The Caribbean Sea was calm as our boatload of snorkelers headed out from Isla Mujeres off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula on a hot summer day. The bright turquoise water near the island turned dark as we made our way to the Gulf of Mexico. Our only view on the horizon was Isla Contoy, a bird sanctuary.
After about an hour, a small city seemed to appear on the horizon. As we approached, the mirage morphed into a group of boats in a seemingly random spot. Once we got close, we saw the large dorsal fins that attract thousands of people to jump into these cool waters.
Our boat stopped on the edge of a swirling mass of giant sharks. My wife and daughter pulled on their snorkels as I readied the camera. As they slipped into the water, an enormous creature slid by the boat. One thought ran through my head: Am I crazy to bring my family to swim with the world’s largest shark?
I already knew whale sharks were huge. I’ve seen photos, read stories and heard first-hand accounts of their gigantism. But none of that prepared me for the first sight of a whale shark. From the comfort of the boat, their length is astonishing. But once you are in the water, you realize that the overhead view is the proverbial tip of the iceberg.
Our day started with a talk by our guide, Logan, who has lived most of her life on Isla Mujeres. Whale sharks are the lead attraction, and local operators make sure that every tourist that arrives knows about the unique opportunity to see them. As Logan made clear, these toothless sharks are not aggressive and don’t pose a threat to humans.
Shock, Wonder and a Little Bit of Fear
Their popularity brings issues, however, and Logan made it very clear that touching these animals is strictly prohibited. The most entertaining part of her monologue was a pantomime of the normal first reaction of people seeing the sharks for the first time – a combination of shock, wonder and a little bit of fear.
Logan’s prediction of that initial shock was dead on. After donning my own snorkeling gear and getting my first underwater view, I quickly lifted my head, needing a second to comprehend what my eyes had just seen. The whale sharks’ fluid gracefulness belies the fact that these animals can measure 40 feet long and weigh 20 tons.
To maintain their size, they spend most of their time feeding, skimming the surface with their gaping mouths to collect plankton and fish eggs. The sea near Isla Mujeres is one of a few places where whale sharks gather in large groups. Our group of 10 people rotated in and out of the boat with our two guides every few minutes, giving everyone several chances to see the sharks from the water.
For all their size, whale sharks are not immune to threats. The IUCN considers them “vulnerable” to boat strikes (primarily from larger vessels than the boat we were on), which can hurt or kill these amazing animals. For years, they were caught in fisheries in Asia, and they can still be found in fish markets.
Whale Sharks and Tourism
As swimming with whale sharks increases in popularity, new threats are popping up. In the Philippines, some operators are feeding whale sharks to attract them, running the risk of altering migration routes. At Isla Mujeres, self-imposed rules go out the window to ensure tourists get to see these animals up close. Mexican scientists are working to determine a maximum tourism capacity which would be a major step forward if enforced.
Whale sharks are found in tropical waters including Honduras, Taiwan and the Seychelles, but Isla Mujeres has become one of the most popular spots. Whale shark tourism here has grown dramatically over the past few years. Their feeding aggregations can draw thousands of people yearly. There were approximately 30 boats on the morning we went out, and twice that by the time we left. If each boat had just 10 snorkelers, that would mean 300 – 600 people there at one time. There are reportedly more than 200 boats with permits, and quite a few more that participate illegally.
Leading up to this trip, one of my biggest concerns was whether this crush of people would take away from the experience. Those fears were allayed once I was in the water. When there is a large aggregation, the water doesn’t feel crowded with people. Most of the boats enforce a rule that only allows two people per guide, so the majority of people are in the boats at any given time. The large group was spread out enough that we did not see another group of people nearby during the couple of hours we spent there.
Whale shark tourism, when done right, can be a huge benefit to the sharks and other animals as well as local communities. Their monetary value creates an incentive to stop catching them for meat, and our trip designates five percent of the trip’s cost towards the conservation efforts of Ecocean, an organization that helps to research these little-known fish. With our partner Reefs to Rockies, we have donated more than $1,000 towards whale shark research to date. Snorkelers can also contribute to a database by uploading images to the whale shark library, which helps researchers learn about population dynamics.
At the end of our visit, I recorded a video of two slow-moving sharks swimming to my left. Even with about 10 feet between us, my camera could only capture part of the sharks. As they slid by, I yelled with surprise into my snorkel as my view was suddenly impaired by a large spotted animal at a very close distance. It was another whale shark, swimming in the opposite direction, that came between me and the other sharks. Nearby, my wife and daughter laughed as I quickly backed out the way of the large caudal (rear) fin as it passed by.
Maybe my choice of summer family entertainment really was a little bit crazy, but we wouldn’t trade the memories of this experience for any amusement park or camping trip.
Photo Credit: Thinkstock