the ocean is larger than I am and other things I learned swimming with whale sharks

“Keep your eyes open,” Luisana yelled. “Let some of your other senses take in the impact of the motion.”

I’d never seen waves so dark and ominous. The five-foot swells seemed to tower over our little, 30-foot long dinghy. The day’s goal was to find a school of the ocean’s largest fish, strap on our snorkel mask and hop into the water to swim alongside them. We were sailing out into the Caribbean Sea, just off the coast of Cancun, to find Whale Sharks.

Santiago explains the three scenarios of the whale shark search.

Santiago explains the three scenarios of the whale shark search.

Up to 40 feet in length and weighing 20 metric tons, whale sharks are the largest known fish swimming in the ocean, but according to the day’s dive leader, Santiago, they are known as the “puppies of the sea.” I make him promise me two things before I enter the wimpy looking boat: it won’t tip and the sharks won’t eat me. He holds my gaze and promises both.

I was on a weekend-long press trip, which means that I was the guest of Cancun’s tourism bureau. It also meant I kind of had to participate in the planned activities. Growing up, frequent visits to Galveston instilled in me a debilitating fear of jellyfish. So swimming with sharks was not on my bucket list, but here I was an hour into our quest puking over the rail of a boat. With no end in sight.

When we met Santiago at 6:30 a.m. the morning of the dive, he explained to us that there are three possible scenarios. In the first scenario, we would find around 100 whale sharks and swim alongside them for a magical experience. Or we could find a small aggregation of whale sharks and take turns diving. Scenario three, we would search for two hours and decide whether or not to turn around.

As the shoreline crept out of view, my bright blue skirt, tank top and aviators that seemed like a cute boating outfit earlier this morning were now the only layer between me and the harsh winds and onslaught of salt water. With each slap of the bench beneath me, I was patiently awaiting news that we’d spotted the sharks.  About ninety minutes into our hunt, holding my hair back with one hand, keeping myself in the boat with the other, I was sure we were in scenario three.

In the summer months, the filter-feeding whale sharks can be found off the Yucatan Peninsula feeding on spawn of the little tunny (tuna) fish. According to academic journals, some of the biggest aggregations of whale sharks have occurred in the past few years in this area with numbers above 400. This has encouraged increased conservation efforts since 2009, with regulations that determine what kind of boats are allowed in feeding grounds and how divers are allowed to interact with the creatures.

The captain of our boat has been chasing whale sharks for nearly eight years and navigating the waters of the Caribbean Sea for more than 30. If anyone would find these beautiful fish, it was him. At least, that’s what I reassured myself with when Joe, the only male journalist on the trip, was lifted from his seat and thrown into the middle of the boat. The water was not our friend.

With Joe clutching his knees, most of us shivering from seasickness and exhaustion, the captain received word that a large group had been spotted 30 minutes away from us.

Over the roar of the waves, Santiago instructed us to slip into our fins. I stripped down to my bikini and attempted not to be disgusted by the taste of my mouth as my lips gripped tried on the snorkel mask, while the nervous quiver of my legs grew incontrollable. I’d been afraid of the water and battling seasickness for nearly two hours and now I had a new source of fear: sharks.

On a family trip to Hawaii when I was young, we went on a whale watching tour. I sat at the front of the boat, ocean water misting through my hair when the boat jumped a wave. We were lucky enough to see a few humpback whales breach, one or two of them even swam inches from the boat. That was the experience I was bringing to this trip: sipping a coc-a-cola on a sunset cruise.

About a dozen other boats had formed a circle around an area that signaled to Santiago an aggregation of 100 + whale sharks. We pulled up to the edge and he hollered, “Nos Vamos.” He demonstrated the safe way to hop off the boat and too nervous to think I joined him in the water.

Everything about the experience in the ocean was amazing. I’d read several stories about swimming with these creatures written by people much braver than myself. Some divers kept time alongside these quick swimmers, as the sharks inhaled tiny fish through their teeth. Others found a meditative peace amongst the school of dinosaur-sized fish. That was not my story. I struggled not to puke into my mouthpiece, clung to my group and trembled every time the gorgeous white spots and gaping mouths (that appeared large enough to fit a small car) swam my way.

At one point I floated, butt up in the water, breathing quickly through my snorkel as one swam beneath, so close I could stick my hand down and grab the dorsal fin. It reminded me of the “fish story” I read on the plane from Dallas to Cancun, in which a diver hitched a ride on the animal. I kept my hands to myself, marveling in the magnificence of the experience. I paddled backward to avoid the tail and looked around. Behind every murky layer of water, there were sharks weighing 20-plus tons. It was… overwhelming.

Eventually we all piled into the boat, some more enthusiastic than others. Santiago asked, “Was it worth it?” To which we all nodded our heads in genuine agreement. I looked at one of my more fearful companions and shared an unspoken trepidation about the ride back to the hotel district. Still two hours from dry land and my scheduled massage at the JW Marriott, I was cold, tired, and hungry. But with choppy waves in my future, I could only convince myself to eat a crisp, red apple.

On the way back we circled the island of Contoy to cruise along the coastline. Even so the wind felt stronger and a storm quelled in the distance. During our time with the sharks, a storm had blown in between our boat and Cancun. I clutched the rail tightly, braced myself for impact, and prayed for the beach. Somewhere in between my fears of falling overboard and being swallowed by a shark, I felt a newfound respect for nature. There is nothing quite like feeling the strength of a wave or ripples of powerful tail kick. On land I have learned to feel in control of where I go and how I get there, but in the ocean I am a very small speck.

It took three hours to skirt the storm, miles and miles of travel with land in sight. Until finally, at the end of my stamina, the clouds seemed to break and we anchored at Isla Mujeres. I struggled to get to the beach. Sometimes when I go to the beach, I imagine myself exiting the ocean like Jessica Alba or Gisele Bundchen, everyone watching. This was more Tom Hanks in Castaway.  But there was a sand-covered lounge on solid ground just feet away from me. Taking in deep breaths of the warm, salty air, I wanted to promise myself it would be quite some time before I entered another boat, but there was still another 20-minutes between me and Cancun.

I was learning to be patient, not to rush to the silver lining at the end of storm. I’m not always the captain of the boat and my little sea-soaked heart is learning to be okay with that.

This is the before picture of the group. There is no after picture.

This is the before picture of the group. There is no after picture.

This entry was published on August 28, 2013 at 4:01 pm and is filed under adventure, Travel, writing. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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