A Really Big Fish Tale


Hundreds of whale sharks—the largest of the world’s fish and docile swimming companions—congregate in the tropical waters off Isla Mujeres each July. The 4th Annual Whale Shark Festival adds information-packed events, speakers, and films to the thrill of swimming alongside one (or dozens) of these gentle giants. Read and be inspired by one woman’s first experience swimming with the whale sharks off Mexico’s coast.

By Sharon Spence Lieb

Photo courtesy of Cancun Convention and Visitor Bureau

At pink dawn, birds arch their lovely wings over a turquoise Caribbean. Off Cancun, Mexico, we hop into a tiny fishing boat with guides from Solo Buceo Dive Adventures. They usually lead intrepid divers to explore the 420-mile Mayan Reef, the northern hemisphere’s largest coral reef. But today, we’re hoping to encounter whale sharks, the largest fish on Planet Earth.

“Ready for a whale shark party?” asks our enthusiastic guide, Martha Aguilar. “The ocean’s a buffet of fish eggs and plankton, their favorite foods. Keep your eyes open.”

Adventure is not a theme park, so challenges always show up before exhilaration. The smooth sea churns into nasty waves, the sky crumples dark. Our little boat tosses like a coffee cup. For two hours, we roller coast the concrete waves. Smiles fade. I throw up last night’s dinner—and this morning’s Dramamine.

Why didn’t we just sleep off our margaritas and go for pancakes, like Normal Folks?

Look, we’re feral. We’ll suffer for encounters with wild beasts. We’re almost there. Where is there? The boat stops in the middle of nowhere, bobbing in a dark blue empty Caribbean.

Then, monsters of the deep rise up. Whale sharks surround our boat. Forty feet long, light grey, white spots, mouths the size of a dining room table. Scientists have tracked whale sharks living at 2300-foot depths, journeying thousands of miles around our globe. There’s record of one that swam 8,000 miles from Mexico to the Tonga Archipelago, east of Australia. And I thought I had wanderlust.

“Why are they here in Cancun?” I ask Martha.

“So much delicious whale food, as I told you, and they love our warm waters. From May through September, they birth their babies and rest for long journeys ahead. Where they’ll go next, who knows?”

I strap on mask and snorkel, pull on fins. Grab my underwater camera. Fall overboard into the school of massive whale sharks. My snorkel mask is leaking; the too-small fins cramp my calves.

Being eye-to-eye with a dozen of the biggest fish on planet Earth is scary as hell. I’m afraid of a beast that can swallow me like Jonah or knock me unconscious with his mighty tale. On the other hand, I’m in the open ocean with mega magnificent forty-foot long fish. The little girl who thought she was a scared-y cat is actually… exhilarated.

After a too-short hour, we hurl ourselves back into the rocking boat. Bedraggled, exhausted, but grinning like Julia Roberts.

Now, back home in South Carolina, I’m shopping at the grocery store and making dinner before the news, and I feel different. My heart is still swimming with the whale sharks. When the biggest fish on planet Earth leave Cancun for their global journeys, a part of me will go with them. Where they’ll go next, nobody knows.

Sharon is author of guidebooks on Seoul, Florida, Chicago, and Santa Fe. Her “Globetrotters” travel/photo feature is published monthly in Charleston, South Carolina. www.moultrienews.com Click Travel. Sharon was profiled in The Wall Street Journal as an award winning travel journalist/photographer, December 20, 2010.

Last modified: June 24, 2013

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