Whale sharks are both the biggest sharks, and the biggest cartilaginous fish in the sea – with official reports of the largest being 22 tonnes (19,958kg) in weight and 13.6m in length.
To put this in perspective – the largest land animal is the African Bush Elephant. The largest on record was a bull weighing 12,274 kg and standing 4.2 metres high. The average human weighs anywhere between 54 and 83kg and is around 1.65m tall.
So, yeh – they’re big motherfuckers. I find it absolutely fascinating that despite their size – it is not presently known exactly where they go to mate.
They’re migratory creatures who make an annual pilgrimage to the continental shelf on the west coast of Australia between March & mid July.
The coral spawning around Ningaloo Reef provides the whale sharks with an abundant supply of plankton, which is what they like to eat. As opposed to humans. Which is a good thing. Because they could totally eat us if they wanted to.
A couple of years ago, I went to Western Australia for the purpose of attending Dave & Jen’s wedding, to visit my old party pal Janine, and to go swim with the whale sharks. After traveling more than 1,100kms from Perth to tiny township of Coral Bay (never mind the 4,300km from Sydney to Perth) – I was greeted by a storm which lasted the entire time I was there. The storm was great news for a town that exists on bore water and hadn’t seen a drop of rain for 15 months. Not so great news for me. The whake shark operators in Australia use light planes to spot the fish, but due to the inclement weather either: couldn’t get out; or when they could get out – couldn’t get under the clouds to be able to spot. 385 bucks and 4 days later, the only fish I’d seen was a piece of red emperor. Tasty but not quite what I was hoping for.
So, Isla Mujeres has provided me with a second chance. Isla has the biggest concentration of whale sharks in the world. The usually solitary animals actually convene here for a bit of a social, just 11km off the coast of the island. There are frequently sightings of up to 50 whale sharks between July and September. They don’t use spotter planes here. The whale sharks come with such regularity to the same spot and there’s so many of them, they don’t need to.
I have been in and on the ocean all my life. I learned how to swim at the age of 2 at Coledale Beach, north of Wollongong, NSW. I “compete” in ocean swims (distances of up to 5km). I body surf most weekends from October through to April each year. I have done more than 100 dives, most of them from boats. I love snorkeling, and have introduced many people to the activity. I have been on more than i can count yachts, cruisers, speed boats and tinnies, sometimes in pretty big swell. I have never been sea sick in my life.
We spent close to 2 hours being tossed around on a tiny boat on massive swell. We headed straight into the centre of a horrifically black storm.
And I’m concentrating – eyes closed – with every fibre of my being – on breathing in very deeply, breathing out very deeply.
The boat stops. I immediately hurl up breakfast. I don’t stop spewing for a good 10 minutes. 10 minutes is a long time to be consistently vomiting while still being tossed around on a rough rough sea. In the distance, i could hear someone else doing the same. Except he sounded like he was in The Exorcism. There was a lot of yelling going on all around me.
When I finally lifted my head, to kit up – I saw why. It was utter chaos. There were maybe 15, 20 boats, all with some 1/2 dozen people aboard, a good portion of whom were being sick. The boats were forming a loose wide circle around a bunch of whale sharks, and all the captains and their crews were yelling out to each other, indicating which way the whale sharks were heading.
Then i saw a dark shadow with spots move past. The captain of our boat was crazily yelling at us to hurry up! get ready! someone get in the water! and ironically, “GO RELAX WITH THE WHALES!!!”
When you’re feeling sea sick, you’re usually best off in the water. Without any regard for my fellow passengers, I basically insisted on getting in the water first. I got my mask, snorkel and fins on as quickly as possible and dived right into that rough sea. Almost right on top of a poor whale shark. I swallowed so much water through my snorkel, I nearly threw up again. I tried to snorkel alongside the mammoth animal but he was swift to move on. I needed to calm myself down, so I just floated on the surface, snorkel out, trying to breathe in air as opposed to water. Or 2 stroke engine fumes.
There was supposedly a 2-people-from-each-boat-in-the-water-at-any-one-time rule. I was wasting time in the water. I thought it best, if i got back on the boat and compose myself there, so someone else could get in.
Once I was back on the boat, I started feeling sick again. I saw that the remaining passengers of my boat were all feeling ill as well. One started throwing up. I couldn’t look at her.
