"When the captain cuts the engine, jump out of the boat and start swimming as fast as you can," said our guide. We'd been on the water since daybreak and had just arrived at the site. I looked out over what appeared to be a sea of floating mattresses. Huge ones... all moving. We were bobbing above a shoal of 30-foot-long whale sharks. I adjusted my mask and snorkel and asked, again, "You're sure they won't hurt us, right?"
I was in the middle of a two-month tour of the Yucatán with my husband, and we'd seen an island on the map—Isla Holbox—that we'd never heard of. On a whim, we went. A three-hour bus ride from Cancun and a quick ferry ride landed us in the sort of place people dream of: a one town island with sand streets, no cars, Caribbean-style clapboard houses, a handful of eco-friendly hotels, and miles and miles of windswept beaches. That, and from June to September, one of the best places in the world to see whale sharks. They're the largest fish in the world, growing up to 40 feet and weighing between ten and twenty tons. Fortunately for those wanting to swim alongside them, whale sharks aren't man-eaters, sticking instead to plankton, macro-algae, and krill that they skim off of the surface. Tour operators also follow strict conservation guidelines to prevent stressing out the sharks; only two snorkelers and a guide are allowed in the water with any individual whale shark and the duration and number of swim-alongs are limited.
The outboard engine cut abruptly. Fifty yards away, a large grey dorsal fin was approaching us at a decent clip. "OK—go!" came the shout. The guide jumped out of the boat, with my husband and I following close behind. I started swimming at full speed, all the while looking over my shoulder, waiting to see the enormous spotted fish. But I couldn't see a thing—just the murky Gulf waters, my own arms arching past my head, and the thousands of bubbles I created with my own movement. My eyes scanned the waters. Right and left. Ahead and behind. Nothing. Maybe the fish changed course? Should I stop swimming? I looked over my left shoulder, and suddenly, all I could see was an enormous black hole in front of me. I stopped moving, and realized I was looking directly into the mouth of a whale shark—is this what Jonah felt like? The fish turned and moved gracefully past me, an arm's length away, a mass of grey spotted flesh that seemed as long as a city block. I swam as fast as I could alongside it, trying to keep up, but there was no way—the whale shark was just too fast. With a flick of its tail, it was gone.
We pulled ourselves back into the boat, laughing, eyes open wide in excitement, the words spilling out of us, recounting what we'd just seen. It felt like we were kids again, after a wild ride on a waterslide. We sat down as the captain turned on the motor, slowly cruising towards another set of mattresses.
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