We participated in the most unlikely of excursions in Mexico. I’ve jumped on board the crazy train a number of times now – zip lining, parasailing, deep sea fishing, scuba diving – I like to think I’m open minded. But even I was shocked when I threw all in on this idea.
The excursion? Swimming with whale sharks.
Yeah, the name alone stops you in your tracks, right? How on earth that didn’t bring down the veto power is beyond me.
What exactly does swimming with whale sharks entail? I’m so glad you asked.
You show up at the launch pier and collect your life jacket. Once everyone’s good to go your group is walked down the pier (which, now that I think back on it, felt a lot like walking the plank) and loaded onto your boat. Now, don’t let the word “boat” fool you…we’re not talking large party boat that carries twenty people. More like a fishing boat built for ten to twelve. Let’s just say it was far smaller than anticipated.
At any rate, then you head out to sea. Not that you’re heading toward anything; you’re just sailing away from land for about an hour or so. “Sailing” doesn’t quite capture the experience either…it was more like sprinting headlong toward an endpoint, crashing through waves and lurching unpredictably. Eventually you come to a stop with a bunch of other boats, all filled with people also ready to jump into the water with enormous fish.
The rest is pretty self-explanatory. Boat stops (again, without a speck of land in sight), life jackets get fastened, then people jump into the ocean in twos and threes to swim with the whale sharks. Yeah. That.
Are you wondering what on earth a whale shark is? Here are some geeky science facts:
- It’s the world’s largest fish, growing as long as 60 feet. (Ours ran about 30 feet. Yeah. Still big.)
- As it swims it sucks water into its 5 foot wide mouth, filtering plankton and other organisms through its gills.
- Unlike most fish, the whale shark gives birth to live young, up to 300 pups at a time. Yikes.
So now you’ve got the gist if you’re ever presented with the opportunity to swim with whale sharks.
The first thing that struck me on this adventure was sheer shock that I wasn’t the one to go down in a giant ball of flames. Granted, I had my Sea Bands on, and a lovely lady gave me one of her Mexico Dramamine tablets (which are apparently superhuman strength) before we got on the boat, but still. The ride out to the site alone should have had me puking over the side of the boat. Surprisingly, I was still standing (mostly) while three kids and one adult felt terribly seasick as we crashed over the waves.
I have to admit I felt brief panic when we reached the swim site: I was diving into the wide open ocean, with no idea how deep the water was (duh – OCEAN), and trusting that these strangers wouldn’t leave me behind for kicks and giggles. Just the fact that the leader was telling me to sit on the side of the boat and launch myself off ran counter to every survival instinct I had. What good were a stupid pair of flippers and flimsy snorkel going to do me in the huge ocean with 30 foot creatures?! But jump I did.
I was an excellent student. (For all my talk of being a visual learner, I find my listening skills sharpen radically when they’re talking about survival in the wild.) I hit the water and kicked hard away from the boat. I searched frantically for the guide while blind from foggy goggles and deaf from ears filled with saltwater. Plus I was paired with T-man so there was that constant Where is my child? running through the back of my mind.
As far as I could tell, the guide’s primary job is to coordinate spotting whale sharks with the captain so he can yell, “GO! GO!” at you while pointing in the direction where you’re supposed to swim. So unless he was yelling “LADY!!” to get my attention, I was frantically swimming in whichever direction he’d indicated.
Now, I’d like to point out here that if you have someone shrieking “GO!” at you repeatedly, you’d tend to go, right? Well, I’m very coachable. The man said go, so I went. And went. And went and went and went. Because besides “Go!” the other thing people kept yelling at me was “Swim hard!” So I did.
Until I heard the entire boat shouting for me to stop. That’s when I looked behind me to find my guide about 15 yards back, frantically gesturing at me to stop swimming and return to his side. Once I reached him again I was yelled at in heavily accented English for not staying with the leader. Not only do I have to take the lecture (for doing, again, WHAT HE TOLD ME TO DO) but I was permanently branded as a troublemaker, receiving another talking to about following the rules when I returned to the water for a second turn.
But besides pissing off the guide I’d say it was a highly successful outing. I didn’t puke, I didn’t even feel like puking, and I swam with enormous, 30 feet long, polka dotted whale sharks. It was pretty remarkable.
Even more remarkable was the fact that I was even there.