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Snorkelling with Whale Sharks

While in Mexico on a extended long-weekend vacation, we had the unique opportunity to snorkel with Whale Sharks.

A Whale Shark getting a little too close for comfort, Mexico

When we visit a new area, we typically research available excursions and local specialties to possibly experience. Whale sharks frequented the area and many group tours were readily available, but safety regulations protecting both people and wildlife limited individual time in the water. We wanted to be able to spend as much time as possible observing them, so although it cost a pretty penny, we opted to hire a private boat.

We opted to book with Ceviche Tours, which offered a private excursion, a professional diver escort in the water, fresh fruit, drinks and of course ceviche. They were professional, experienced and very supportive. We would highly recommend them. After booking, you are requested to meet at a specific dock in the early morning. We simply requested a taxi from our Hotel (Beloved Playa Mujeres) to the ferry, then walked to the dock from the port, which was very inexpensive.

The beautiful Beloved Playa Mujeres resort, Cancun, Mexico

Many reviews warned of rough seas on route to find the whale sharks, so we came prepared with anti-nausea medication (which we took plenty of before boarding the boat). I perched myself on the back of the speedboat, grasping to the side while my other half sat on the second level facing forward. Having been on boats many times before, I was comfortable with waves, but this time I carried with me the memory of getting sick the year prior while cruising the Galapagos Islands. Keeping calm, I took deep cleansing breaths of the cool sea air and focused on the horizon in an attempt to anchor my line of sight. It worked, at the beginning, but after two hours my body had had enough.

When we arrived at the location, there were a few other boats anchored at a distance. Our captain suggested we jump in the ocean too cool off and tied the life preservers around our waist to keep us upright. It did help for a moment, but severe nausea overtook us both and we began vomiting uncontrollably. At first, I thought it would be fine to get it “out of our system” and feel better, but I wasn't so lucky. Determined to continue, we swam the few meters towards the site where a handful of people were snorkelling. From above the surface, the occasional splash of something inhuman emerged, but they were too quick to comprehend. Below was an entirely different experience.

A Whale Shark sucking up plankton, Cancun, Mexico

Dunking our heads underwater, a literal new world opened up. Circling us, in the large open space between the boats, was a group of whale sharks, sucking in gallons of water from the surface and feeding. They were enormous yet so graceful. Their distinct spotted patterns glistened in the reflected sunlight. It is difficult to describe (or capture) the size of a creature, seemingly small in comparison to the vastness of the ocean, but humongous when compared to a human being. Whale sharks can grow to approximately 30 feet in length, the relative size of a long school bus.

Pictures cannot show the massive size of the Whale Shark

Our professional diver guided us on where to look and where to swim for the best view underwater. We had been forewarned not to disturb them and not to physically touch them, we were only there to observe. They took no notice of us, or if they did, they were not bothered by our presence. The water was clear, but their movements (and ours) disturbed the plankton and other microscopic entities, clouding the water. Though their actual motions appeared slow and insignificant, due to their sheer size (they are the biggest fish in the world after all) one small movement propelled them forward, often forcing us to swim quickly out of their path to avoid a collision. In the end, both of us were “slapped” by the tail of a whale shark while trying to get out of their way.

The Whale Sharks spots are unique, and shimmer in the sunlight.

At first, I swam after them, desperate to get close and photograph them, but the nausea returned in waves and I soon became tired. Coming up for air, I let the nausea overtake me, then dunked my head back under and marvelled at what was happening. Since we had opted for a private boat, we were allowed to spend our entire time in the water. Other boats with many passengers were forced to rotate in 15 minute shifts, only two allowed in the water at a time.

Passengers on the other boats also experienced nausea, one of whom was particularly bad and needed to be rushed back to shore. Our boat was the fastest, so they used ours to transport the sick passenger and we were escorted back via a much smaller vessel. Facing forward, we pressed our backs against our seats. At full speed, the boat crashed against the waves, at times, lifting off of the water and slapping back down, spraying us with cold mist. The sound was deafening, as if the wood was cracking beneath us. Though it was an intense and long ride back to shore, whether it was the speed, the cool breeze or the movement, it eased any lingering sickness.

After the excursion, all the boats stopped at a nearby beach to allow for reef snorkelling or relaxation in the crystal clear waters. Though the nausea disappeared, we didn't partake in the fresh fruit or ceviche offered (though it all looked delicious). Floating in the calm waters, we simply relaxed.

Unfortunately, Whale Shark populations are on the decline and they are now considered an endangered species. Participating in eco-friendly, non-disruptive excursions like this one support tourism and encourage the protection of all marne life. Even knowing now what we would physically need to endure, we would do it all over again for a chance to observe whale sharks in their nature habitat once more.

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