By Theresa Russell
If ever there were meaning to being a small fish in a big pond, it would describe my first-hand experience in the Caribbean Sea. My adventure started early in the morning when I made my way to the dock to head out in search of whale sharks with Solo Buceo, a tour operator in Cancun, Mexico. In order to beat the other boats that would be looking for the whale sharks, we got an early morning start; in fact, we were just the second boat to reach the feeding area. The captains of these small boats radio each other when there is a sighting of these humongous creatures, the largest fish in the world. Measuring up to 40 feet or more, these fish are the size of school buses. And the goal for the day was to find them and swim with them.
Surrounded by Fins
We ventured past Isla Mujeres, traveling about 17 miles from the dock in an hour and a half in our small boat. Our ears perked as we heard the radio transmissions; the animated voices indicated a sighting. The engine stopped and we drifted with the waves. Suddenly, a shark fin appeared, followed by one then another until the area was full of these intimidating shapes. In this case, we were not threatened as we might be had these been Great Whites or another type of shark. The whale shark is a non-aggressive fish despite its cavernous mouth that is large enough to swallow a person. But, these sharks are filter feeders and have some small, basically useless teeth; they simply suck in a massive amount of water, eating the fish and plankton that they have inhaled.
Ready or Not
On the boat, we are excited about the prospect of swimming with these great creatures and quickly don our masks and flippers. We are surrounded by the whale sharks; the captain estimates that there are approximately 100 of them swimming nearby. I jump in and stick my face in the water looking for my first specimen and am shocked when I suddenly see the spotted shark approaching me just a few feet away. The turbidity of the water camouflages the sharks until they get very close. We had been warned to beware of the powerful tails that the sharks use as rudders. With no warning, a whale shark is swimming under me. I try to move out of the way to avoid the tail, but the shark brushes against me. My heart rate increases and I worry that I will be sliced by the tail or that I will startle the shark. The monstrous fish is unperturbed and continues its feeding frenzy.
With its mouth wide-open, another shark approaches me. I kick hard to get out of the way. I have yet to become completely comfortable in their territory. The group is asked to split up and some of us return to the boat. By now, many other boats have arrived. When it is my turn to return to the water, it is more difficult to spot one of the whale sharks. I patiently wait with the guide who seems to have better vision than I do and who can sense the direction that the big fish will take and leads me in the right direction.
With a smile on my face and after a few hours of much excitement, it’s time to return to Cancun. Swimming with the whale sharks is an adventure that I won’t soon forget and may consider doing again during the next season between May and September when the big fish in the big pond come to feed.
About Theresa Russell
Claiming her lust for travel began on her first journey through the birth canal, Theresa is genetically programmed to travel and to have fun doing it. She especially enjoys adventure and experiential travel and always finds something at a destination to write home about.