Swimming With The Largest Shark In The World

Isla Mujeres

“When I say go, you need to GO. Not half a second before and not half a second after, right when I say it. Okay?”

“Okay,” we nodded back in agreement. Scooching our way over the edge of the boat, we let our flippers hang off the side. Pulling down my goggles, I looked ahead, searching for movement from below. We had been cutting through waves for what must have been an hour before arriving at this hotspot.

Every year around this time, whale sharks congregate near Isla Mujeres. Since they are normally solo travelers (like us), this phenomenon is very rare, making the excursion to see this endangered species in this environment a true once-in-a-lifetime experience. A few waves in front of the boat began to break in the opposite direction as “¡Vamos!” echoed through the air.

I pushed myself off the ledge of our dinghy and splashed into the salty waves of the Carribean Sea. Bobbing to the surface, I quickly tipped my snorkel, emptying the water from its tube and putting the mouthpiece back in. Kicking my rubber flippers as swiftly as I could, I peered underneath the surface of the sparkling turquoise water.

Spotting the Whale Shark

A gaping mouth five feet wide swallowing a swarm of minnows was heading straight toward me from only 10 feet below. 3,000 teeth twinkled in the sun beams before closing down on its prey and continuing upward. Time seemed to pause as the white noise of the sea consumed me. I stopped and stared, seeing a sardine squiggle its way into the whale shark’s mouth, only to calmly turn around and come right back out. I wonder if it knew the stakes it was risking with this maneuver. 

Now, close enough that I could spread my wings and ride the whale shark, I used my arms to push my body to the left and swim beside her, giving the gentle giant some space. She must have been six times the length of my body and I could now see why this was named not only the largest living species of fish, but the world’s largest shark.

Swimming Alongside The Whale Shark

Together, we continued swimming out to sea, our flippers in synchrony as her body moved side to side through the currents. The sun flitted off the waves above us, flashing on her white speckles, as if I was in an airplane looking down on the streetlights lining a city. I followed the roads along her back to her gills. Five even-sized slits on each side of her neck flapped back and forth as she expelled the extra water that passed through her mouth while consuming the sardines. A few more hitchhikers joined the school of fish swimming under her stomach, gliding through the currents with ease behind the giant’s dorsal fins.

Now, reaching the surface, she crashed through the waves, opening her mouth wide and trapping the rest of the fish inside. There was no looking back now. Those that were swimming right beside her not moments ago had now become a fresher-than-fresh breakfast in the Caribbean Sea. Though we view whale sharks as gentle creatures, I’m sure the sardines would say otherwise. Dipping back below the surface, she continued on coasting, going deeper and faster and further away. I watched her large figure dissolve in the array of blues around her until she, too, was consumed by the sea. I will never forget this moment.

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