“Some of them are the size of a school bus.” The polo shirt-wearing excursion specialist sitting across from me held up a pictogram comparing an average human to the size of a grown whale shark, the largest fish in the sea.
I nodded, calculating how many adults could fit inside a single school bus, and then visually imagined the bus aisles as the whale shark’s stomach capacity. The mere notion of becoming a modern day Jonah made me consider swapping this “swim with the sharks” idea for another leisurely, cocktail-filled afternoon at the JW Marriott Cancun‘s pool. I had such a lovely time there thus far, nibbling and noshing under a beach-view cabana.
The excursion specialist must have noticed my mind wandering into postcard poolside bliss and spat out another selling point. “These schools, they only migrate here from May to September. Swimming with whale sharks isn’t something you can do every day, or in many parts of the world. It is completely safe—they have no teeth and only eat plankton. You won’t regret going.”
His pitch seemed sincere. Unlike the guests before me, who had inquired about pirate ship dinners and nightclub crawls, I had come to talk natural wonders. His words struck an internal, FOMO-fueled chord: I would regret not going.
‘Okay, I’m in.’
Around 10 AM the next day, I was en route to an undisclosed location off Mexico’s coast. Prior to departing, I had risen to an ungodly 5:45 AM pickup time and forked up around $170 in cash for booking and rentals. Alas, as a solo traveler, I had been grouped with three couples on my speedboat – none spoke English, and one was pregnant and sea sick. As rain clouds menaced overhead and released drizzles, explorer’s self-doubt reared its ugly head.
‘Man, I hope this is worth it.’
During the occasionally rough ride, I toyed with my GoPro and sympathetically passed the vomiting pregnant woman and her husband wet wipes. Only the captains seemed to acknowledge my existence, assuring me that I would enjoy myself soon enough. After over an hour of anticipation, the boat captains received a call on their radio that a school had congregated just ahead. Dozens of boats sprung up over the horizon, and as if planned by Poseidon himself, the sky cleared. We had finally arrived.
The boat slowed on approach. We all stood up like kids catching a schoolyard fight, tip-toeing around the boat to catch our first glimpse of these massive creatures. From plain view, the whale sharks did not look like much, just a snout, fin, and tail grazing the water. I counted at least twenty-five of them within a quick glance. Then one lonesome shark eased towards us. I peered over.
Its body length outsized our boat. I suddenly felt intimidated. My throat tightened; I could hear my heartbeat in my ears. It was one thing to see a whale shark on a diagram; it was quite another to witness these creatures within reach of their gaping mouths. Every human-in-the-whale’s belly fable and Shark Week episode replayed in my mind.
Almost immediately, my group was summoned to the boat’s edge, interrupting my wild imagination. The guide’s instructions were clear: “Follow me!” he exclaimed. “Make sure to swim alongside them. Their eyes are on the side of their head, so if you are directly in front of them, they can’t see you. Do not touch them. And no flash photography. Stay clear of the tail, it can knock you out.” His last tidbit did not help my anxiety – the only thing scarier than swimming with a prehistoric mega fish is getting knocked out by one in the middle of the ocean.
I jumped in hesitantly, and our first whale shark approached. Noticeably frazzled, I fondled my GoPro and goggles repeatedly; before I could get into the right position, the shark zipped past. For their size, the whale sharks were surprisingly quick. Still quite nervous and squeamish, whilst gagging on my snorkel, I hustled with the group towards the second shark, but to no avail. I decided that for my next jump, I’d toss the life vest in order to end my bulky buoying.
Moving more fluidly in just a wet suit now, I was able to submerge as I swam and finally witnessed the whale shark’s graceful, majestic power. This silent fish seemed eerily unphased by the frenzied tourists surrounding it; its docile nature abated my apprehensions, and an awed composure settled in its place. I pondered on how fragile we both were despite our vast size difference; one touch from me could give the whale shark an incurable bacterial infection, while one pop from the shark could knock me into unconsciousness. In essence, we were equals, wading about in serene synchronicity.
Once back in the boat, I realized how much energy the swim required. A captain tossed me a water bottle as I sat to catch my breath. I observed as guest after guest pacified into their whale shark moment, enthralled by the swim when the experience finally clicked. Men, women, and children, young and old, had gathered here from around the world to catch a mere stanza of nature’s infinite rhythm.
Though exhausted, I opted for my third drop, still newly enchanted by these gentle giants. One shark even caught me surprise, gliding behind me without making a sound. Initially, I would have screamed in terror, but instead, I shrilled with girlish excitement at the potential shot I may have just captured.
Once the sun scorched directly overhead, it was time to head back and enjoy lunch off Isla Mujeres. On the return ride, the awkward couplings seemed nonexistent: I kept my eyes on the ocean, reflecting on how I braved this experience solo.
Massive sea turtles plopped in and out of the sea, their shells disappearing and reappearing every ten minutes or so. At one point, a school of dolphins began leaping in the waves half a football field away; it was as though they were summoned to us for the day’s grand finale – but after a morning like ours, it wasn’t like we needed one.