Ocean of Hope

Whale Shark Snorkeling off of Cancun, Mexico

whale sharks cancun mexico
Whale Shark: photo by Cherilyn Jose

Snorkeling with Whale sharks off of Cancun, Mexico

Last summer (2012), I got the once-in-a lifetime opportunity to swim with whale sharks off of Cancun, Mexico. Whale sharks are the largest fish and the largest shark in the ocean, yet they only eat the tiniest denizens of the ocean, plankton. They are as gentle, magnificent, and as large as their namesake “whales.”

I want to share my experiences, and especially the logistics, so anyone seeking out whale sharks (or thinking about it) will have an idea of what’s ahead for them.

More than a year ago, while perusing Shark Research Institute’s auction catalog, I came across a whale shark expedition led by one of the world’s pre-eminent whale shark researchers, Dr. Jennifer V. Schmidt of the University of Illinois at Chicago. I quickly signed up for the 5 day expedition, and I even dragged my family along to Cancun, Mexico (only I participated in the expedition though).

So not only did I get the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to snorkel alongside whale sharks, but I got to work alongside a whale shark scientist. Dr. Schmidt accompanied our group on the boat. Her lectures every evening were very informative and clear, as my 7 year old son could easily follow along. I have read everything I can find on the internet on whale sharks (most books are out of date), but I learned a lot from Dr. Schmidt, especially about her genetic work with whale sharks. Dr. Schmidt is not only knowledgeable about whale sharks, but also about the Cancun area. I enjoyed all her restaurant recommendations, and had there been time, I would have taken her advice for sightseeing.

The hotel we stayed at, the Radisson Hacienda Cancun, caters to businessmen, and was comfortable and clean. The advantage of not being on the main hotel strip of Cancun was that we were only 5 minutes away from the dock and it was much quieter. If staying on the strip, the van trip to the dock could take up to an hour or more depending on how many stops there were.

The expedition planned for 3 mornings of snorkeling with the whale sharks, but unfortunately the weather didn’t cooperate and we only got two trips in. A hurricane passed just south of us, and the ocean near us felt its effects. The two mornings were more than worth the price of the trip (click here for information on this year’s trip).

The wind and waves began to kick up on the second morning, and many of the people on the boat were seasick. This meant my expedition’s party of 3 was allowed to stay in the water longer than the normally 10 allowed minutes per two people per tour guide. There are guidelines for eco-tourists to follow, most notably staying two guests per tour guide, and not touching or riding the whale sharks. But many boats did not stick to the tour guide rule, as we saw many lost tourists looking for their boat. The boats near the whale sharks must be permitted, but often other unauthorized boats will join in on the fun. Such is the price for eco-tourism, but it is better that the whale sharks are being loved, rather than killed for their large fins for shark fin soup.

Upon arrival at the dock (Puerto Juarez), it is quite chaotic with so many people there. In a nearby packed room there is a briefing, sometimes after a long wait in English (and also one in Spanish) of conduct around the whale sharks. They require biodegradable and eco-friendly sunscreens, and they sell some there if you don’t bring your own.

The souvenirs, such as t-shirts and stuffed animals, sold there benefit the whale sharks directly so they are worth buying. Bring along a credit card or American dollars, as they didn’t seem to have change for the pesos I brought. I bought two “I swam with whale sharks” t-shirts, and a stuffed whale shark.

After the briefing, it is a mad rush for tourists to get to their boats, many which are pinned in by other boats. The boat ride takes awhile (up to 45 minutes or more depending on where the whale sharks are feeding that day) and I got rather wet, so dress accordingly. The previous week’s expedition had gorgeous weather and calm seas, but my expedition had the opposite weather. Be sure to bring seasickness medication just in case. I always take a Bonine the night before, and the morning of my boat rides and have yet to be seasick.

Then out of the blue, there are boats everywhere in a boat “convention.” The water crawls with whale shark dorsal fins, and the tips of their tails sticking up out of the water. Then a whale shark cruises by, with its cavernous mouth gulping down water. There are so many boats around that engine fumes abound. The fumes made me more nauseous than the growing waves and rocking boat!

