Flavio is quick to point out that whale sharks are not whales, but sharks. “They’re the biggest FISH in the world,” he says.
He’s our guide on the hour-long drive to the launch where we’ll catch a boat to see these big creatures. Flavio gives us the lowdown on the day, pausing every so often to let a translator repeat the info for the three or four Russian speakers in the bus. The world’s largest fish can grow up to 65 feet long and weigh more than 35 tons (as big as, well, a whale!). Their skeletons (like mantas and other sharks) are made of cartilage, not bone. They have no teeth, but a wide maw of a mouth that filters the nearly-microscopic and plentiful protein of the sea. It takes a lot of that to make them grow to be the biggest fish in the sea.
Once at the pier, we board the “Angel of the Sea,” a motor boat that will take us the 20 miles out into the Caribbean, where the plankton and krill are plentiful, hovering just below the surface of the water. This confluence of food draws whale sharks from all around to gather here for a few months of feasting before they go their separate ways (they’re loners, these sharks, and don’t travel in groups).
Dani is our guide on this boat, a smart and fun guy who wears a lycra face mask against the wind, looking like an “Occupy” anarchist or a Mexican Claude Rains, an invisible man with Ray Bans.
He takes us out in pairs. I have the good fortune to be paired up with the beautiful spirit known as Fabienne. She works at the dive shop — Om Delfin — owned by her fellow Frenchman Delphine, and came along to see what the experience is like so she can tell others who come into the shop.
The experience, I am happy to report, is quite special. Though, with so many boats at the site, and so many snorkelers in the water, it can lead to traffic jams. The boat captains seemed to try their best to space themselves apart from one another, and with dozens of sharks feeding, it was easy for them to spread out. Fabienne and I agreed that we too often felt rushed. They allowed us only a couple of minutes in the water at a time, so that others on our boat could jump in. We felt we’d prefer to stay in longer each time and enter the water fewer times rather than being so hurried. Demasiado prisa. Too much haste. We never got the chance to be as chill and graceful as the incredible fish we were encountering.
Dani took several photographs and video with a little GoPro camera, and I got a DVD of the files from him. I edited some of the shots together this morning. (It’s clear he’s a professional guide, but not a professional photographer. And because the GoPro has no viewfinder, it’s rather hit or miss.) I make a few cameo appearances. Have a look:
In the video you can see the manta rays (similarly cartilaginous creatures) swimming alongside the sharks. And there was a pod of dolphins leaping out of the water on the way back (Dani’s lens has a bit of water right in the part where the dolphins are, but I put an arrow on screen to show you where they are).
I can say that while I was enthusiastic to see the sharks, I could not match the excitement of a young Asian woman who was so thrilled to see and photograph the big fish that she jumped in whenever she could and raced toward them, buzzing past me in the water. On the way back, she was in a constant meditative state: eyes closed, hands in a lotus, an ever-present smile on her face. She was the picture of bliss. Note to self: I should do the same more often.
I’m not one to keep a bucket list. I tend to have so many adventures in my life that the list would often be empty. But if you keep one for yourself, swimming with the whale sharks might be something to consider adding to it. I can set you up.