I recently took a trip with my family to Isla Mujeres, a tiny island off the east coast of Mexico. We were there for one reason- to swim with the world’s largest fish, the Whale Shark.
We arrive in Mexico on a Wednesday, go through customs, take a cab to the ferry station, take the ferry to Isla Mujeres, walk with our luggage about a half a mile and finally arrive at our condo. It was hot, sunny, and beautiful. This however, did not last. Little did we know, the next 4 days would be spent sunless, with torrential rains and wind. Thank you tropical storm Debby.
Getting off the ferry at Isla Mujeres with seemingly beautiful conditions….
After cancelling our trip to swim with whale sharks on Thursday morning due to weather, we begged our captain, Captain Tony, to take us out Friday morning. Waves, rain, thunder, lightining, water spouts and as my dad put it “pretty much the worst conditions imaginable.” But we were there to swim with the sharks and so that’s what we were doing. As we headed out north of the island to find the sharks, holding my fins up in front of my face proved to act as a good shield against the stinging rain. Along the way we saw dolphins, mating sea turtles, a school of cownose rays, and giant manta rays.
We were just about to jump in the water with the mantas, when we noticed a shadow that appeared more long than wide.
Luckily for us, after two hours of driving we were rewarded with a whale shark sighting!
Once a shark is spotted, everyone gets ready with their snorkel gear and two people enter the water at a time. My dad and I jump in. Where is the shark? The water is so GREEN and MURKY. Suddenly, I notice a mass of white spots about 5 feet below me, and realize it’s the shark swimming under me. I hear my dad yell in excitement through his snorkel as he freedives alongside it, dwarfed by the 25-30 foot animal. I dive down and look it in the eye. Incredible. Their spots look like they are painted on canvas.
Some people may wonder why on earth you would get in the water with a giant shark!? This species is harmless. They are not predatory, but instead slowly cruise at the surface of the ocean with a gaping open mouth to feed on plankton, much like a whale (hence their name). They migrate to the coast of Isla Mujeres to feed on the eggs produced by spawning fish. Most of the sharks that come here to feed are juvenile males.
Similar to a human fingerprint, the spot patterns on a whale shark are unique to each individual. Because of that, in an effort to understand more about them and their movement patterns, there is a global photo-identification database run by ECOCEAN where anyone can submit a photo of a whale shark sighting. By matching spot patterns scientists can track individuals and their locations. The program started around 2003 with just a couple hundred photographs, and in 2011 had nearly 19,000 submitted! I plan on submitting a photo of the shark we swam with to see who it was and contribute to the database.
I’m hoping to go back at some point when its sunny with hundreds of whale sharks in clear blue water. But then again, what is travel without a little adventure and adrenaline. If you want to go out and experience nature, you’re going to have to face the elements.
To read more about ECOCEAN and the whale shark photo-identification database go to www.whaleshark.org