Shortly, it was my turn to go into the big blue again… I was a lot more together when i dove off the boat this time. I was greeted by an enormous, enigmatic whale shark coming right towards me, her colossal mouth, spanning the width of her head, gaping open. I started finning slow and strong, lying on my side (I seem to get more speed and am much more relaxed in this position). I was keeping with her pace. They don’t really swim all that fast. She was just so gentle and graceful. I was awestruck and internally open mouthed. I think I stopped breathing at one point. It was unfathomable that I wasn’t inside a documentary dream. I followed her for a few minutes, observing her pretty white and yellow speckled skin, all the fish who were hitching a ride on her underside, her gigantic gills fanning ever so slowly… Her body just went on and on, like a freight train…
She eventually paced up, or I slowed down – I can’t be sure which, as time was warping as it does when you’re witnessing some kind of wonderful. I came face to face with the top fin of her tail which was bigger than all of me. Suddenly it occurred to she could accidentally whack me with it and send me flying through the water, so I started pulling back.
I surfaced to see where my boat was, and Again: all I heard and saw was carnage. People throwing up, lots of yelling, boats circling. Many, many whale sharks were visible from the surface. I hadn’t expected any of this, and it was all very disconcerting. The swell was still huge and I still had the taste of vomit and seawater in my mouth. I took off my mask and cleared it, and was trying to locate my boat – when the 1st mate swam up towards me and started frantically yelling and pointing behind me… I purged my snorkel and quickly submerged my face under the surface. It was a heck of a lot quieter underwater.
I immediately forgot about how hectic everything was and how crook i was feeling – and started swimming with the whale shark. This guy was setting a much quicker pace than the first one. I was semi-conscious there were other snorkelers around and out of the corner of my eye I could see other whale sharks, but I was so completely focused on the animal beside me…He made a bit of a turn towards me at one point, I could have reached out to give him a pat. However there is a 2m distance rule. I also personally generally shy away from touching wildlife unless they specifically come to me seeking it.
Being beside this big beautiful beast, was like getting sucked into a vortex. One where I was happy to go. I don’t recall anything different about the second one from my observations of the first… This time was more about the sensation of swimming with such a magnificent creature. I struggle for words. Needless to say, it is something that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
After I got back on the boat, a couple more people went out for their second chance. And then there seemed to be a bit of a unanimous vote to go back to shore. It was clear to me that pretty much everyone on the boat was feeling seriously ill and was just over it. I started feeling decidedly green again, and must have looked it. The first mate made a makeshift bed for me on the floor of the boat, and I half passed out. I do remember being thrown around violently for what seemed the longest trip back.
Part and parcel of the tour is lunch and a snorkel at a spot near the Norte Playa of Isla. The captain of our boat offered me shrimp ceviche (raw prawns) and a beer. Umm. That would be a negative. One girl started vomiting again. We were close enough to shore and in shallow enough waters that we could walk home. I didn’t hesitate. I just wanted a shower and my bed. I was absolutely spent. I wasn’t the only one. I managed to squeeze out somewhat of a goodbye to two lovely American girls, who had somehow managed to keep their breakfasts down but only just. They had been very sympathetic and sweet towards me – when they could speak.
I later caught up with them at a bar, when I went out for dinner the next night. Hailing from New York, Dahlia was renting an apartment for 3 weeks and was going to be on the island for mostly the same time as me. She was on her own too, and her oldest friend, Liz was visiting on a long weekend. We bonded over a drink and a very therapeutic debrief. While we agreed we were particularly unlucky with the weather and the seas, we also suspected we had a bit of a maniac for a captain. Another New Yorker who had also been on the tour on the previous day came along and chimed in. I had to agree with him when he said it was disappointing that there was absolutely no educational aspect to the tour. He was also of the view that it was being run by a bunch of cowboys and could do with a bit more regulation.
While this was an utterly extraordinary experience and one I will never forget, nor regret having – I do feel somewhat compromised. All these boats descend upon these poor unsuspecting animals… They’re having a peaceful morning swim together, when suddenly they’ve got a bunch of tourists vomiting all over them, chasing them around… I dunno, I wouldn’t dig it so much if it was me… Granted, they really didn’t seem phased in the slightest, but really – how could we tell? Dahlia likened this to a game safari in Africa.
I also realize it’s all very well for me to say this now I’ve had the experience…
I’d love to see how it’s done in other parts of the world. Maybe what is needed is benchmarking. The people here need to take an ecologically sustainable view to this incredible opportunity they have. I know there are many here, who do. Last weekend the 4th Annual Whale Shark Festival was held here. A raft of people from all around the world, including the local Mayans got together to share their knowledge. I heard that Sir Richard Branson was here. This has to be a good thing for these amazing animals (Virgin logos not withstanding.)
Note: Stats re weights & heights are for storytelling purposes only and have been sourced from the all-knowing Wikipedia. If you know better, tell them. Not me.