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Swimming with whale sharks

"Follow the Omar," says Umberto, one of our guides.

We have been waiting patiently on the back of the boat for several minutes and now there’s a brief flurry as things spin into motion. Omar, in his tan swim trunks, with tribal tattoos on his upper arms and a stylized fish between his shoulder blades, secures his snorkel and jumps in the water. I follow suit along with three others from our boat, a family in wet suits and comically long flippers that they brought all the way from Denver.

I am closest to the whale shark, which we have sought for hours and is now swimming toward us. After splashing into the water, I put my face in and look around the dark gray-green water through my snorkel mask. As the bubbles clear, my inner monologue goes something like, "Where’s the Omar? Where’s the shark?"

"Oh! There it is!"

I am face to face with a whale shark. It’s swimming right at me, calmly, its graceful body swaying back and forth, propelled by it’s large tail fin. Time pauses for a moment while I watch, the breath through my snorkel the only sound. Then I figure I should get out of the way.

Before jumping in, we were given two rules by our guides. 1) Don’t touch the whale sharks. 2) Follow the Omar. If I don’t move, and fast, the fish and I will collide. (In retrospect, the whale shark is a much better swimmer than me and probably would have made an evasive maneuver. But I just don’t think that quickly.) I paddle my way to the left and watch it glide by, a remora fish hanging out beneath its belly. A woman in our boat (part of the big-flippered family) told me that nearly all whale sharks have remora fish, little familiars that swim along and keep them company in the big wide open sea. Or maybe she said that remora fish like the protection, the free ride, and the leftovers? Something like that.

After only three minutes in the water, I am left with a memory of an intensely beautiful moment: the unexpected darkness of the water, the sunlight filtering through and lighting up suspended pieces of sea weed, dappling the spotted back of the whale shark, the grace with which such a giant fish can move. On the way back to Isla Mujeres, my eyes scan the water for dark shapes, with a newly enhanced sense of wonder at just how amazing those shapes can turn out to be.

Whale shark (Rhincodon typus)
Whale shark (Rhincodon typus) photo by Sylke Rohrlach, CC by-sa 2.0 license


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Saturday, October 17, 2015
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Brittany
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