I took the family to Isla this past June. My nephew is 12 now and he has been snorkeling for years so I figured he was finally big enough and a strong enough swimmer to meet some whale sharks up close and personal. Me, my brother in law and my nephew got up early to meet our guides by the pier at Ballyhoo. We stopped in Cancun to pick up the rest of the passengers and headed out to the feeding grounds.
All the way there we saw marine life. Dolphins, mating sea turtles, giant manta rays, and seemingly endless schools of bright yellow golden rays gliding along just under the surface of the water. Our guide was in radio contact with other boats trying to figure out where the sharks were that morning and we were all charged with looking out for the large reddish brown fields of plankton where the sharks would be feeding.
We were cruising along slowly through one of the plankton fields when we saw our first shark. It was a small one, probably about 15 feet long. It surfaced briefly and started skimming along the surface with its mouth agape, but as the boat pulled into position in front of the animal it dove down and disappeared. I guess it was shy.
We motored along for about 15 minutes more scanning the horizon for fins when a huge manta ray launched itself nearly completely out of the water in front of our boat. It landed with a thunderous splash and the whole boat erupted into cheers and applause!
I had butterflies in my stomach already. Even the "small" whale shark we had seen briefly seemed huge to me, and the manta ray was certainly impressive as well. I could only imagine my body flattened into a pancake if one of those things jumped up and landed on me. But the manta ray was only the opening act. Right behind it a giant whale shark surfaced and began feeding. I dont know the length of our boat, but this shark dwarfed it. I guess it was about 40 feet long and our guide said it was one of the bigger ones he had seen so far this season.
Everyone on the boat was so sweet to my nephew and offered to let him go first since he was the only kid on board, but he was cautious and said he wanted to watch someone else do it first so he would know what to expect. The first couple took their turn and we all watched to see how it worked.
My nephew and Brother in law went next and I took pictures of their swim. Heres the way it goes down in three easy steps...
Step 1: The boat pulls in front of the feeding shark at some distance and two swimmers jump in along with a guide. Here is the moment my Nephew and Brother in law jumped in the water. The water is COLD!! Much colder than the beaches.
Step 2: As the shark approaches, you start swimming to get into position alongside it. It does not look like theyre moving very fast because they are so huge but when you get close to them in the water you realize they are moving much faster than most average swimmers can go. You really have to kick like crazy to keep up with them.
Step 3: Swim like crazy and take pictures! My nephew couldnt swim as fast as the shark and he is such a little guy anyway that he got sucked up in the sharks wake and ended up getting whacked with the tail! It did not hurt him and he loved it because it gave him a great story to tell. My Brother in Law was swimming like a madman and managed to keep up with the shark long enough for our boat to circle back around to get him while he was still alongside the shark. The guide was calling for him to start swimming back towards the boat but he was so into the shark and had his head below the water most of the time anyway so that he could not hear so he just kept swimming until he was exhausted.
It was my turn next. With heart racing and camera in hand, I jumped off the boat in front of the beast and started swimming towards it. I could hear my heart pounding in my chest as the beautiful spotted skin of the animal became visible through the murky, plankton rich water. Thank goodness I was in the water because I emptied my bladder when I saw this huge animal bearing down on me! I hope I did not taint its dinner! Here are a few pics of my swim:
The shark has its mouth open with its upper lip sticking out of the surface of the water sucking in huge mouthfuls of water and plankton.
The shark lowered its head and closed its gills to strain the plankton on its gill rakers and swallow its meal. You can see the school of fish swimming along at the sharks mouth. I wonder if any of them ever get munched on?
Its still hungry so it opens that maw wide, flares out its gills and takes another big, delicious gulp of plankton.
I was swimming with all my strength, doing my best Michael Phelps impersonation to keep up, but alas, my rubber fins and skinny legs were no match for this animal. It crossed under me as I neared the tail and continued on into the haze of the deep. Amazing.
I do not know if it was exhaustion, the cold water, or just the absolute thrill of being so close to such a massive, impressive, peaceful example of Gods creation, but I was shaking from head to toe and my teeth were chattering like a pair of castanets when I got back on the boat. I have always been an animal nut anyway and have a special place in my heart for sea creatures so this experience was really something special for me.
We swam with three more sharks that day before finishing up our adventure with a trip to Isla Contoy for snorkeling and lunch. We saw squid, moray eels, sea turtles, blacktip sharks, nurse sharks, all sorts of rays, and every variety of fish I can think of. The boat returned the rest of the guests to Cancun and then took us back to the dock right outside of Nautibeach where we were staying. It was a truly amazing day and one of the greatest animal experiences I have ever had...and believe me, growing up in the swamps and piney woods of South Georgia and now here in Sausalito, I have had LOTS of experience with all creatures great and small. I have been up close and personal with gators longer than a john boat, hogs that could pass for a Rhino, snapping turtles as wide as a breakfast table, sea lions, elephant seals, and I have seen plenty of whales along the coast out here in CA, but nothing compares to the up close and personal experience I had with the beautiful Tiburon Ballena of Isla Mujeres. I recommend that everyone who can go out and see these amazing creatures. Even if you are not a strong swimmer you can see them very clearly from the boat. Do it! You will never forget it!