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Tuesday, 08 December 2015 09:28

Swimming with Whale Sharks Is Staggering, Scary—and Totally Safe

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We’re 30 miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico. No land in sight. The ocean is more than 300 feet deep. The water is choppy but clear blue. Creamer Shorey, a blond, sunburned 23-year-old, has taken me out for the day, along with a couple from Canada, another from Chile, and an American father and his two kids. We’ve all traveled to Mexico, to the tiny island of Isla Mujeres, for the chance to swim with whale sharks. Scanning the waters, it looks as if we’ve found a group of about 20.

Whale sharks are the biggest fish in the world. They’ve been known to reach more than 40 feet in length and can weigh as much as 47,000 pounds, about equal to five elephants. Their mouth can be 5 feet wide, with three rows of about 300 tiny rasplike teeth. As filter feeders, they eat only plankton and the occasional fish, so they’re not dangerous to humans. Still, it’s easy to imagine a whale shark swallowing an entire person, like Jonah in the Bible. “Even if you’re a good swimmer, I’d advise you to wear a life jacket,” James Hancock, a marine biologist and whale shark researcher, told me before my trip. “I’ve witnessed plenty of burly men panic in the water when they see something that big coming at them. The adrenaline just kicks in. It’s natural.”

Wearing snorkeling gear and a wet suit, but no life jacket, I roll backward off the side of the boat into the water. As soon as the bubbles clear, I see a whale shark directly under me. Instead of fear, I feel awe. The fish’s movements are slow but powerful. Lateral ridges along its back give its body a muscular grace. Five long vertical gills on each side flap open and closed, expelling water. Its gray skin—about 4 inches thick—is patterned with yellowish white lines and spots. Each whale shark has its own spot pattern, like a fingerprint, which allows scientists such as Hancock to recognize and keep tabs on them.

My whale shark begins descending, its elegant silhouette growing smaller and smaller. For a moment it seems I’ll be able to watch the enormous fish vanish into the dark blue depths. Then it comes back to the surface about a foot away from me and pauses, opening its mouth wide to feed. Each of its eyes is only about the size of a silver dollar.

Information on the species is scarce. Sharks have been on earth for roughly 420 million years, preceding dinosaurs by about 200 million. Whale sharks, one of three kinds of filter-feeding sharks, have been around for at least 60 million, according to fossil records. Scientists estimate that they live from 70 to 100 years. They’re known to journey thousands of miles and can dive to depths of more than 4,200 feet, where they survive near-zero temperatures. No one knows where they mate, but scientists in 1995 confirmed that the giant fish have live births.

In recent years, whale sharks have been sighted in tropical and temperate waters around the globe. In Qatar, they’ve been found hanging out around offshore oil fields. In the Philippines, a whale shark graces the 100-peso bill. Throughout much of Asia, where people eat shark meat and fins, the fish are sometimes called tofu sharks because of their rubbery texture. In Kenya, legend has it that God was so thrilled when he created the whale shark that he threw silver coins in the air, which got stuck on the fish’s back—hence the spots.

Finding whale sharks in their natural habitat is always a crapshoot, but waters near Mexico’s Yucatán, off the coast of Cancún and Isla Mujeres, have some of the highest concentrations in the world. An aerial photograph from 2009 captured more than 400 within an area of about 7 square miles. Most come in July and August, when bonito spawn and plankton blooms. Fishermen have known about the large aggregation for decades, but it wasn’t until about 10 years ago that scientists, then tourists, caught on.

With the fishing business in decline in the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean, many fishermen on Isla Mujeres have turned to giving whale shark tours. They generally charge $125 per person for a group tour. During high season, the guides fan out across the ocean in motorboats each morning and radio one another when they find some, a process than can take as long as three hours. We spent almost two fruitless hours searching before a call came in from another boat: “We’ve found them—there are so many, the water looks like rice!” Once we got to the whale sharks, there were already dozens of boats on site. To minimize stress for the fish, each guide permitted only two people in the water at a time.

Our boat, run by Mundaca Divers, is captained by a former fisherman with chiseled Mayan features. His full name is Alfredo Poot May, though everyone calls him Hermano. He skillfully steers around the whale sharks, while Creamer Shorey keeps an eye on the snorkelers in the water. We stay for about two hours, long after most of the other boats have left. “There’s one shark, I swear she’s in love with me,” Creamer Shorey tells us. “I call her Divot, because she has a deep gash near her back fin. The other day she came from behind and nearly ran me over.”whale sharks 1 2

In addition to whale sharks, we see a large sea turtle and flying fish. There are also several giant black-and-white manta rays with wingspans of about 15 feet. They dart around, often in packs, swimming fast with their alienlike mouth open. One of them jumps out of the water and slams down on its back. Even after I grow seasick from rocking in the waves and vomit in the water, it’s hard to leave the open ocean and go back to land.

