Swimming with whale sharks

June 09, 2015                 5m read time
Liana Lozada

What does it feel like to swim among a school of bus-sized fishes? Our writer jumps in and finds out.

"Some of them are the size of a school bus." From behind his desk at the JW Marriott Cancun Resort & Spa, the polo-shirted excursion specialist passed me a pictogram that compared the size of an average adult to that of a grown whale shark, the largest fish in the sea. 

I nodded, calculating how many adults could fit inside a single school bus, and then visually imagined the bus's aisles as the whale shark's stomach capacity. The mere notion of becoming a modern day Jonah made me consider swapping this "swim with the sharks" idea for another leisurely, poolside afternoon. I'd had such a lovely time in Cancun, Mexico, so far, nibbling and noshing under a beach-view cabana.

Now here I was in the hotel’s excursion office, contemplating a solo “swim with the whale sharks” outing while ogling a pictogram that made it very clear just how small us humans are. 

"These schools only migrate through our waters from May to September,” he explained. “Swimming with whale sharks isn't something you can do every day, or in many parts of the world.” 

I was intrigued but still hesitant due to the shark’s overwhelming size and the thought of having to go alone. My travel companions had already opted for easygoing, sun-soaking itineraries. I, however, yearned for a FOMO-inducing, adventurous Cancun experience. “It is completely safe,” he assured. “They have no teeth and only eat plankton. You won't regret going."

His words struck a chord. Unlike the guests before me, who had inquired about pirate ship dinners and nightclub crawls, I had come to talk natural wonders. The idea of swimming with these gentle giants had an allure I could not ignore. Though this would be the first time I veered from my travel group, I knew I would regret turning away from the opportunity.  

I smiled, handing the diagram back to him. "Okay, I'm in."

Whale shark footage shot with a GoPro in the waters off Darwin Island, Galapagos

Barely awake, I was on my way to the launch dock by 6 a.m. the following morning. After regulatory paperwork and safety briefings, the hundred or so guests were bundled into about ten groups. As a solo traveler, the organizers bobbled me around a bit, finally placing me on a boat with three European couples—two from Sweden and one from Spain. 

Though the couples seemed happy to be there, none of them spoke English. Aside from our initial greetings, I went somewhat unacknowledged. Between the constant PDA and exclusive chatter, it did not take long for me to realize I had entered my first international third-wheel scenario. My lingering sleepiness met with the now gathering rain clouds further dampened my mood. I suddenly began doubting my decision, drifting into a cocktail-laden daydream. 

About fifteen minutes into our ride, we heard a loud “SPAT!” The boat creeped to a stop. The engine had died and we were stuck, just as a drizzle settled in. 

Another fifteen minutes passed before our replacement boat arrived. Once en route again, the Spanish woman dashed to boat’s stern, her husband hurriedly following her. She tossed her head over the boat’s edge and began vomiting. I sympathetically passed her husband tissues and wipes. He pointed to her belly and rubbed it, indicating a bun in the oven. The captain, clearly trying to lighten the mood, conveniently drowned out her gagging with loud EDM music. The Swiss loved it, pounding their fists in the air and smoking cigarettes. 

The captain could sense my disappointment, at one point assuring me in his broken but enthusiastic English that it would all prove worthwhile. Finally, after about an hour, he indicated that a whale shark school had congregated about ten minutes ahead. We all began testing our cameras and putting on our wetsuits, life vests, snorkels, and flippers. One by one fellow boats began appearing over the horizon and, as if planned by Poseidon himself, the sky cleared. We had finally arrived.

Whale sharks in Oslob, Cebu, Philippines filmed with a GoPro HERO 3 Black Edition. Underwater footage of the fish begins at 0:41. 

As the boat slowed on approach, the energy shifted. We all rose from our seats, poking our heads around to catch our first glimpse. The shark’s snout popped up first, rippling the water around it. Then a grazing fin and tail became apparent as it eased towards us. 

I peered over, witnessing how its length easily outsized our boat. I suddenly felt intimidated. My throat tightened; I could hear my heartbeat in my ears. It was one thing to see a whale shark on a diagram, but it was quite another to witness these creatures within reach of their gaping mouths. 

Almost immediately, my group was summoned to the boat's edge, interrupting my spinning nerves. The guide’s instructions were clear: "Follow me!" he exclaimed. "Swim alongside them. Their eyes are on the side of their head, so if you are directly in front of them, they can't see you. Do NOT touch them. And no flash [photography]. Stay clear of the tail, it can knock you out." He made a punching gesture with his last point, which definitely cut through all our language barriers. 

Our first whale shark approached. Though noticeably frazzled, I jumped in, fondling my GoPro and snorkels as I floated. When I finally gathered the courage to go under water the shark had already moved on. For their size, the whale sharks were surprisingly fast. Still quite squeamish, whilst gagging on my snorkel, I hustled with the group towards the second shark, but only got a quick look. I decided that for my next jump, I'd toss the life vest in order to end my bulky buoying.

Moving more fluidly in just a wetsuit now, I was able to submerge smoothly, finally witnessing the whale shark's graceful, majestic power. This silent fish seemed eerily unphased by the dozens of excited, splashing tourists surrounding it; it moved to and fro as if no one were around, ignoring our presence entirely. Its docile nature abated my apprehensions, and an awed composure settled in its place: The day’s earlier setbacks felt light years away. 

Snorkelers swim with whale sharks in Cancun, Mexico. Footage shot with a GoPro Hero 3+. Whale sharks appear at around the 30 second mark.

Once back in the boat, I realized how much of a workout the swim was. Though I am athletic, my adrenaline was fading, so I took some time to catch my breath and hydrate. While resting, I observed as swimmer after swimmer pacified into their whale shark moment, enthralled by the swim when the experience finally clicked. Children would shout with gleaming eyes, “Mom, did you see?!” Women who were once frightened shrilled with girlish excitement while others gleefully checked their camera footage. Though exhausted, I opted for a third drop in, still enchanted by these gentle giants. One shark even caught me by surprise, gliding behind me without making a sound. 

Once the sun scorched directly overhead, it was time to head back and enjoy lunch off Isla Mujeres. On the return ride, I was unphased by the awkward couplings. The excursion's beginning had undoubtedly been challenging, but I was thankful I went through with the whale shark trip instead of settling for more pampering with my colleagues. 

As I pondered my new found self-assurance as a solo adventurist, massive sea turtles plopped in and out of the ocean, their shells disappearing and reappearing every ten minutes or so. A school of dolphins began leaping in the waves half a football field away, as if summoned for the day's grand finale. But after a morning like ours, it wasn't like we needed one.

Liana Lozada

Liana is a Miami-based lifestyle and travel writer and content creator. As the daughter of an airline employee, she grew up on planes, laying down the foundation for her exploratory nature. Her work has been featured in USA Today and The Guardian. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter: @lianalozada.

Subscribe +

Get the best stories and activities, personalized just for you. Go on, get out there!

You might also enjoy: