“Go, go, go, swim, swim, swim, Now!!!”
Captain Alberto shouts to us. Snorkel and fins donned, two of us hurriedly jump into the deep blue from the boat’s edge. A massive gray head with an extremely large mouth and a gray body with unique white spots is just below me, so I kick away keeping my arms at my sides to avoid excess movement and a potential encounter. A touch could damage its protective mucus layer, and is disruptive to its natural behavior and therefore, a cause of stress which might hasten a whale get-away.
Sleekly it glides, tail swooshing ever so slowly back and forth; it seems to be barely moving, while I’m power kicking as hard as I can to keep up with this graceful, gentle giant.
The tour company cautions, “This is an ocean safari meaning although we always do our best at finding them, animal sightings are not guaranteed.” The whale shark area is 1 to 1 ½ hours away from Isla Mujeres and approximately 60 square miles; boat captains radio each other on sightings, it’s a cooperative effort.
Wildlife is unpredictable. On this day, we are fortunate. Regulations require only ten passengers per boat, and only two snorkelers (no scuba diving) at a time for a maximum of two jumps. The captain positions the boat to time our jumps into the path of an approaching whale. When you jump, you gotta start kicking right away – if you’re lucky, you have up to a minute with one before they move deeper or swim beyond your ability.
Whale sharks (Tiburónes ballena in Spanish) are the largest fish, or non-mammalian invertebrate on the planet and the third largest creature (behind blue and fin whales) averaging 40-60 feet in length. They are sharks, not whales; yet they don’t chomp humans, they are non-threatening filter-feeders, dining mostly on plankton. Shark fins and movements are horizontal, whale fins and movements are vertical – flexing with their spinal backbones.
For years, I have wished to swim with one of these exquisite, ancient creatures. On this day, I was blessed to swim with two. On the first jump, I reached the side of the shark when guide Raul, pulled me a bit closer toward what he called, “the sweet spot.” Aside its breathing gills, I felt-sensed the energy and life force of this majestic, peaceful being. Sublime. On the second jump, I swam until near heart explosion; when I could no longer keep up, I clasped my hands together in prayer and said aloud through my snorkel, “Thank you, thank you, thank you… (and be wary of humans).”
That night, i wrote in my journal: “No fear. That’s what I felt. No fear. There is freedom in having no fear. In that moment, with just me and the largest fish on the planet, I felt only awe and appreciation…what I fear, is not having the words to express my elation and gratitude for this experience.”
“You got to wash with the crocodile in the river
You got to swim with the sharks in the sea
You got to live with the crooked politician
Trust those things that you can never see
It’s a cruel, crazy, beautiful world
Every day you wake up I hope it’s under a blue sky
It’s your world so live in it (it’s your world so live in it)”
– “Cruel Crazy Beautiful World”, Johnny Clegg
(Next post in October – Medellin, Colombia…:)