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In Search of Whale Sharks

As I mentioned in my previous post, the main reason Chris and I ended up on Isla Mujeres this year was to search for and swim with whale sharks. I’m not sure we would have picked Isla Mujeres otherwise (though we ended up really enjoying it), and a bit of anxiety built up as I worried we wouldn’t find the sharks on this trip. But I felt like it was a good omen to see this mural on the way to our villa the first day!

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I absolutely love animal encounters. They’re often the highlight of my travels, and I can’t ever get enough of photographing our furry, feathered, and finned friends. That said, I’m very picky about my experiences with animals. I try to learn as much as I can upfront about popular animal-related excursions, and I absolutely refuse to participate in anything where the animals are mistreated. I was happy to learn that many of the whale shark tours in Isla Mujeres respect the marine life and environment. (Sadly, the same cannot be said about swim-with-dolphins type experiences on the island. Please do not patronize these businesses!)

I ended up choosing On Isla Mujeres for those ethical reasons and because they received consistent glowing reviews. As a bonus, their boat, the Anastascia II, offered the convenience of a restroom on board. With a long, choppy trek out to sea that could take a couple of hours round trip, it just seemed like a good idea! I also specifically planned our trip around the week smack in the middle of whale shark season (June – September), and on a week with a full moon since this apparently might increase the chances of a whale shark sighting. (It’s something to do with the science of the full moon and the tide and an abundance of plankton).

So on the Monday of our week on Isla Mujeres we met our group at the marina behind Oscar’s in hopes of seeing these giant fish. I figured if we didn’t have any luck, we still had plenty of time during the rest of the week.

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The trip out to sea took almost an hour, and we ended up over twenty-five miles away from shore. Fisherman ships radioed to our captain with a pin-pointed area where we could find the sharks, and they weren’t wrong. When we arrived, we could see a dozen or so boats and several people in the water, but the presence of other people quickly receded to the back of my mind because we were also surrounded by sharks.

Huge, polka-dotted sharks, longer than some of the boats. And so many of them.

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While everyone in our group geared up in masks, fins, and life jackets, we all watched and collectively gasped as the giants gracefully maneuvered around with their mouths agape to scoop up thousands and thousands of tiny plankton.

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And then it was our turn to jump into the deep blue sea. The first time Chris and I entered the water, we did so without cameras in order to enjoy the experience through our eyes only, and I’ll never forget the sight of a four-foot-wide mouth sneaking up on from my side, just inches away from me. Breathtaking.

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Suffice it to say, this was my most challenging photographic subject to-date, and that’s saying something considering my experience with photographing toddlers! The sharks are huge, but they’re faster than I expected. It was actually kind of exhausting (but fun) trying to keep up with them. Thankfully we lucked out on a day where there were just dozens of sharks in the water, so when one disappeared another one showed up over our shoulders.

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I’m not sure what they think of us being in the water during their feeding time, but they seemed neutral and unconcerned, as much as I could read a shark’s thoughts and feelings. They swam extremely close to us while collecting plankton, so I wonder if perhaps they’re even a little curious about us humans. But as I mentioned, it’s important to me that the animals aren’t impacted by our presence in any encounter. I’ve read some awful stories about tour companies that allow people to touch the whale sharks and hang onto them, and that makes me cringe.

From what I observed that day, none of the tour operators were feeding the sharks or allowing people to touch them. We were specifically instructed by On Isla Mujeres not to touch the sharks, and to wear marine-safe sunscreen. A maximum of two people were allowed in the water at a time, and only with a guide. So overall, it seemed to be a nice opportunity to simply observe these creatures up close in their natural environment without disturbing them.DCIM100GOPROG0030076.

After our adventure with the gentle giants, we moved closer to shore and stopped at a reef for snorkeling. I was actually a little underwhelmed with the snorkeling spot as the waves were pretty choppy and it was a little too deep (maybe 20+ feet?) to really see the coral and fish. I spotted a huge sea turtle along the ocean floor, but I didn’t bother with photos since he was so far away. On the plus side, the coral looked pristine and healthy.

For our third and final stop, we anchored at North Beach where our guides prepared fresh ceviche and tortilla chips for us. I had opted not to eat anything before the ride out to the whale sharks in case it was choppy (it was), so I was ravenous and managed not to take photos of our meal! It was especially cute that we used floating lifejackets as makeshift tables in the water. But I assure you it was delicious, and there’s nothing like standing in crystal clear water, enjoying drinks and a great meal after a big swim.

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And with that, I am officially crossing this one off the ol’ bucket list, and I feel like I leveled up quite a bit in my ocean bravery skills!

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2 comments
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  • Pam Spry - You’re the bravest person I know! Beautiful pictures!ReplyCancel

  • Susan - Aw, thanks Pam! This didn’t require a ton of bravery – the sharks were totally harmless! Easy peasy. Just put a spider in front of me and you’ll see I’m not brave at all. 😉ReplyCancel

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