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My Tiburón Ballena

The forecast for the next few days calls for rain, thunderstorms, and high winds. The harbor just north of here is closed through the weekend...and this is a problem. In my continuing quest to see as much wildlife between here and Argentina as possible, we planned to spend a couple extra days in the Cancun area to see the whale sharks. We tried to see them in La Paz, Baja (bad weather) and Placencia, Belize (too early). John and I have been in Mexico for 7 months and we are really ready to move south. Whale sharks are filter feeders (not harmful to humans), they are the largest fish on the planet (typically the size of a school bus), and only found in a few parts of the world. It's a big deal to me to see one in the wild, and I think this is my last shot.

We decide to wait a couple of days to see if the weather clears. It doesn’t. It drops 4 inches of rain in one day. Our few days wait turns into a week. We discuss whether to stay or go. The plankton the whales feed on need about 2 days of sun to come to the surface. The sun doesn't come out, and our wait turns into two weeks. So we get the truck serviced again and take some Spanish lessons.

When we finally get on a boat, it’s a beautiful day. We have to travel out past Isla Contoy, into the open ocean where the Caribbean Sea meets the Gulf of Mexico. We see manta ray, dolphins, mating turtles bobbing along on the surface…but no whale sharks. Our boat captain gets word that one has been spotted but over 40 boats are all hovering around this one poor animal. The weather has created a pent up feeding frenzy of whale shark tours. Only two people at a time are allowed to swim with the whale sharks, so that means hours of waiting with the risk that the shark can dive at any time. Our captain decides to keep looking instead of getting in line. After 4 hours we see nothing. We stop for lunch at Isla Mujeres and then head back to port. I can’t believe it. This area is known as the best place to see the whale sharks. Reports of 30 or 40 at time are spotted. But not today – not for me.

searching the waters...with no luck

We pull into the harbor and the owner of the company comes on board. He tells us only two out of his seven boats did not swim with a shark today. He offers us another shot tomorrow, free of charge. I look at John. Yet another day? Are you kidding? John decides not to go… but I have to.

In the morning the weather has turned crappy again. Overcast, no sun, and rough seas. There are so many cancellations I am instructed to get on and off two boats before one fills up with enough people to go out. This doesn’t look good. Sergio is our boat captain and his brother Fernando is our guide in the water. We cruise around for 2 hours and nothing. Sergio is on the radio the whole time talking to other boats. It starts to rain. This is truly the proverbial needle in a haystack. Fernando is standing on the edge of the boat, scouting the horizon. These guys use no fish finding sonar and no whale sharks are tagged. We are in miles and miles of open ocean, searching in the flat light for a glimpse of a dorsal fin. Then Sergio gets a call. His buddy has found one shark and there are 40 boats surrounding it. He says that’s too many boats and we’ll find our own. Oh no. I tell him this is what happened to me yesterday…and I start to lose hope. We bounce around for a few more miles. Then suddenly he tells us all to sit down - we are making a run for it. He opens the twin engines and we race across the water as fast as the boat can go for about half an hour. Finally, on the horizon I see two boats hovering together. There is a second shark! I look back and see more boats chasing us.

We come up to the first two boats and I see a dorsal fin and tail fin. Sergio yells to me, “You’re first. Get your mask and fins on and get ready!” I scramble to get fins on, tripping my way to the side of the boat. I’m perched on the edge with Fernando and David (also from our failed trip yesterday) waiting for Sergio to get into position.There are now 6 boats but we are next in line. Sergio positions the boat in front of the shark’s mouth and yells, “GO”! Dave and I jump off the side of the boat and I start swimming. Fernando grabs my arm and points me toward the shark as I am heading away from it (I have no idea where a fish the size of a school bus is?!?!) and I kick as hard as I can. The seas are rough, so rolling waves wash over my snorkel and I choke on the salt water. I come up for air, spit, choke, cough, and go back down again. Then I see it. The huge mouth is as wide as a garage door. The shark swims along side me and I can see the spots on its body clear as day. In what feels like only 2 minutes, Fernando is in front of me and pulls me back to the boat. I scramble quickly back up the ladder and survey the scene in front of me. It is a well-choreographed dance of boat captains and guides. Each boat positions itself in front of the shark’s mouth, then 2 people jump and swim with it, the guide allows the swim to last just long enough for the 2 snorkelers to keep up and once the fish is beyond reach (it swims fast!) another boat is in front and 2 more people jump. Fernando ushers our swimmers back to the boat as fast as possible to allow Sergio to get back in line for the next two on our boat to go.

Nine boats are here now with swimmers waiting, but Sergio says we can go again. In a matter of minutes I am back on the side of the boat, this time ready and knowing what to do. He yells go, and I jump in and swim directly toward the mouth. The shark turns and I swim along side his head, close to his giant gills breathing in and out. I am right next to him, trying hard not touch him, which is against the rules. I keep up as long as I can and soon the body starts to move beyond me. Then his tail comes into sight and it’s almost as big as me. Too soon, Fernando pulls me back again. There is frenzy above me, but each time I have the most peaceful, beautiful 5 or 6 minutes with this giant creature. Yesterday the boats only got 2 swims because of all the people, but we each get four. The shark is still here, so I ask Sergio for one last swim and he says yes. By the fifth time, I feel I am ready to let this amazing creature go. Just as I climb back in the boat, the shark dives down below and out of sight. He has moved on, and finally, so can I.

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