Monday, July 20, 2009

Swimming with Whale Sharks in Cancun

One of my dreams came true yesterday, a whale of a dream in fact. A few weeks ago my good friends called to ask if I was interested in swimming with the whale sharks. My heart raced as I enthusiastically told them to count me in and I was giddy with excitement in the lead up to the big day.

Whale sharks are fascinating and mysterious creatures, little is known about their habits though there are a couple of spots in the world where they appear every year for a short time. We are fortunate to have them visit the waters off the northern coast of the Yucatan peninsula every year around the same time, May through September. Scientists come from around the world to study them and lucky tourists have the opportunity to swim with these gentle giants.

Yesterday I dragged myself out of bed to get ready for my 7:00 am pick up, kicking myself for going out the night before when I had sworn to myself that I would be in bed early (and sober). My very good friends T, G and their daughter R (for their privacy I am not using their names, but they know I love them!) drove us down to Punta Sam, excited and a little bit nervous. We hung out for a while waiting for our group to gather then settled in for the guide to explain what we were about to encounter. Claudio was great, enthusiastic about the fish and the day we were about to experience, he told us that the day before had been fantastic, they had seen about a hundred sharks! I asked him for advice on getting the best photos and he suggested taking as many as possible on the first two "jumps" and then not taking the camera in for the next two. Sounded good to me, I was pumped that I would get so many opportunities.

We got on our little boat, happy to see cushions on the seat, we had been expecting wooden slats and were not looking forward to the beating on the bottom. And thank god for those cushions, for the next hour or so we took some huge hits on some very rough seas, holding on for dear life to avoid being thrown out of the boat! It was a loooooong ride out to the "zone", of the ten people on the boat I would say 7 or 8 of us experienced sea sickness. Including me, the girl who has been on boats all her life and has never, ever been ill! Now perhaps it was a bit of a hangover problem, but I blame it on the rough seas and I wasn't the only one feeling the effects. The captain finally slowed down and the 1st mate/guide got up on the bow to start looking for the tell tale fins of the whale sharks.

We searched for a while and then suddenly, there it was. I could only see the fin at first, and several snorkelers in the water around a big, I mean BIG dark shape in the water. Our first pair got in, had a little swim and got back on the boat a few minutes later after the creature dove to the ocean floor. There were about twenty boats in the "zone", all vying for a spot with the sharks. When one was spotted, the radios went crazy and everyone converged, trying to form a line of sorts and taking turns getting in the water. We had split into pairs on the boat and myself and R were number 5, the last team.

So, team number one was done and we searched again. Boom, team number two in the water, back on board ooohing and aaahing. A little while later and team number three got their shot. And then....nothing. Nada, no sharks to be seen! The captains were chattering on the radio (nice to understand the Spanish banter) and wondering what the heck was going on. The boats split up, everyone desperate for another sighting. The guide was going a bit crazy, he kept saying "but there were so many yesterday!". We finally got another chance and team number four (T and G) hit the water. T had been really nervous about it but came out all smiles and thrilled with her encounter. R and I were getting ready, masks and fins on and eager for our shot. And we waited. And waited. And circled and bobbed and bounced in the rough seas. Other boats started to leave, saying they couldn't wait anymore but our guide was insistent that we would stay until we got our shot. Some boats left without anyone getting their opportunity in the water! The guide finally spotted one and got R and I into the water, but it was a bit of a disappointment as our amazing creature was waaaaaaaaay down and basically all we could see was a shadow. Well, it was better than nothing but we were certainly bummed out.

Our disappointing shadow of a whale shark

The boat started to make its return to land and I was composing the blog post of disappointment in my head. We were really cruising back fast when suddenly the captain stopped the boat and said "Go, go, go, anyone who wants to go go now!", he had spotted another for us! We quickly got our gear on and headed over board. I got my bearings and suddenly I saw her (I felt like it was a "her", but who knows, I shall call her Belinda though). I screamed into my snorkel tube, "Wow, wow, wow, oh my god!" and started swimming with her and snapping as many photos as I could. She was incredible, so peaceful, so gentle and seemingly oblivious to the excitement going on around her. I got myself in front of her hoping to get a photo of her mouth but panicked when I realized her gigantic maw was coming right towards me and I didn't get the shot! I swam around and around her and then followed her as she moved away, slowly diving to the bottom of the sea. I was so sad to see her go, but so pleased that I didn't have to go home without having "met" her.