The next day, Creamer Shorey picks me up at my hotel. I’m staying outside the main tourist district at the Zoëtry Villa Rolandi, a luxurious resort with a private beach, ocean views from every room, and exquisite dining—particularly when it comes to seafood. Creamer Shorey is wearing shoulder-length earrings, shorts, and no shoes. “I don’t own any shoes, not even flip-flops,” she explains. Born on Isla Mujeres to U.S. and British expats, she grew up on the island. She spent much of her time with animals, amassing dozens of pets, including four dogs, a parrot, and eight snakes, some of them boa constrictors she’d caught in the wild. At 13 she moved with her family to Abu Dhabi for high school, then to England, where she completed a veterinary degree. She returned to Isla Mujeres last spring. “You can’t keep me away,” she says.

It’s easy to see why. The “Island of Women” is a 20-minute ferry ride from Cancún but isn’t overrun with frat parties. Its northern beach is among the best in the world, and the entire place has a cozy, local vibe. Creamer Shorey, like almost everyone, gets around in a golf cart. “Some say it’s called Island of Women because, when explorers got here, all the able-bodied men were out fishing, so they found only women,” she tells me as we putter along the coastline. “Also, the island was covered in statues of pregnant women, an homage to Ixchel, the Mayan goddess of fertility.” Her story is cut short when we run over a fat garter snake. Creamer Shorey gets out, stops, and hits it over the head with a rock to put it out of its misery.

Like any island, Isla Mujeres has its share of castaways. There’s Tarzan, who looks exactly like a Tarzan should, with long hair, a perpetually bare chest, and a necklace with a jaguar tooth pendant. According to Creamer Shorey, he did motorcycle stunts in a Mexican circus before opening one of Isla Mujeres’ first boat rental businesses. There’s also Ciro, a one-legged Cuban dancer. “He drives around the island in a white convertible with crutches sticking out the back,” Creamer Shorey says. “A lot of people come and never leave,” she adds. “My mom came for four days and never left. My roommate came for a five-day layover, and she’s been here now for five years.”

There are also plenty of fishermen, young and old, with whale shark tales. Just recently, Creamer Shorey says, an 82-year-old retired fisherman told her how, 40 years ago, he’d helped rescue a juvenile whale shark after it got tangled in fishing nets. “He really should have stopped the story there,” Creamer Shorey says. Instead, the fisherman admitted they’d tied a long rope around the shark’s tail and dropped a big anchor, so people could go see it every day as it swam around in circles. “After two weeks, apparently some big boats scared the shark, and it swam away with everything, including the anchor,” she says. “That sort of thing would never happen now.”whale sharks 3

Downtown, we go in search of Daniel Avila, a former fisherman in his early 70s who once worked with Jacques Cousteau. To reach Avila’s tiny apartment, we go into a tourist knickknack shop on one of Isla Mujeres’ main roads and pass through a door at the back covered by an old sheet. “I’ve known about the whale sharks since I was a boy,” Avila says, gesturing for us to sit down on his bed. “Once, one of them came up under our boat and nearly knocked off the motor.” He also remembers encountering whale sharks with Cousteau. “He jumped in the water and swam with them, wearing only a snorkel mask,” Avila says. “He kept saying, ‘How beautiful! Fantastic!’ ”

On my last day on Isla Mujeres, Creamer Shorey, Poot May, and their colleague Isaac Martin, a professional diver and fellow whale shark guide, take me on a private tour. It costs $1,250, plus tip, but it’s worth it. Without others on board, I can stay in the water with the whale sharks as long as I want.

This time, the ocean is calm, and there are at least 50 sharks nearby. Most are about 25 to 35 feet long. Underwater, the giants seem to emerge from nowhere, sometimes three at a time. One of them lets me swim with it for about 15 minutes. Up close, I can see minuscule, sandpapery bumps on its pinkish gray skin. I even catch a glimpse inside its fleshy white mouth and inside its gills, which are lined with white sieves that look like an accordion.

With the sun shining bright above, ripples on the water’s surface cast a lace-like pattern on the shark. When it briefly sinks a few feet, I swim over to its other side. For just a moment, I hover above its massive body. On its back, I can see my tiny shadow.

By Caroline Winter


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