Swimming with Whale Sharks in Isla Mujeres
One of the highlights of 2015 for me was swimming with whale sharks off the coast of Isla Mujeres. In early 2015 I began researching trips for the year and in my research I found out that you can swim with whale sharks. Sharks are one of my favorite animals and I have swam with sharks before; my very first dive after I was SCUBA certified was in Maui and my dad, mom, and I swam into a cave that was home to five whitetip reef sharks - it was incredible! But, whitetip reef sharks are nowhere near as majestic as the whale shark. I quickly went to Google and typed in "where to swim with whale sharks" and many tropical locations popped up: Thailand, Australia, Belize, Honduras, the Maldives, the Seychelles but none of the locations were within a feasible travel distance for me. Then I saw the tiny island of Isla Mujeres off the coast of Mexico listed. I researched places to stay on Isla Mujeres and booked myself a beautiful room at Casa de los Sueños. Besides swimming with whale sharks there is plenty to do on this beautiful island so even if I struck out on seeing a whale shark in the wild I would still be able to have a thoroughly enjoyable vacation.
I booked the trip in January and after what seemed like an eternity July arrived! Although I initially booked this as a solo trip I was able to convince Alex to join me. Who would want to pass up a vacation to such an idyllic location?
We spent four full days on the island and I booked the whale shark tour for the second day just to budget a little extra time in case of travel delays which seems to be the norm for Alex and me. After researching a few of the companies that offer whale shark tours on Isla (there are a lot) I chose Searious Diving. The company has incredible reviews on Trip Advisor and seemed the most reputable. The night before the tour we met with the tour guide, Ramon, to go over logistics for the next day and to meet the others in our tour group. It turns out everyone in our group was from either Wisconsin or Minnesota, talk about a small world!
The morning of the tour finally arrived and I could barely contain my excitement. Alex and I were the first to arrive to the boat dock and we patiently waited for Ramon and the others in our group to arrive. As we waited we saw multiple tour groups head out onto the water and I was growing antsy. Finally our group was accounted for and we boarded Ramon's boat and headed out to sea. It was a 45 minute boat ride into what felt like the middle of the ocean and Ramon began searching for the sharks. We would putter around as he gazed into the ocean hoping to catch a glimpse of one of the striped gentle giants and as the minutes ticked by I began to realize how crazy this all seemed. The ocean is massive and while the water was incredibly clear we couldn't see that far into it. How on earth was Ramon going to spot a whale shark from a boat, let alone multiple whale sharks?! An hour passed and then two and we were all beginning to lose hope. I knew going into the experience that seeing a shark wasn't guaranteed and I tried telling myself that just the boat ride alone was pretty fun. Cruising across the open ocean with no land in sight is exhilarating, but I would be lying if I said I wasn't feeling slightly disappointed.
And then, just like that Ramon shouted that there were sharks in the water and while under any other circumstances a sane person would hightail it for land if someone said those words, Alex and I volunteered to be the first two to swim with the sharks and jumped in! It was chaotic in the moments before jumping in: Ramon giving orders, the other's excited exclamations, waves crashing into the boat, but the second I jumped into the ocean it was as if someone shut off the chaos. I looked up and there was a massive whale shark not more than fifteen feet from me slowly swimming with its huge mouth wide open and gills flapping. I had anticipated this moment for over 6 months and it finally arrived and even after all the build up and hype I wasn't ready for how incredible the experience would be. No feeling can compete with being face to face with such a majestic creature in its natural habitat. There were moments I felt so full of emotion and appreciation for the sharks and the ocean and life in general that I cried. Thankfully, my face was in the water. Our five minutes with the shark were up before I knew it and Alex and I were back on the boat with the biggest, dopiest smiles. Our group took turns swimming with the sharks (yes, multiple showed up!) and at the end I had swam with a whale shark three times.
Too soon it was time to head back to shore, but first Ramon had a few more treats in store for is. First, was a literal treat: he made sandwiches and ceviche! Second, he took us to a prime snorkeling spot and we snorkeled for half an hour! It was the perfect way to end a wonderful day on the water.
Cost: $125 per person
Before I end this post I wanted to address something important regarding wild animal tourism. There is a huge stigma towards any tourism involving animals. From the allegedly drugged tigers propped up so tourists can take pictures with them to the mistreated elephants tourists ride, activists are doing their best to stop these practices but with so many uninformed tourists the cycle is perpetuated because companies are still raking in the cash without any consequences. I have decided that I will never pay to see or touch a wild animal in captivity. If I want to see an animal I will see it in the wild or not at all. While swimming with whale sharks is much different than riding an elephant because the sharks are wild and the boats seek them out instead of chaining them up it still didn't feel completely ethical. We saw 30-40 tourist boats chasing down whale sharks so people can swim with them and more boats=more propellers=more chances for injury to the sharks. There are regulations put into place to protect the sharks and tourists. Ramon was strict on these rules: only 2 swimmers from a tour boat at a time, the swimmers could only be in the water for 5 minutes with the sharks, and under no circumstances can you touch the sharks. Despite the regulations put in place it still felt like a bit of a free for all with people splashing about trying to keep up with the sharks and boats constantly moving to the sharks' new locations.
This article lays out some of the pros and cons of whale shark tourism: "Whale shark ecotourism: the good, the bad and the ugly". In the coming years I hope more regulations are put into place. If that means charging more for boating licenses and not offering tourists a refund if they don't see a shark I am all for it.
See more photos from Isla Mujeres HERE!