An early morning on Isla Mujeres:
Flock of birds
We got up early to be at the dock by 7:00 where we met our crew Rojelio and Juan on the Lilly M. This crew and boat is known by underwater photographers as being top-notch and professional; and it was. Rojelio prides himself on his quality service for photographers and has a “signature wall” in the lower hull with signatures from some of the best known underwater photographers in the world Eric, Douglass Seifert, Doug Perrine, Tony Wu, Sterling, etc.
Because of our early departure we were the second boat to find the group of shark; we could see their fins from a half-mile away. There were, literally, hundreds of them. HUNDREDS. Big, huge, beautiful whale sharks slowly skimming the surface and feeding. Amazing. They were all around us, swimming inches from the boat and then gently gliding out of the way.
During these weeks each July and August tons of bonito spawn their eggs which float to the surface. According to E, most people know bonito as “the dried flakes that dance on top of Agedashi tofu”. I disagreed, since I consider myself “most people” and had no idea what he was talking about. This is when Sterling weighed in as the tie-breaker and confirmed that bonito is, in fact, “essential to tofu”. But I digress. The whale sharks love bonito spawn and spend hours enjoying the underwater feast. This is why they come.
The whale shark industry in Cancun/Isla Mujeres has exploded in the last five years. In response to this tourism boom Mexico has cracked down with a number of laws to protect both swimmers and the sharks:
• Diving with the whale sharks is illegal; only snorkeling is allowed
• Only three swimmers from each boat are allowed in the water at a time
• Snorkelers must wear floatation devices, and luckily for us our neoprene wetsuits count as floatation devices
• DO NOT TOUCH THE SHARKS
Police patrol the area, making sure that tourists are following the rules, swimming safely, and respecting the sharks. Though I’d rather be diving with the sharks I’m glad to see that the Mexican government is making an effort to protect everything about this wonderful event. Snorkeling will do me just fine.
We slipped into the water and began our snorkeling shift. Where to begin? First of all, whale sharks are huge. Some will say they’re small compared to Pacific whale sharks often spotted in the Galapagos, but in my opinion anything that averages 15-25 feet in length is a big, big fish. Secondly, they’re remarkably graceful and even gentle. They would come out of the blue with their mouths wide open (remember – no teeth) to take in the eggs in the water, and as soon as they spotted either us or another whale shark they would gently turn so they missed us by inches. They even slowed their huge rear fins so they wouldn’t hit us while they passed by.
I got the hang of it quickly; the sharks like to skim the surface with the very tops of their massive mouths, creating a visible wave and movement. I could hear and spot one of these shark waves heading in my direction and when it was about 10 feet away I’d take a breath and free dive down so the shark would pass just above or beside me. They often turned as soon as they saw me, but if I timed it right I’d get a superbly close look at the mouth, gills, and fins. Once or twice I timed it a bit too well and the shark wouldn’t see me until the very last second. When this happened the shark would roll its eye into its head for protection and turn away. I’d tuck my legs and fins up so I didn’t disturb it but once or twice I didn’t move fast enough and got bumped by a rear fin. I can officially say that they’re very, very strong. And hard. I have a bruise on my knee to prove it.
Speaking of eggs, when we got out of the water to switch snorkel groups we discovered bonito eggs all over our skin. The eggs are like caviar or roe but instead of black or red they’re clear, and I’m convinced that this is like a very expensive facial or skin scrub. Not only am I knocking another item off my bucket list but I’m also improving my skin as I go.
Me, again. (photo by Alex Tabah)
They come right next to the boat
Sometimes the whale sharks stop and float vertically in the water to feed. In Mexico this is called “la botella” (a bottle) since they float up and down in the water like an empty bottle. I stumbled across one as I was out snorkeling and floated with him for a while – such an amazing thing to see.
Me and la botella (photo by Eric Cheng)
Eric taking pics
We had dinner at a tiny corner Mexican place that Eric and Sterling found two months ago while here for a sailfish trip. We dined over delicious fish tacos and reminisced highlights of the day, like Eric’s great shots of a bottled shark’s mouth.
Funny observation of the evening: Sterling and Eric commenting on the sizes of the sharks. We figure the largest were around 35 feet long. So Sterling noted, “The little guys were pretty cute.”
Me: “And by ‘little’ you mean the ten-foot ones.”
Sterling: “Yeah. They were cute little whale sharks.”
Another funny observation of the day: Eric and me, talking about polarizing filters: “Polarizing makes the world a better place”.