It was a very bright and very early 6:30am start on a Saturday morning. With a coffee in hand, we stood outside waiting for our private pickup from Dive Guru tours. Just a few days earlier, a friend had asked how I felt about swimming with whale sharks. My immediate reaction was NO WAY NO HOW. Although it sounded exciting, my mind immediately flashed to the gory shark scenes from Jaws, Soul Surfer, The Shallows, etc. Not sure I could handle that. But then I reminded myself that part of the reason I moved to Mexico was to try new things and say YES to new experiences. Plus, a quick Google search led me to find out that whale sharks are not actually as terrifying as one might think and are actually considered “gentle giants”. Okay, I think I might be able to handle this—I’M IN!
After about an hour ride from Playa del Carmen centro to Cancun, we pulled up to the marina where we waited for the other tour goers to arrive. While we waited, we were treated to a light breakfast that included coffee cake, fruit, sandwiches, and juice. Before long, our speed boat had arrived and beckoned us to come aboard. There we were greeted by two tour guides and our boat captain who quickly outfitted us all with life jackets, flippers, and snorkeling masks.
“Get ready for a bumpy ride!”, they warned. From there we took off from the Cancun marina on our way to Isla Mujeres, which is where the whale sharks are known to migrate only from the months of June – September. They explained it would be a “search and find” type mission as they never know where the sharks will be that day. Basically we would follow the crowd of other boats in the area and if we were lucky, we would see a few sharks.
After cruising through the most stunning turquoise water, we had finally arrived to the danger zone. And let’s just say we were VERY lucky! Everywhere you looked you could see dorsal fins protruding out of the water. I’m talking 60-70 whale sharks in sight and that was just in the area where our boat had stopped. On top of that, the tour guides kept yelling, “MANTA, MANTA!” where we would spin around to find giant manta rays gliding through the water. Wait a minute, had I really willingly signed up to jump into these heavily shark invested waters?!
But there was no time to waste! The tour guides were excellent at explaining exactly what we needed to do. In short, the captain would precisely position the boat at just the right spot next to a whale shark. We were divided into pairs and were instructed to sit on the side of the boat with our feet dangling off the edge and wait to hear the guides say “JUMP!”. Here we go, it was now or never!
It honestly all happened so fast that I didn’t even have time to be scared. Within a few seconds, I was plunging into the deep blue sea and the guide was grabbing my hand to lead us in the right direction towards the whale shark. At first sight underwater, the whale shark was truly a magnificent creature to observe. With an average length of about 20-30 feet long, it had a distinctive white spot pattern speckled across its enormous body. Its most impressive feature was its massive gaping mouth with thousands of tiny teeth. I was relieved to find out that whale sharks are considered filter feeders and primarily feed upon plankton and small fish. Even though their mouths are massively wide, their throats are only about the size of a quarter, so it would be virtually impossible for them to eat you. Thank goodness!
Just as we were admiring the immense whale shark in front of us, we turned our heads to see 2-3 more in close proximity. At this point I had to turn off my tunnel vision and be mindful of my surroundings so as to not accidentally touch or kick one of them with my tiny flippers. In fact, it is actually prohibited to touch the whale sharks so it is important to be extra cautious on every dive. After just a few minutes in the water, our guide was pulling us back towards the boat. From then on, we all took turns jumping in the water for a total of about 3 jumps each. On our last jump, we got to swim along a giant manta ray as well. ¡Que padre!
After all the excitement and exhilaration of swimming alongside the whale sharks, we headed back to Isla Mujeres. The boat anchored at Playa Norte where we feasted on freshly made ceviche while spending some time relaxing in the sun. Playa Norte has to be one of the most beautiful beaches I have seen in Mexico, and it was so much fun to enjoy the rest of the afternoon in the sun, laughing and joking about our shark encounters. All joking aside, the whale shark tour is one I would highly recommend – I mean how many people can say they’ve swam with sharks? Now that is just one more thing I’m crossing off my bucket list.