I don’t get it. I just don’t get it! Put me out in really deep water twelve miles off shore and out of sight of land surrounded by 40-foot-long Whale Sharks and I am happy, ecstatically happy. But a 100 feet off shore in 10 feet of water – I’m terrified. What’s up with that?
|Whale Sharks – freaking big fish!
Last summer my sister Joann and I, plus three other friends, hired a boat on Isla Mujeres for a Whale Shark tour. This was my second trip to see the Whale Sharks, and it was just as thrilling as the first time a year ago.
The name Whale Shark is a bit of a misnomer. They are not whales, but a filter-feeding relative of the shark family.
They can range up to 20 meters in length (about 60 something feet long), weigh up to 79,000 pounds, and live in excess of 130 years. It’s hard to get the proper perspective on the size of the Whale Sharks, until they slide along beside or under the 31-foot boat – then you see that they are scary big.
On our tour boat, we donned the obligatory life jackets and had the 5-minute lecture on etiquette – don’t touch the Whale Sharks, put your sunscreen on now not later because it harms their plankton food supply, and no alcohol until after the last dive. Then we headed out east of Isla Mujeres to where the fish were last seen.
|Ah, cute. Wild dolphins.
We traveled 40 kilometres on choppy seas, spotting a gorgeous pod of dolphins first and then circled for 30 minutes looking for the Whale Sharks. Finally an excited radio message alerted the 10 or 12 tour boats in the area that the pods had been spotted.
A short dash across the water and our boat met up with the group of over 200 fish. My three tour mates and I were so excited we just babbled: Wow, they’re beautiful, big, really big, and beautiful.
Did I mention that they are beautiful? And big? Really big.
The tour boats are licensed and the number of licenses is tightly controlled in an attempt to protect the Whale Sharks from harassment, and to protect the tour industry. All of the boat captains kept a respectful distance from each other to allow their passengers the freedom to swim with the Whale Sharks. The tour season is May to September, although there have been a few sightings earlier in the year. These creatures have been seen at various times of the year along the coasts of South Africa, Belize, Western Australia, Honduras, Mozambique, and near the Mexican islands of Isla Holbox, and Isla Mujeres.
Joann and I went in first – only three people from any one boat are allowed in the water at a time to limit the amount of interference to the pod.
We paddled around for a few minutes before we realized that the Whale Sharks were still too far away for us to swim over to them encumbered by the mandatory life jackets bouncing around our necks, so we dragged our bodies back on board via a cantankerous little swim ladder while the captain moved the boat closer.
So here we go, toppling over the edge of the boat and swimming towards a freaking big fish with a mouth that is open wide – wide enough to swallow this Gringa! Breathe, breathe. It’s okay, it won’t eat you.
The Whale Shark is a filter feeder — and feeds on macro-algae, plankton, krill, crab larvae, and small squid. To feed, the fish sucks in a mouthful of water, closes its mouth and expels the water through its gills. During the slight delay between closing the mouth and opening the gill flaps, plankton is trapped against the dermal denticles which line its gill plates and pharynx. Even though denticles are similar to scales, they are really modified teeth and are covered with hard enamel. These structures are packed tightly together and grow with their tips facing backwards.
So, really, they are not interested in squirming human bodies unless of course you happen to resemble a small squid.
|In the water, spine-tingling fabulous!
The creature lazily flicked its tail and all 40 feet slide past me too quickly.
What a feeling! I am addicted. I wonder if I can get a “Frequent Swimmer” discount card?
This is downright spine-tingling fabulous!