Belinda the Whale Shark
(my guess is that she was about 9 meters long, bigger than the boat!)

My gorgeous baby Belinda

T and G's shark, photo courtesy of G

The closest I got to a good mouth shot of Belinda

We returned to the boat excited and relieved that we hadn't gone home empty handed, tired from a difficult swim and a long boat ride. The captain asked us if we still wanted to hit the snorkel spot that was on the itinerary or if we preferred to go to Playa Norte on Isla Mujeres where we could get a break for the constant movement of the boat. It was unanimous, everyone voted for Playa Norte as some non-bobbing time sounded divine. We played in the water while the crew made ceviche. We ate a little, chatted a little and were happy to return to dry land a little while later.

So, while I didn't get the three or four "jumps" I was hoping for, at least I met Belinda and had the experience of a lifetime. I really want to do it again, but next year, I need some time to recover from the boat ride, my back is aching today! G made all the arrangements for us through EcoColors tours (tour can be purchased here through Amstar) and we were happy with their service and their tour. It's a pricey trip, one of the most expensive tours in the area, but well worth it (even with a discount I paid 1000 pesos). I do NOT recommend this trip for children or anyone with seasickness issues or that might not be able to handle a rough boat ride. If you are up for a real adventure, then I highly recommend it! Be forewarned though, most operations do not have a guarantee of seeing a shark, as our guide said "They are not on a contract". (Ecocolors does offer a sighting guarantee, but not a guarantee of a swim, you see a fin, the guarantee is fulfilled). You do run a risk of not seeing anything and you can't get angry about it. Before we spotted Belinda, I was getting depressed and sad, but there was no way I could complain or be mad about it, it's the chance you take with nature. I ended the day happy and looking forward to doing it again next year.

So, how was your weekend?


Jonna said...

That was fantastic CC!!! I know you went to Holbox last year but was it at a time when the whale sharks were not there? I'm thinking we have to go over there soon and try and see them. I "think" the boat ride is shorter from there, you think?

I guess I'm asking if the boat ride was up to the area where the Gulf and Caribbean meet? Or, were they even farther into the Gulf?

CancunCanuck said...

Jonna- Hello lovely lady. Yes, we went to Holbox but we were too early for the whale shark season. My understanding is that the sharks are in a zone that runs from Isla Contoy, Cabo Catoche to Isla Holbox. I think it's probably better to do it from Holbox, but for us that would have meant an overnight stay with the three hour trip to Holbox. Not sure if it would be a shorter boat ride or not, but the bonus is you get to see Holbox, heaven on earth! Listening to the captains on the radio, there was a group who left Holbox and went to Contoy and they were out of luck that day too. We joked that the sharks took Sunday off to rest. It was hard to tell where we were, there was no land in sight (an odd sensation truth be told), but I think we were closer to Contoy than anything else. I really really recommend this for you and Mimi, I think you will love it and if you haven't done Holbox, make it a weekend getaway! Hugs to you and Mimi and the furbabies, hope you are keeping cool. :)

KfromMichigan said...

I'm so glad you saw Belinda. You have written about seeing the sharks .. your dream come true! Brave Lady!

Joy said...

Well, you've already read my report on swimming with whale sharks (I think) and it was THE MOST AMAZING EXPERIENCE!!

We went out on a calmer day -- only one person on our boat got sick. And I got 3 trips with Mr. Whale Sharkie, and there were only 3 boats with our shark -- the rest found their own sharks. Which made it a lot more private.

Sadly, our Guide, Ignacio, said he doubts the sharks will survive much longer. He said whale sharks migrate world-wide and those that end up in Asian waters are often murdered only for their dorsal fins -- for shark fin soup. A ridiculous but highly in demand Chinese delicacy that's emptying our oceans of sharks.

