“Aeeeeiiiiiiiiii”, Shauna shrieked, splashing heavily trying to flee the boulder-sized head coming at her. Her stunned scream set off a chain reaction of fear throughout the group – four of us swished about, creating waves in the green, cold water. We didn’t know where to go. The boat was ten meters from us. The shark was much, much closer.
The whale shark swam close enough to touch for a second and then turned into more open water. Its gigantic fin giving a swish that pushed a block of cold water our way. In a pause, we were back to calm. The group remembered what we were doing and righted ourselves, adjusted our masks and snorkels and followed the 5-meter giant into the open water.
My four friends and I were on three-hour tour to snorkel next to the largest shark in the ocean, the whale shark during whale shark season in La Paz, Mexico. The Buceo Carey Dive Shop tours brings tourists out to the open sea, hopefully launching them in the water to swim next to this filter feeding goliath. These animals did not have the carnivorous reputation of the Great White. The danger, according to our guide, was not in being eaten, but being swallowed. Their mouths opened to widths of small children to gather as much plankton as they can in a single gulp.
“These are wild animals. Swim two meters on either side. Do not touch them, do not ride them, and do not scare them,” Our guide schooled us with hand gestures at the best position, parallel to the whale shark. “And don’t go by their tail, they are very powerful. Their mouth is huge and will open without warning. Do not go in front of them.” Our group listened like good snorkel students, the reality of what we were doing seeping below our wetsuits. We were voluntarily jumping into the ocean to swim alongside these huge animals. In the open ocean. Without getting swallowed. “The danger is not getting eaten, it’s getting swallowed,” our guide finished.
The guide drove us about one kilometer offshore; the weather was grey and the water calm and green. Visibility into the water was minimal. There were several other boats filled with black-clad snorkelers looking intently for a peaking dorsal fin. The guide and his helper Vigo strained their necks searching for the same fin. Shauna and I leaned over the boat; the green water was a blank canvas. Was it the wavy sand bottom we saw or the optical illusion of the water surface? With each passing minute, we wondered if this really was whale shark season.
“WHOA!” Shauna and I both stood back. A huge, black speckled tail slithered under the boat. We looked around, had anyone else seen it? They had not. The enormity of the fish was now clear. We weren’t going to need a bigger boat, but maybe a little more gumption to get into the water with the huge fish attached to that huge tail.
The hunt continued. The guide moved the boat towards some swimming snorkelers from the other boat. One snorkeler swam ahead of the pack. “You ready?” We were not. Our fins were at the bottom of the dive boat, masks askew. I could feel the guide’s eye roll – he’d specifically instructed us that when he said ready, we had to jump in right away.
The boat maneuvered closer and the four of us waddled to the edge of the boat. “Ready?” We nodded through snorkel hoods and fell backwards into the water like dominoes. Frenzy followed, we didn’t know where to go or what to do, just flailed about in suit and fins. “Follow that guy,” Our guide shouted and pointed. We turned to do so and Shauna screamed her big scream. All of us freaked out and fell back in order of plunge. “It came right at me!” We were too stunned to continue immediately and let “that guy” paddle on before we gathered our wits and started swimming.
I pulled ahead of the pack, pushing at the water with my fins and getting into a stream beside the fish. There it was. In my limited, masked view half of my field of vision was made of green water and the other half gray and speckled fish-flesh. Remembering the rules, I stayed to the side and matched the fish’s speed. Confident, I started to snap pictures underwater.
After 10 minutes I was tired. I looked up and stopped trailing the fish. The boat followed our group and so I swam a short distance to the boat and launched myself up the side. “That was intense!” I shouted to my friends. I was so close and in sync with this wild animal. It felt primal and calmly natural, like I was a mermaid.
In another 20 minutes we found the tell tale dorsal fin. This time I grew afraid when the guide yelled ready and asked for others to go in first. What was I afraid of? I knew the beast now, had swam with it. It was the unclear water and all other things that could be under it, a fear from my childhood after seeing the movie Jaws.
My three girlfriends jumped in with full force and I followed. My fins propelled me to alongside the whale shark. I couldn’t tell if it was the same one or now, but we fell into a pace with me alongside him/her. My fins worked at the same pace as its fins. I am a swimmer at home, exercising at my gym’s pool two to three times a week. That workout paid off. I swam hand to fin with that shark for 20 minutes. I looked up occasionally to make sure I hadn’t swum off to sea, but we were safe, pedaling around in the green water cove. He just accepted my presence, or maybe didn’t even notice it. We had been alone, the whale shark and I.
Afterwards, on the boat back to the shore, I thought – I gotta do this again, but more. I’d tried SCUBA in Dahab, Egypt, but had felt that familiar fear of the unknown under the ocean’s glassine surface. My fear was now diminished. I wanted to see other great creatures and swim alongside them. I vowed to snorkel with more whale sharks and see where SCUBA would take me on my next big trip.