One day my daughter mentioned that her friend went to Mexico and swam with whale sharks. That sounded so cool, so I did some research to find out what a whale shark was. Were they really sharks, are they dangerous to humans, are they the size of whales? Yes, no and yes! I discovered that one of the best places to see these magnificent animals is off the coast of Isla Mujeres, an island near Cancun.
Did You Know?
Between June and September the whale sharks come to feed on the plankton rich waters between the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico. Fishermen used to call whale sharks “dominoes” because of their dark bodies with white spots. Whale sharks used to be killed for sport until conservationists convinced fishermen to take tourists out to swim with them instead of killing them. And then a wonderful thing happened. The local fishermen were making much more money protecting the whale sharks.
Over a 3 day weekend in July, we decided to take a mini-vacation to Isla Mujeres!!! We took an overnight flight from Los Angeles to Cancun, and arrived early Saturday morning. The best way to get to Isla Mujeres from the airport is to take a cab to the Gran Puerto Cancun (Ultramar), two blocks from Puerto Juarez. The express boats leave every half hour from 5:00 am until 9:00 pm, and then every hour until 11:30 pm. From the pier, we took a catamaran to Isla Mujeres, which lasted approximately 20 minutes. Isla Mujeres is a cute little fishing town, with many seafood restaurants, souvenir shops and boutique hotels. The weather was very hot and humid, and we couldn’t wait to cool off in the water. The island is not that big and many tourists rent golf carts to get around. We decided to walk to our hotel as it was pretty close to the ferry terminal. We were approached by a local tour operator who offered us a deal, a private charter that would take us all over the island, for $60 in cash. We couldn’t pass that up! We went snorkeling at El Farito (the Lighthouse reef) where we fed beautiful tropical fish. Next we explored the MUSA (Underwater Museum of Art), the largest underwater museum on the planet. These underwater sculptures are designed to counteract climate change by creating an artificial coral reef. The sunken Volkswagen was a very interesting site. We visited a turtle farm which is a refuge for loggerhead, hawksbill and green turtles. It provides safe breeding grounds and protects eggs. And we held a nurse shark!
What a wonderful way to spend our first day in Isla Mujeres.
We got up early Sunday morning, day #2, to begin our journey of a life time, swimming with whale sharks. We were hopeful while we walked to the Aqua Adventures Dive Shop, that today the whale sharks would be off the coast of Isla Mujeres. They were there last summer, but it isn’t a sure thing as they go where the plankton is. Over the years they have changed course many times. We boarded a boat with 5 other tourists, and two guides. The whale shark tours are heavily regulated by the Mexican government. Only 11 people total can be on each boat, and only 4 of them can be in the water at one time. We went out into the open ocean, about an hour from the coast, where the water was quite choppy. The great news was that there were approximately 200 whale sharks in our vicinity that day!
When it was our time to swim with the whale sharks, our guide would yell “Lady, swim, swim, swim!” We followed another guide who was in the water, leading us to the closest whale shark. And they were everywhere! We were able to get so close to the sharks that we could touch them if we were allowed to! Their beautiful, magnificent bodies were enormous, the size of a bus. They would swim towards us, mouths open to catch the plankton, but we were not afraid. Just when I thought one would hit me, it would glide effortlessly past me. Their mouths were huge enough to swallow us up, but we were never in danger. To admire such a beautiful creature face to face in the middle of the ocean makes one feel a personal connection to them, and a desire to save this species from extinction. We were so in awe that the cares of this world melted away. Today was magical, we were forever touched by the beauty of nature.
Before I got back into the boat, a thought crossed my mind. I was floating in the open ocean! Looking below the water left me with some questions. You cannot help but wonder what is below you. What is watching you? What if you were here all by yourself? The deep blue abyss below us was a mystery and something to ponder. Safely in the middle of the Pacific ocean, surrounded by creatures the size of a bus, an incredible feeling!
After our whale shark tour, we took the ferry back to Cancun. A short cab ride to our hotel The Westin in the Hotel Zone left us the late afternoon to play in the surf, and the evening to get dressed up and have an incredible dinner. We took a plane back to Los Angeles early the following morning, day #3. Although we played hard with little sleep, we were amazingly rested, ready to join the work week. Until our next mini-vacation!