Pre-dawn Cancun often evokes image of young partiers, embalmed in alcohol, taking the haggard walk of shame back to their hotel from the likes of Señor Frog's. But this last August I ventured to the partiers' paradise and discovered the true reason to be awake before the sun rises: for a chance to swim with the largest fish in the world, whale sharks.
I left my hotel at 6am, driving north through the hotel zone to the Solo Buceo diving company. Here, after booking in advance, guests pay a modest $165 before boarding the boat with nine other passengers and a crew of three. My group headed northwest, searching for the docile giants via GPS. The sharks come to the region on their southern migration in May and stay through early September, feasting on plankton and microorganisms in the warm Caribbean waters. After the tour companies initially locate the sharks in May, they can keep daily records of the sharks with each morning excursion, making sightings throughout the season a near guarantee.
My boat ride was about an hour long and consisted of fittings for a snorkel, goggles, and fins, before being lulled into periodic nod-offs by the open sea and purr of the boat engine. I was eventually roused by cheers from the crew. Looking straight ahead, the panorama of Kool-Aid-colored water had suddenly turned into a spectacle of fins much too large to be dolphins; our crew had found the whale sharks. The mood on the boat changed from bleary-eyed to jubilant and awe-struck almost immediately, and after rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I soon realized the whale sharks were not just in front us but in every direction off the boat. I asked our crew their estimate of the number in the immediate area and was floored to hear, “somewhere between 200 and 250.”
With no delay, we divided into two groups for swimming with these prehistoric fish. I hopped off board with our guide and four others and was pleasantly surprised by the freedom we were allotted by the company and also the intuitive respect the group had for the sharks. The only real rules were, “don’t touch the sharks” and “don’t venture too far from the boat.” As we began swimming, unsure of what to do, our guide was helpful in pointing out distant sharks coming towards our group. As he did so, we’d get in a position to have the indifferent creatures peacefully pass by. The first time you’re eye-to-eye with an animal over 25 feet in length is simply surreal, like you're swimming with dinosaurs. It immediately became a game to attempt judging the length of the shark. I counted a full four seconds as the first shark passed me by, noting its back fin was an astounding six feet, equal to me in height.
I soon learned it was easiest to spot a shark fin above the water in the distance, gauge its directional movement, and place myself just outside the path. And, if timed correctly, I was able converge with the shark at a point in the distance, and swim by its side, actually riding the shark's momentum for 10-20 yards. Equally exhilarating was to get directly in the path and watch the gaping, but harmless, filtering-feeding mouth open wide as it glides through the sea picking up micronutrients.
After about 30 minutes in the water, my group got back on board and let the second group revel in the presence of the monstrous creatures. Anyone interested in a second swim with the sharks was allowed to do so after the both groups had gone. At this point there were so many close to our boat that I would focus on one shark, intersecting its path, and as it passed, I would turn around only to find myself scrambling to keep from touching another gentle giant.
By the end of my second swim I had been in the water for over an hour and in close contact with well over 30 whale sharks. I had also watched the population of snorkelers grow exponentially from just our group of 10 to about 100 from 10 other companies. Yes, swimming with whale sharks is a tourist attraction, but it is one that offers a truly unique experience, placing us in the species' natural environment without disrupting its daily life or ecosystem. The window to snorkel with the whale sharks is more than four months long (typically May through September, though exact dates vary) and occurs over the summer low season in Cancun, making this a nearby and affordable experience; swimming with these giants with such few limitations is an absolute must-do.