By Susan B. Barnes
After nearly an hour of cutting across the Caribbean Sea, we made our first sightings of the whale sharks about seven miles off the coast of Isla Mujeres (off of Cancun)—dorsal fins and tails silently cutting through the surface. First, there was one. Then another. And another. Soon, I came to realize our small boat was essentially surrounded by these 40-foot gentle giants. A quick, unofficial count came to about 40, circling around the area, feeding.
From mid-May through mid-September, more than 1,400 whale sharks make their way through the Caribbean waters off the coast of Cancun. During these warm summer months, there’s a veritable shmorgishborg of the sharks’ diet—plankton, krill and very small fish.
The outfitters who guide whale shark tours out of Isla Mujeres are working diligently to protect the fish, and are leading the industry of whale shark tour outfitters around the world. At the annual Whale Shark Festival, held each July, tour operators come together with researchers and scientists to discuss the whale sharks, and how best to protect the species. Last summer, the director of the Center for Shark Research at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Fla., commended the Isla Mujeres tour operator community for their conservation efforts.
Before we jumped in, our guide, David with Ceviche Tours, discussed the protocol for swimming with the whale sharks. Number one, do not touch the sharks, especially their tails. Actually, that’s pretty much it. We jumped in two at a time with David, donned our masks, snorkels, fins and lifejackets, and swam along side these massive fish.
The grace and ease with which they move through the water is breathtaking, which can be precarious when snorkeling. Gently gliding along, the whale sharks open their mouths—up to four feet wide—and suck in the abundance of krill and plankton that sustain them. No carnivores here!
As the whale sharks effortlessly swim by, their beauty is unequivocal. The white spots that dot their bodies are seemingly blotted on with a paintbrush, with a pattern unique to each animal. The sharks’ five gills flow like ribbons in an Olympic ribbon dancing competition as the sharks expel the water taken in during feeding.
After about two hours with the whale sharks, we all climbed back aboard our boat and made our way back to land, leaving the gentle giants to enjoy the rest of the day, at peace with their dinner.