Mexico Life
A whale shark near Isla Mujeres. A whale shark near Isla Mujeres.

Whale sharks, gentle giants of the sea

Misnamed giants are scary big when you're swimming alongside

It is an exhilarating rush when a sea creature the size of a city bus glides past, not caring that I am floating close by, suspended in its world.

Normally I am terrified of the ocean, but put me out in really deep water, out of sight of land with a whale shark, and I am happy, ecstatically happy.

Neither a whale nor a shark, these misnamed giants are thought to be a separate species that originated 60 million years ago. They inhabit all of the warm tropical oceans, returning annually to Isla Mujeres and Isla Holbox via a migration route that takes them to the Philippines and back.

It’s hard to get the proper perspective on the size of the whale sharks until they slide along beside or under a 10-meter boat — then you realize they are scary big.

The expensive and restricted licenses for the whale shark tour boats are issued annually in an attempt to protect these stunningly beautiful black and white creatures and, of course, the tour industry that has sprung up around them. These leviathans can range up to 20 meters in length and weigh up to 35,000 kilograms. They can live for up to 130 years.

Near Isla Mujeres all of the boat captains are instructed to keep a respectful distance from each other to allow their passengers the freedom to swim with the whale sharks. Only two people from any one boat are allowed in the water at a time to limit the amount of interference to the pod. And strict instructions include no touching!

My swim partner and I paddled around for a few minutes before we realized that the whale sharks were still too far away. Encumbered by the mandatory and annoying lifejackets bouncing around our necks, we dragged our bodies back on board while the captain moved the boat closer.

On the second attempt we toppled off the boat – right in the midst of a good sized pod. A bus-sized creature leisurely flicked its tail and cruised past me, uncaring. Wow! Just wow!

As I awkwardly paddled on the surface, peering myopically though the dive mask lens, I had to repeatedly remind myself that the whale shark is a filter feeder and lives on macro-algae, plankton, krill, crab larvae and extremely small squid. To feed, it sucks in a mouthful of water, closes its mouth and expels the water through its gills.

During the slight delay between closing the mouth and opening the gill flaps, plankton and assorted tiny sea creatures are trapped against the dermal denticles, lining its gill plates and pharynx. Denticles are similar to scales, but are modified teeth that are tightly packed together to capture the tiny food particles.

So these creatures are not really interested in squirming human bodies unless, of course, you happen to resemble a very small squid. Despite knowing those facts, swimming towards a freaking big fish with its mouth wide open is still spine-tingling amazing!

Protected by international law, the whale shark is also considered a deity in Vietnam called Cá Ông, or Lord Fish. In the Philippines snorkelers by law must remain a minimum of a meter and a half away. However, in 2014 National Geographic published an article about an illegal slaughterhouse in China that was processing more than 600 whale sharks a year.

The carcasses were worth up to US $30,000.00. The fins for were used for shark fin soup, the meat for food, the skin for designer purses and the oil for vitamin supplements. Something to remember when choosing a new bag or a bottle of supplements.

For me the experience was amazing, worth every penny of the cost which is currently around $125 per person, and typically includes cold non-alcoholic drinks plus a light snack: no drinking and diving. Adult beverages are allowed after the tour boat is headed back to shore.

Lawrie, my adventure-partner in all of our wacky life experiences, firmly shakes his head and says, no, he’s not swimming with any creature that has the word “shark” in its name. It’s that “Jaws” thing from the 1970s.

The writers are Canadians who have been full-time residents of Isla Mujeres for nearly 10 years. You can read their blog here.

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