducing their numbers. The sharks are now protected in their native environment.

We go out to sea in search of whale sharks.

Everyone is eager to jump in the water, but that’s not how it happens. Regulations apply, so boats take turns allowing their guests into the water to avoid overcrowding.

Ready to swim

The process goes like this: Whoever is going into the water next sits on the edge of the boat, ready and fully outfitted with snorkel, mask, and fins until the guide spots a shark fin nearby above water and determines which way it is swimming. Quickly he orders “Go,” and you plunge into the water while trying to follow the guide who is swimming to in front of the shark.

Fins above water indicate where the whale sharks are.

We learn that when we hit the water it’s best to look up to see where the shark’s fin is rather than turning face down as for usual snorkeling. Otherwise, you might not know the direction the shark is swimming—and your turn is over very quickly if the shark swims out of view or decides to dive deeper.

Once in the water it’s quite a thrill to realize you are just a few feet—sometimes just inches—away from these magnificent creatures. Watching their bulky dot-patterned bodies maneuver so smoothly in the water is simply amazing.

Magnificent creatures!

Despite their size, whale sharks are gentle creatures. But close encounters are discouraged because the sharks are so large they could knock a person silly if there was a collision, and they have really big mouths!

It’s possible to try to swim to where a shark is, but you’re not likely to catch up or get a good look, so following the guide’s lead is important. Despite their length—up to 40 feet—the sharks swim fast. I quickly realized there would be no photography to record this adventure for posterity!

The first time Larry and I go we get caught in a tangle of thick yellow seaweed that obstructs our views. I go again, and this time is simply awesome—a close-up look at two sharks during the hectic—and tiring--few minutes of bobbing face down in ocean waves.

Larry and me scoping out the swimming whale sharks.

The next day we follow the same process, with each person getting two or three turns to be in the water. On one of our turns the shark swims extremely close to the boat just as Larry and I jump in the water. His movements are unpredictable, and I find myself literally staring into his mouth while frantically paddling to move away. I see his large tail flipping back and forth and just imagine the slap I might get if I’m in his path. I’m a minnow against the broad body of this giant fish!

Swim close but don't get in the way!

My last swim is the very best. With the guide showing me the way, I swim alongside the graceful whale shark for what seems like a long time but is probably only a few minutes.  I try to soak in every aspect of the magical experience—the shimmer of its skin in sunlight, the swish of its body turning in the water, and the thrill of interacting closely with one of nature’s special creatures in its home environment.

 Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier and free sources.

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