A whale shark fishing for plankton, near the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico.
You know how some kids plaster their bedroom walls with images of dinosaurs? Or cartoon characters? Or boy bands?
Me, it was whale and shark posters — I even owned a bumper sticker that said “I Love Whales” long before I could drive. I devoured every issue of Ranger Rick from front to back. I knew who Eugenie Clark was. I spent 5 years volunteering for the Texas Marine Mammal Stranding Network.
But as I got older, I got a little lost on my life path and switched college degrees from marine biology to nursing to journalism. Part of my problem was math — I made a D in pre-calculus my freshman year and couldn’t imagine sweating through calculus class (a requirement for biology majors, something I think is atrocious and really unnecessary) nor some of the more advanced chemistry classes. So I let myself be persuaded by comments I’d get on essay papers, such as “A+, please consider joining student publications.”
All told, I’ve so far had a great career, first as a journalist, now as an online editor and consultant. And while my career is not always so thrilling (countless hours in front of a computer is not as adrenaline inducing as scouting the Pacific Northwest for pods of killer whales) it does pay the bills pretty nicely (probably a lot better than a marine biology degree would have) and so, in some ways, it’s letting me fulfill those dreams I had as a kid.
Case in point: This weekend, when I swam with a whale shark in the Caribbean Sea, north of the Yucatan Peninsula.
The whale shark species is at least 60 million years old, and the world’s largest fish (and of course, the world’s largest shark). It grows as long as a school bus. It’s endangered, as many sharks increasingly are because of the ridiculous demand for shark fin soup. Unlike most of its brethren, the whale shark is docile and harmless to humans. It’s got a big, gaping mouth that it uses to suck in plankton, and it moves slowly and gracefully, unconcerned with everything around it, a luxury for most animals, but not the whale shark. Beyond that, not much is known, because no one started researching the whale shark intensely until the 1990s.
As with any blow-your-mind experience, it’s hard to describe what Saturday was like. First we went out in a group of boats with certified whale shark guides, rounding up and over the Yucatan Peninsula’s eastern corner, to a wide shallow area where whale sharks congregate each summer.
The guide then stands on the top of the boat, searching for the tell-tale brown shadow and scurry of smaller fish who hitch rides around the shark (their momentum could power a wind farm…). As the plankton rises to the surface around mid-day, so do the whale sharks…..you can spot them from the surface, their 6-foot-wide mouths gaping open:
How they look from the surface when they are eating. A snorkeler is on its right side.
Sue and I gearing up to “dive in.”
It all happens very fast. It’s suddenly your turn to go, and boom, you slide into the water, and start paddling hard. Once you reach the shark, you’re captivated, if not hypnotized. Time stops, sounds go away, and there you are, moving slowly with a whale shark (he does all the work, you just go along for the ride).
When you swim next to them (or often, above them, since they like to swim downward after eating), their big gills puff in and out.
My friend Sue-Lyn and I each got to swim three times. I was lucky enough to be on the last team to go out, and because the other boats in the area had left, it was even more peaceful. The shark did a looooong swim in one single direction, and I was sucked into his vortex, swimming along his right side, until the guide grabbed my flipper, signaled it was time to go back to the boat, and forced me to end my incredibly awesome day. (But then we went snorkeling at a nearby reef, so the awesomeness soon started all over again…)
Mexico, as far as I could tell, does an excellent job strictly regulating the tours — rules were enforced, and the shark spent most of his time with us eating plankton (he seemed a little oblivious of us, really) something a stressed shark won’t bother with. Our shark was tagged #827 as part of the research program.
To see the full fabulous slideshow (including coral reef photos), see Swimming With Whale Sharks on flickr.