Eric made plans for a helicopter trip for himself, Sterling, and Wolcott so they could see the aggregation from the air. Alex, Nathalie and I went out with the sharks because there’s room only for three people in the helicopter, and the price was well over my threshold. So the three of us had the boat and the sharks completely to ourselves since we wouldn’t have to cycle in and out of the water three snorkelers at a time. We spent the entire day (five hours) in the water, coming out only for snacks and water.
A and N, with Isla Mujeres in the background
Whale shark nose
Five Hours With Sharks
The sharks were very condensed and not at all shy. Lots of close encounters and times where I had ten or eleven whale sharks in my line of sight. And of course, I saw #803 within my first ten minutes of snorkeling.
Mid-morning, I was laying flat on the surface watching two sharks in front of me. I hadn’t moved for a few minutes, completely still on the surface with my hands holding my camera quietly against my stomach. Suddenly my hands, chest, and legs were bumped by a huge, solid object that lifted me up. A shark surfaced below me, my knuckles scraped against its rough hide and I was rolled over and off. Another check on the bucket list and another lesson learned: if I stay too still the sharks won’t see me.
Whale Shark Etiquette:
After 4 days of observing the activities of whale sharks I feel as though I’m an expert on their social graces with each other:
• Always give botellas the right of way
• Sometimes you have to slow down to a complete mid-water stop to let the other whale sharks pass by
• Please be aware of your rear fin at all times
• Bigger sharks get precedence, so the smaller shark is the one who gives in and moves
I saw two shark slowly approaching each other head-on and they came so close they almost kissed but inches away they both moved in the same direction and off they swam in tandem.
Side note: Whale shark poo is gross. And voluminous
When I come back in my next life, I want to come back as a whale shark. I decided this after spending 30 minutes with a whale shark – who I’ve named Spot – hanging out in a botella. I took almost a hundred pictures, free-diving to his back, his belly, his fin, his mouth, and he never even noticed I was there. Those were a very special thirty minutes – especially since I wished for Eric’s camera.
Spot’s gills – I call this “View From a Remora”
Spot’s old id tag, long since fallen into the ocean
Spot’s belly (with a sunburst)
Spot’s pectoral fin (Aside: did you know that whale shark markings are completely unique to themselves? Scientists use them to tell one from another)
When I was done with Spot and ready to go back to the boat, I gave him a friendly little pat on the back to say good-bye and thank you for the photos. Since his skin is up to 4 inches thick, I doubt he even noticed
After noon and after all the snorkeler tourist boats had left, the helicopter showed up. Alex, Nathalie and I got all excited to see them. We waved and smiled and posed among the huge group of sharks. Then they headed back to the mainland.
When we climb out of the water each time, hundreds of little bonito eggs have clustered inside the folds of our dive skins. They’re tiny clear spheres that group together on our skin, and most days we jump back into the water without the skins to wash them off. But on this trip Alex decided to collect as many as possible in a bottle.
Alex and his eggs
My friend Evelyn has arrived in Isla Mujeres for the next group of photographers to go out on the boat. I haven’t seen her since 2006, when we were roommates on the Sardine Run in South Africa followed by a cycling safari in Botswana. That trip was so fun and full of laughter, and I was so excited to see her again. She and her boyfriend Marty arrived at the pool where I lounged with a book and we got caught up on as much as we could before dinner with the group at a place called Freddy’s. We took them to COOL afterwards, because we wanted them to have the benefit of delicious homemade ice cream too.