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Whale sharks off the Yucatan Peninsula

Snorkeling 42 miles out at sea, at the junction of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea, we were within a few feet of the largest fish species in the world!  Our swimming buddy was a relatively "small" example at 24 feet.  Whale sharks are known to get twice this big, but this one was big enough for us!  Fortunately, their diet consists primarily of plankton and small fish.  Even though the whale shark is not a mammal, like whales, they were given the name because of their size and the fact that they are filter feeders.   

On our first jump into the water, we were face-to- face with a huge mouth.  Knowing we were not suppose to touch the fish, we were back paddling to give him room to move.  But having a mouth that large looming toward you is a bit unsettling, even as the right side of your brain is telling you there is no danger.  Typically, they swim rather slowly, and skim near the surface of the water, but as a couple from another boat jumped in the water, he suddenly dove down and shot forward, disappearing from our view. 

Due to their "vulnerable" conservation status, the number of people in the water is strictly regulated by Mexico's National Commission of Natural Protected Areas, and one of their boats and a few officers were onsite to protect the interest of the fish.  Life jackets were mandatory, and a guide was required to accompany anyone going into the water.

Rotating with the other couples on our boat, and on the other boats in the area, we had two more opportunities to get in the water.  On our second trip in the water, the fish stayed near the surface but swam so quickly, we were both swimming as fast as we could and barely keeping up with him, finally with both of us out of breath, we returned to the boat.  Finally, on our third shot, he swam near the surface and slowly, the best combination, so we could take time to enjoy this creature.  By this time, we were able to appreciate the beautiful swirling dots covering the skin, the tiny eyes offset on both sides of the mouth, and the large curved tail, that we had to shift away from as he propelled himself forward.

If we had actually planned to swim with the whale shark, before heading down to Mexico, we would have been better served by waiting until July or August as they migrate in large numbers to feed on the plankton off the Yucatan Peninsula.  In June, they are around, but the numbers are much smaller.  Located in tropical and warm oceans around the globe, it is surprising we haven't had the chance to swim with them before.  But now we were at the right place, at "almost" the right time, and we were grateful for that.

Taken out to the site by Ocean Tours of Playa del Carmen, we were picked up from our hotel at 7:00 AM, and headed to a small marina in Cancun for our outing.  During the drive, our guide, Claire, provided general info on the whale shark, an outline of our itinerary, general safety information, and dispensed sea sickness capsules to anyone who thought they might have a problem.  It took our captain 2 hours to get to the snorkel area, but clear skies and calm seas made for a pleasant trip, and a once-in-a-lifetime experience!

Watch out for that tail!

As one of the water guides, Claire snapped photos, and directed where we should swim, so some of the photos here were taken by her.

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