There were not any directions from the boat operators on how to get into the water, or for the order of people entering the water, but basically the first ones ready enter first with the tour guide. A lifejacket or wetsuit is required to enter the water, and they provide mask, snorkel, and fins if you do not bring your own.

Entering the water for the first time is surreal. There is something magical and humbling about seeing a 15-30 foot long behemoth emerge out of the clear blue water. It took several moments for my over-awed brain to register, “oh my, that’s a whale shark!” They are so graceful underwater for something so large (up to 9 tons for a 30 foot whale shark). Sometimes the whale sharks headed straight for me, and it took me several seconds to remember to get out of the way as I was too busy snapping photos. The whale sharks are highly maneuverable, and they will avoid any collisions. It is still a good idea to get out of their way though.

A good tour guide is invaluable, as many times I was transfixed on one whale shark, only to miss another one right behind me or underneath me. The whale sharks passed within inches of me, but never brushed me. They are definitely close enough to touch, but one must resist the temptation to touch them!

Pictures and videos do not compare to seeing whale sharks in person. Their gray bodies are splattered with white spots and stripes. Their spots look as though they were hand painted on with splotchy edges around them. I was mesmerized by the patterns of spots and stripes on a whale shark. These patterns are as unique to each individual as our fingerprints are to us. Scientists photograph an area just behind the gills to identify whale sharks in a worldwide database called Ecocean Whale Shark ID Library (whaleshark.org) Anyone can submit a photo to the database and help whale shark scientists track these magnificent creatures all around the globe.

The sunlight looks as though it is dancing across the whale sharks’ backs as they gracefully glide by. I once counted 10 seconds from when the whale shark’s head first passed me, to the tail passing me. It reminds me of the opening scene of (the original) Star Wars, where the Imperial Star Destroyer passes “overhead” for several seconds.

The whale sharks rhythmically gulp in seawater constantly, as this is how they eat. The water they inhale gets filtered through their gills, and their gills get covered in “food” which they then swallow. The whale sharks are attracted to this particular area because fish spawn here, and the whale sharks slurp up their eggs for an entire summer (May-September).

Depending on how many people are on the boat, one might get 2-3 10 minute sessions in the water with one other tourist and a tour guide. The minutes pass by quickly, and it is exciting to see the multitude of whale sharks from the boat. There were at least 100 whale sharks in the area we were in. It is sad when the boat finally motors off.

The boat I was on, through Caribbean Connection, stopped at a shallow coral reef for snorkeling after the whale shark encounters. They then stopped for lunch (with freshly made ceviche) and anchored off of Isla Mujeres. There the water is chest deep, and many people enjoyed a drink in the water. Then the boat travels back to port.

It was then time for me to go back to my hotel (by van, or you can take a taxi), to reflect on the once-in-a-lifetime experience I just had! Please contact me with any questions, as I would be happy to answer them.

Domino the Whale Shark Gets Freed From a Fisherman’s Net!

There I was gulping seawater as usual to filter out my next meal, and cruising along at a modest 3 mph (4.8 kph) when bam! Instantly, I could no longer get anywhere when I flicked my powerful tail. I am used to swimming without stopping, so this was very strange. Then I felt something surrounding me. I frantically opened and closed my mouth, and gasped in panic until I realized that I was stuck in a fisherman’s net! I have seen fellow whale sharks sucking fish out of fishermen’s nets, but I never realized that I could get stuck in them, eek!

Fortunately, there were some human SCUBA divers and free divers around to help me. The bubbles from the SCUBA divers tickled my belly, and the bubbles made the remoras sticking to me go crazy and tickle me even more! My buddy Dot swam by to make sure I was ok, and boy she sure had a lot of remoras on her that day! Remoras are fish that are have a sucker on the top of their head so they can hitchhike on various large animals for free transportation and protection. They also eat my scraps, and they make all-around good companions. Traveling by myself from plankton bloom to plankton bloom can get lonely otherwise!

