Some rather fishy friends of mine. Los Ballena Tiburones.

My Guyana post is still in the writing, and it’s going to be a long one. In order to plug the gap between that piece and my last post, I thought I would recount a day trip I went on seeing as conveniently, it was exactly a year ago today. It certainly doesn’t feel that long, for me the memories are still as clear as if it were last week, but then, you don’t soon forget being within touching distance of a creature like this:

The Whale-shark, despite its misleading name, is in fact the largest fish species in the world. Fully grown adults can reach lengths of over 40 feet and live for up to 70 years. It is a gentle giant that feeds solely on minute plankton which it funnels in to its immense mouth whilst swimming by leaving it open in a gaping, toothless smile.

I have been fascinated by these huge creatures since I was tiny and had long been desperate to see Whale-Sharks in the wild (I didn’t wish to see one couped up in an aquarium.) Whilst on the Pacific coast of Panama, so much had I wanted to see them that I had gone to Coiba Island on a Whale-Shark spotting trip, even though the chances were remote as it was out of season. Disappointingly we didn’t see so much as a fin.

So when I discovered a few weeks later during my final few days in Mexico that the season was different on the Caribbean coast (where I was) and fell between the months of June-August (when it was), I decided I had to give it another go.

Put off by the 6a.m. start, my parents  opted to stay in bed whilst I set off from our hotel room just as dawn was breaking and caught my taxi to Cancún some 50km away. From there, I would catch a boat out past the tourist haven of Isla Mujeres (Women Island – is that where they used to send them?) into open waters where the search would begin.

I was joined on my voyage by our captain, a guide, a Japanese tourist and his camera with lens was longer than my forearm, and an Italian family, which consisted of a hugely obese father, his leathery tanned wife and his daughter in her twenties, both the women, ironically, were exceptionally skinny.

After 70 minutes, the island was far behind us and Cancún had been reduced to a mere smudge on the horizon. We were approaching a group of boats similar to our own that were all congregated around an apparently empty stretch of water. Our captain signalled to the guide who excitedly exclaimed, “they are here!.” As he pointed alongside our boat I caught my first glimpse: a huge darker blue shape moving through the lighter blue water.

Our instructions were simple: we had to sit on the side of the boat waiting in our flippers and goggles as the captain carefully positioned us, and kept us moving alongside an also moving shark. On his signal, “salten!” we should jump into the water and start swimming immediately in same the direction as the Whale-Shark. The comically skinny pair went first, both flopping gracelessly into the sea. Within seconds the daughter was up at the surface again and I could see through the plastic panel of her goggles her eyes were wide with absolute terror and at the same time hear her fast, panicked breathing through her snorkel tube that sounded like Darth Vader hyperventilating. We had been warned by our guide it could be an overwhelming experience at first to feel so tiny and vulnerable next to such an immense creature.

When my turn came, my heart leapt with fear, not because of the animals I was about to join, I had no fear of them, but of the jump itself, I have never really liked the sea. On the shout from the captain I threw myself in the water regardless, and as instructed, started kicking furiously with my flippers in the direction of the shark. My mask jarred against my face on impact with the water and for a few seconds I was unable to see anything underwater through the flurry of bubbles thrown up by my unceremonious entry. My heart was beating fast with excitement, yet as I finally saw an immensely sized patch of shadow moving through the water a few feet in front of me, my heart skipped a beat. Finally my eyes adjusted to the light and I saw the majestic creature before me in all its glory and oh my goodness. Here words, normally my strong point, fail me. I cannot describe how beautiful it was.

It was both in front of me and yet far behind me at the same time, moving swiftly despite its size.  I admired up close its tough deep blue skin mottled with oval shaped white patches that I immediately recognised with nostalgia from the illustrations in my childhood science books. I was dwarfed by this amazing beast, yet I wasn’t remotely afraid because its movements were so gentle as it glided through the water. Despite this I had to kick with all my might just to keep up. Gradually the shark overtook me and as I slipped further and further down its huge body, I gasped in awe at the size of its massive dorsal fin, at least as big as my whole body. Eventually I stopped and watched it fully pass and was almost knocked flying by the sheer force of its tail.

All in all, myself and the Japanese man, who took some spectacular underwater shots on his camera, did the most jumps. The Italian father didn’t swim at all, and his family clearly afraid and not understanding the gentle nature of these animals were in the water for less than 5 minutes.

I swam with numerous sharks, and even had the luck to swim with a mother and her calf, although this baby could already compete with an elephant in size and weight. I loved every minute, swimming above and all around them, from the different angles I took in every detail of their appearance and admired how the moved  effortlessly and rhythmically through the water.

I also answered a question that had been asking for years – is it possible for a person to be swallowed by a Whale-Shark? At one point my guide encouraged me to overtake a shark and whilst swimming just in front, take the chance to peer into its cavernous mouth. I discovered that although these beasts are massive, a person definitely couldn’t fit in their mouth, something that was especially a source of comfort at that moment. I also noticed a wrasse was clinging precariously just inside the giant’s mouth.

It was all over too soon, and the complaints of the Italians meant that we were heading back to the mainland in no time. In the way back as I was pondering my experience I realised that my life jacket felt gritty as if filled with sand. On closer inspection however I saw they were hundreds of miniscule, transparent eggs clinging to the lining. I held one on the end of my finger tip, in was barely a millimetre in size, yet this tiny speck was what fed and sustained those huge creatures I had just had the pleasure to share some time with.

Isn’t nature truly beautiful and astounding!?

These pictures do nothing to convey the size nor the beauty of these majestic animals, but here you are.


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