“This is not an everyday experience” reminded our guide when asked if we want to go in again.
The last time I went snorkelling, was in Belize. There, I achieved an impressive Arab spring out of the water into the boat when my husband mentioned there was a large black grouper approaching my right foot. So in the name of duty, on my recent visit to Mexico, I signed up to put myself in the way of a 30ft (average size) whale shark.
With my mother in tow we joined a small group to go swimming with Whale sharks. We headed off from Isla Mujeres in our motorboat, with great excitement across the aqua marine waters, reportedly some of the bluest in the Caribbean. It’s June and the Whale shark season has just begun. Starting almost a month later than normal, it seems the big fish are being a little temperamental. They have arrived late, and not in the usual numbers; moving between Isla Mujeres and Isla Holbox in the Gulf of Mexico, making their location somewhat unpredictable. It has also been raining. The rains, we are told, push the plankton below the surface of the water causing the whale sharks to feed deeper than normal.
The decision is taken to head for the area of Isla Contoy which sits between Isla Mujeres and the mouth of the Gulf. After two and half hours of exhilarating motoring, we are still not in luck. On the plus side we have seen flying fish, dolphin and mating turtles, a trip in itself, and I’m happy to head for home. The radio crackles. We see another boat on the horizon and we change our course a little. The anticipation mounts but a shake of the head by our Capitan dashes our hopes. Seeing our faces, some fairly green by now, he points to his watch. Shouting over the engines; “By 11am. We’ll see them.” It’s 10.35am.
It is a bold promise. Land is barely visible and we have been searching in earnest for almost 3 hours. Then no more than 10 minutes later, there is a shout on the radio and the boat is put into full throttle. The atmosphere on the boat changes immediately. Excitement mounts once again. There is a great sense of urgency suddenly from our guide – who instructs us to get kitted up. Flippers, masks snorkels and life jackets are handed out. We are told to move in a circular direction around the boat. “Two at a time – get ready. We will drop you in ahead of the whale shark and come round again to pick you up – go.” My mother (in her seventies) is the first to go. I pause in total admiration. She hasn’t snorkelled for 20 years and is still trying to work out her breathing technique when she is pushed overboard. I click into action and follow her in, wondering whether I had pushed her too far this time.
Go Pro in hand, running on video, I frantically search the water – where is it? Out of the murk I see it swimming towards me. Surprised by my profound lack of fear, I actually swim towards it. The Whale shark glides through the water beneath me. I watch as the tale wafts past. I turn and follow. I try to keep up but I can’t. He dives and disappears from view.
I come up looking for the boat, looking for Mum but the swell keeps breaking my view. There are three boats and I have no idea which one is ours. A wave comes over me and as it passes I spot both Mum and our our boat coming round in our direction. Mum and I swim up to the ladder, thrilled, exhausted.
We get two further turns and each one is better than the last. The second time, I kick and kick determined to get a view for as long as I can. I study the markings, watch the gills, the movement, the size; hearing nothing but my own breathing. Then there is a magical moment as I watch our friend Matteo free dive some 20 metres alongside the Whale Shark as it sinks slowly into the depths of the ocean.
The third time, I rid myself of technology and Mum and I leap in. We’ve got the hang of this now. It’s our last go. We even locate the whale shark before submersion. I try to savour the moment again. Absorb everything I am seeing, for one last time. All too soon we lose the docile giant to the deep once more.