It was strange to be touched by a human, but it felt reassuring. Little by little the net was pulled back until, voila! I was free! It only took a minute, but it felt like a lifetime. I hope that never happens again, but I do hope some humans are around if I get caught again in a fisherman’s net!

Domino the Whale Shark on Shark Finning

Domino the Whale Shark (picture by Cherilyn Chin)

The Poster Shark for Shark Finning

Hello, my name is Domino, and I am a Whale Shark. I think I should be the poster animal for the ending of shark finning. It might be hard to relate to other sharks that are (supposedly) so menacing, ruthless, and with a mouthful of razor sharp teeth, but look at me! I was named after the gentle giants of the sea, the whales. Whale sharks are every bit as magnificent as whales, yet most humans have not heard of us.

Are you a whale, or a shark?

Humans inevitably ask, are you a whale? Or are you a shark? I am unequivocally a shark. In fact, I am the world’s largest fish as well as the world’s largest shark. My mouth is full of teeth, but my teeth are only 1/12th of an inch (3 mm) long and I don’t even use them to eat! I only eat tiny, microscopic plankton that I filter from the water around me.

I’m unique!

I can grow to be more than 40 feet (12 meters) long and weigh more than 44,000 pounds (20,000 kg). I also have a unique pattern of spots interspersed with occasional stripes that is not found on any other animal! In fact no other whale shark shares my unique polka dot and stripe pattern. It’s my fingerprint, to put it into human terms.

My “Squished” Head

I have a unique body shape, as my head is dorsoventrally compressed. This means that my head is “squished” flat, almost like a pancake, with my 4 foot wide mouth in front. Most sharks have the distinctive sharp snout with a mouth underneath their head that you picture when you hear the name “shark.”

How I am like other sharks

I share some other characteristics with the “other” sharks, like I do not have any bones in my body. My body is made up of cartilage, which is found in human ears and noses. Like other sharks, my thick skin is made up of denticles, or very tiny teeth, which makes our skin rough like sandpaper. These denticles make us sharks very streamlined, and able to swim very swiftly and quietly through the water. My 4 inch (10.2 cm) skin is also the thickest of any animal on earth!

Shark Finning

One very important characteristic I share with all other sharks is the worldwide market for our fins. These are turned into a dish humans eat called shark fin soup. I was flattered–for all of a second–to find out that my fins are highly sought after because they are the largest of any shark. Well, the basking shark has larger fins, but less of it is edible. Whale shark fins are made into the most expensive bowls of shark fin soup. Our meat supposedly tastes and feels like tofu, but most of the time the fishing boats don’t have enough room for our large bodies.

Not only is shark finning barbaric (often only the fins are sliced off a shark and it is tossed back still alive into the ocean to die a slow death), but it is wasteful as the whole shark is not utilized in any way. It’s sad to swim by a once powerful shark that is now unable to swim without its fins.

The Food Chain

I get angry because removing such large numbers of top level predators from the food chain affects the availability of my food (the microscopic plants and animals at the bottom of the food chain). All the seafood humans harvest from the ocean is affected. Killing up to 100 million sharks a year is not sustainable! Although the food chain is very complex, there is an elegant order to it. It is like the food pyramid humans follow for eating. My food (the plankton) is at the base of the pyramid, and sharks are at the very top. The ocean could not sustain having as many sharks as sardines, so there are very few of us sharks to begin with.

I’m a shark but…

I lament being categorized with great white sharks and their menacing reputation. They have their very important place at the top of the food chain, but it is guilt by association. If humans only knew that shark finning included killing gentle and magnificent whale sharks such as myself, I think they could begin to understand our plight. Little by little I think humans are beginning to protect us by banning shark finning in some waters, creating shark sanctuaries, and banning the import, sale and distribution of shark fins. Even though all I share with the whales is my name, size, and the fact that some of us are plankton feeders, I think it is fortuitous. I hope someday humans will stop hunting us for our large fins, and start to revere us like whales. We are just as amazing, and just as gentle.

To see how you can help visit COARE or APAOHA
Also see Snorkeling with Whale Sharks off of Cancun, Mexico
And Domino the Whale Shark Gets Freed From a Net!