Every single time I’ve gone snorkeling, whether it be in Belize, at Xcaret, at Xel-ha or in Akumal, I’ve experienced a kind of claustrophic panic. As soon as my head gets underwater, I flip out. Usually I’m able to relax after a few minutes, but snorkeling is still an uncomfortable feeling for me.
When Jorge, my friend Nadia and I decided to swim with whale sharks this weekend, I was so excited but mostly nervous! I’d never snorkeled in more than 10 feet of water before, much less in the middle of the ocean with no land in sight. Or swimming alongside a 30-foot fish.
At 7 am Sunday morning, we made our way to the Solo Buceo dive center located at the beautiful Dreams Cancun Resort and Spa in the Hotel Zone.
Our early-morning boat ride was much bumpier than I’d anticipated, and I realized it was my first time being so far away from shore! It was a scary but fascinating feeling.
Me and Nadia, ready to go!
It took us about an hour to get to the area where the whale sharks hang out. Since we were one of the first boats to arrive, we spent awhile circling the area and communicating with other boats looking for the whale sharks. Once a boat had found them, we saw all of the other boats racing toward the area, where there were about 50 whale sharks. Beautiful.
Several couples came along with us on the boat, and the guides would take us out into the water in teams of 2. When we spotted a whale shark swimming nearby, the boat would head it off, then the guides would jump in with 2 people and swim along with the whale shark.
Since we were a bit nervous, Jorge and I waited until last. We both panicked a bit when we jumped in, but once I was able to slide my mask on and put my face underwater, the guide pointed toward my right and I saw it, swimming underneath us. Pepe (the guide) grabbed my hand and pulled me forward, and we were able to swim on top of it for awhile before it disappeared into the depths of the ocean.
Jorge and I getting ready to jump in!
Nadia looking much calmer than I could ever be
After the first round of swims, several of the people on our boat got seasick and just waited it out. The rest of us jumped in several more times. On my 2nd and 3rd swims, we tried to head off a whale shark but it went another direction, so we had to look for another one! Both times, another whale shark came swimming right at us. Since the water is so clear, I could see the whale sharks coming from quite a ways away. I can’t begin to tell you what it feels like to have this giant fish swim right at you, mouth gaping open.
Since I don’t have an underwater camera I couldn’t take any photos (fail), but here’s a shot from my friend Kelly McLaughlin so you can get an idea of just how amazing these things look:
Photo by Kelly McLaughlin
On those last 2 swims, I got to swim along just a few feet from the whale shark for several minutes. The immense gills were fascinating, and the spots were sparkly, like they’d been bedazzled by a 12-year-old girl. After we stopped and the animal swam away, I couldn’t stop looking at its huge tail!
Even though I was planning on being frightened and out of my element, it was a surprisingly peaceful experience. The whale sharks are calm, slow-moving creatures and we never once felt in danger. My guide Pepe was also great about guiding me along and pointing everything out, so I never felt lost out on the open sea.
Jorge and his guide swimming alongside a whale shark
The ocean itself surprised me almost as much as the whale sharks. As we were snorkeling along, the water was so incredibly clear and intensely blue. Rays of light shone through and disappeared way down. Even with such clear water, I couldn’t see the bottom. I can’t even imagine how deep it went.
Gringation’s Whale Shark Tour Tips:
- Put on sunscreen before you leave the house, or bring bio sunscreen. I was too lazy to put sunscreen on before leaving the house, and our guide told us that once you’re on the boat, it’s bio sunscreen only. And today I’m paying the price. So much sunburn. Ow.
- Bring an underwater camera. In a way I was glad I didn’t have one because it was one less thing to worry about while I was swimming, but trust me, you’ll want those underwater photos.
- The boat ride is bumpy and uncomfortable (but worth it), so I wouldn’t recommend this tour unless you’re in decent physical condition.
We stopped by Isla Mujeres on the way back… I’ll post those pics tomorrow!
For more underwater pics and a video, check out Kelly’s post: Swimming with Whale Sharks Cancun