“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 as the five-foot swells rising in front of our 30-foot dinghy. Solo Buceo took five companions and myself out onto the Caribbean Sea, just off the coast of Cancun, to find Whale Sharks. 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.
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.
When we meet Santiago at 6:30 a.m. the morning of the dive, he explains 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, tightly clutching Luisana’s hand, 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. I reassured myself with this fact when I leaned over the side of the boat two hours in, purging my morning coffee and oatmeal. About that time 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 I tried on the snorkel mask, while the nervous quiver of my legs grew stronger. Now I had to be afraid of seasickness, the waves and the sharks.
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.
In spite of my fear, everything about the experience in the ocean was amazing, even as water sloshed into my mouth through my snorkel. 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. None of these applied to me. I clung to my group, trembling 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 inhaled a gulp of salt water. The seasickness was coming back and suddenly the violent rocking of the boat seemed the better option.
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. I clutched the railing more tightly and wished for the beach. Somewhere in between my fear 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.
We skirted the storm to anchor at Isla Mujeres for a quick beer or a nap on the beach. My legs felt strong underneath me, as I lunged for a sand-covered lounge. 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 we still had a 20-minute ride back to Cancun. You are not always the captain of your own boat and I am learning to be okay with that.