"Go go go!" the captain yells and we throw our bodies off the side of the boat, landing in the sea and coming face to face with the gaping maw of an 8 meter long shark. "MMMMM" I yell through my snorkel (everything sounds like "mmmm" in a snorkel, the translation here is something along the lines of "Holy Cow!"). Though the enormous mouth coming at me is about 1 meter wide, I do know that this whale shark is really only interested in eating plankton. I manoeuvre myself out of her direct path and try to remember to breathe, it is an intimidating mouth regardless of whether I am considered lunch or not. We follow along with her, using our flippers like mad to race to stay alongside her rippled and dotted body. Her mouth opens and closes and the cleaner fish cling to her side and she finally outraces us and we pause for a breath.
This is whale shark season. Every year between May and September, whale sharks gather in large numbers off the northern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. While whale sharks are found in a few other places in the world, the aggregation in the Mexican Caribbean is by far the largest and most easily accessible for scientists and adventurers. Visitors to Cancun, Isla Mujeres and Isla Holbox can find themselves in the midst of hundreds of these gentle giants, known locally as "dominoes" for their spotted and dotted skin. Scientists regularly visit the region to investigate this still mysterious animal, tagging the animals in an effort to gain a deeper understanding of their migration routes and mating habits.
The whale shark is indeed a member of the shark family, the biggest fish in the sea. The largest recorded whale shark was more than 12 meters long and the heaviest weighed 36 tonnes!. They live in warm-temperate and tropical waters and feed on plankton, algae and fish eggs through filters in their large mouths. Whale sharks are "ovoviviparous" animals, meaning they reproduce through eggs, then give birth to live young, perhaps up to 300 offspring at a time. Whale sharks reach sexual maturity around 30 years of age and it's estimated that they have a lifespan of between 70 and 100 years.
I am an incredibly fortunate woman to live where I do. This was my third time swimming with the whale sharks and it doesn't get old. Today's adventure was once again "unbelievable, out of this world, unreal, super chingon!" The sky was blue with white fluffy clouds, the sun shone down, the guides from Ecocolors were superb as they always are and our boat mates were a lot of fun. We found a group of about 100 sharks today and we each got five "jumps" and pretty much unlimited time sharing the underwater home of these incredible creatures. I really don't think it's possible to express the power of the experience through mere words or photos or even video, it's something you'll just have to try for yourself. Swimming with whale sharks in the Mexican Caribbean is just one of a million reasons why you should visit Mexico, a unique, natural experience that you will remember for a lifetime. This is definitely "bucket list" material.