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Swimming with the Whale Sharks

The fin was directly in front of me, perhaps thirty meters away, as it broke the surface of the water. Behind the fin a tail slowly moved from side to side, propelling the shark forward.

The boat I had been in was a short distance away and everyone on board was shouting or pointing; looking at what was coming towards me.
With water splashing on my face I was finding it hard to take deep breaths and relax; I put my snorkel in and looked under the surface to see what was ahead. The water was murky and visibility was not more than a few meters, but I knew the shark was very close by now. There were a few last moments of the water around me appearing empty before I saw a huge mouth starting to open.

The shark’s open mouth, over a meter wide, was just in front of my face. I could do nothing except stare at this huge fish as it sucked in whatever came between its jaws. I wondered if I would meet the same fate.
The shark dived slightly and swam underneath me; just inches below I watched as over twelve meters of its rough spotted body swam just below the surface. I only had to move to avoid the huge tail fin as it came through the water next to my side.

While the shark appeared to be moving slowly before I came into such close contact, as I tried to follow, its tail quickly disappeared into the murky water. Looking above the surface, and taking what I though to be the first breath in a long time, I could see the Whale Shark’s fin moving slowly away.

My only injury from the encounter: a small graze across my chest where the shark’s rough tail fin had brushed against me.

Whale Sharks are fish – the largest in the sea – named because of their vast size: up to 15 meters in length. They live in tropical and warm seas but there are few places in the world where regular visits can be expected.

Where the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea meet is one such area where these giants visit each year. The water, normally crystal blue, is turned a murky green by the millions of plankton that attract Whale Sharks, and other creatures to this area.

Whale Sharks are filter feeders, so have no teeth, they sieve plankton through the fine mesh in their mouths. They are capable of sucking in large amounts of water to feed on the plankton it contains. The largest fish in the sea exists almost exclusively on one of the smallest. Whale Sharks must eat tonnes of food each day, and often follow seasonal ‘blooms’ of plankton, in able to survive. They stay in one area only a few weeks before moving on to another region, perhaps thousands of miles away.

Their white spots and stripes over a brown, grey or blue body enable Whale Sharks to blend into the environment around them. They are difficult to see unless they come close to the surface to feed; sometimes remaining vertical in the water as they suck plankton into their mouth. Remoras, cleaner fish, can often be seen swimming with the sharks and other fish seek refuge in shadow of these giants of the sea.

Manta Rays can often be seen in the same area as Whale Sharks. During the summer the rays can be seen performing their mating rituals; leaping out of the water to display their huge white bellies, and splashing back to perform other acrobatics underwater. Bait balls of sardines can be often seen as a wave moving along the water as rainbow fish prey on them. Smaller rays of other varieties can be seen in huge numbers and flamingos, frigate birds, pelicans and a host of other wildlife can be seen in and around the Laguna Yalahau, close to where the Whale Sharks come to feed. Isla Holbox, a small Caribbean island close to the Mexican mainland is a base for the many boats that operate excursions to see Whale Sharks. The island is a luxurious retreat without large hotels or an abundance of concrete to serve tourists’ needs. Instead, small-scale cabins or huts, most with a beachfront view, offer accommodation in this idilic location. Every hut or hotel is just meters away form the white sands; lined with palm trees. The Whale sharks feed just a few miles from this island paradise.
For those months when Whale Sharks are not in the area; Game fishing, scuba diving and other wildlife spotting trips are also popular.

Whale Sharks are heavily protected and only two people can swim with the sharks at one time; visitors are never crowded and can appreciate these amazing creatures in their natural environment. With a limit on the time visitors can spend with an individual shark it is rare to see another boat once you have left the island. These measures also help to ensure that the sharks will return to this area next year.

Despite the beauty of this area and the abundant wildlife, few tourists make the 100 mile journey from the resort of Cancun to Chiquila; the port city just half an hours boat ride from Isla Holbox. 

Several boats offer rides to the island from Chiquila, and some can be chartered for the day. The trip to Isla Hobox is best enjoyed early in the morning: Sunrise can be seen as you travel over to the island and the whole day is free to experience the wildlife.

Heading back to Isla Holbox, or the mainland, as the sun sets into the Caribbean, is the perfect end. 

After a day spent with whale sharks the last meeting is no less exhilarating that the first; the huge mouth and vast body with sleek movement cannot be forgotten as the huge tail disappears into the plankton filled waters for the last time.

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