If this were to become reality, we'd be responsible for destroying a creature that has remained unchanged since prehistoric times, quietly, peacefully roaming the seas.

Supporting high-quality whale shark tours -- particularly in Southeast Asia -- helps, though. If tourism outstrips demand for dorsal fins, then they'll have a chance.

1st Mate said...

Well, it looks to me like you scored big time with Belinda. Great "poses!" She could be a model, if they had whale shark models. A couple of your photos are magazine-material, beautifully composed and shot, especially considering how excited you must have been. I think you got plenty close enough to her mouth (even if she is a vegetarian).

Croft said...

This has been a great two days for you being a tourist in your own country! How did Max like being left behind today?

What are you using for an underwater camera?

Steve Cotton said...

All I can say is "wow!" Thanks for sharing the experience. And here I am writing about rotting bananas.

Gaelyn said...

That is so COOL! Sure glad you got so close. A great dream come true.

Denise said...

WOW!!!!! Great pics. I so wish I had the nerve to swim with th ewhale sharks. I hate to admit it, but Jaws ruined me as a kid. This coming form a kid who spent the entire summer swimming in th elake an din pools. Very sad. I am really debating the snorkeling this while in Mexico. Keep your fingers crossed I have the nerve. Did you gt into the snorkeling and underwater pics when you moved to Mexico or what?

CancunCanuck said...

KfromMichigan- I feel blessed, I have wanted to do this for so long! Brave? I don't know about that, lol!

Joy- I did read your report (with great envy at the time, haha). Thanks for making the points about the shark hunts, very important and I appreciate the input! So sad that these incredible creatures are in danger.

1st Mate- Why thanks for the kind words! I was a little disappointed that the plankton and algae came out as little spots on the photos, but that's reality!

Croft- We've had a very active summer, been very lucky. Max was cool, he got to go to the beach with "just Daddy!" for a boys day so he wasn't too disappointed. Yesterday I was looking at the photos (yes, again, I am still in awe) and he said "You know? When I'm big? I gonna swim with whale sharks". :) For the photos I am using a little Sony cybershot point and shoot in the Sony sports pack underwater casing. Nothing fancy, but it works a dream!

Steve Cotton- I said "Wow" myself many times, it was a "wow" kind of day. And hey, there's a lot to be said for rotten bananas! :)

Gaelyn- I can't wait to do it again and get closer, whoohoo! It's kind of surreal today, I am in awe and feeling like "Did I really get to see that???" so another trip should cement the reality for me. ;-)

Denise- My friend who went with us has a fear of sharks as well, she said it wasn't the whale sharks she was concerned about, but the other sharks that might be hanging around a la Jaws. The guide assured us that they do not share the same waters. I still had to sing the theme song occasionally on the trip out just to get a reaction out of her, haha. You must snorkel when you come, you will kick yourself if you don't do it! When I got to Mexico I started trying to shoot with the disposable underwater cameras but they are, um, less than good quality. When I discovered that I could buy a sport pack for my digital point and shoot, I had to have it and have been playing with it since. Love it!

minshap said...

I'm speechless with awe! The serendipity of that sighting - and Belinda, looking absolutely stunning in your shots - shimmering in fact! I only wonder why you wanted to get closer to that mouth! I would say you got plenty close enough!

Dan and Jen said...

Should I be worried when I check the Cancun forecast and they are predicting scattered showers every day next week? We are arriving on vacation on Sunday and I assumed it would be sunny and hot!

CancunCanuck said...

Minshap- Belinda was absolutely serendipitous and incredible! I'm not sure if I would really like to get closer to the mouth, but I would like a better photo, lol!

Dan and Jen- Don't fret, read this post about Cancun weather.... Rainy Season in Cancun
. Hope you have a great trip!

Mexinadian said...

wow another Canadian living in Mexico! Im moving to Tepic in March, from Vancouver, what do you recommend I do to prepare for the culture shock?

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