Isla Mujeres: Whale Shark Diving

The whale shark trip was borne from a golf tournament. At a charity fundraiser for Boys Hope/Girls Hope, I was in a bidding war for a trip to go whale shark diving in Isla Mujeres. I had played in the same golf tournament the year prior and had lost out on the same trip, so I was a little more compelled to win this time. The wine helped. The bidding got to the point where I wasn’t comfortable going any higher and I conceded. However, the auctioneer asked the charity if they would be willing to offer two trips for both the top bidders. The trip was under-promised and it over-delivered. The pamphlet for the trip stated that we won three days of shark diving off of Cancun, our hotel and the airport transfers to the port of Puerto Juarez. Puerto Juarez is the ferry port in Cancun, which runs non-stop ferries to Isla Mujeres. This quaint island,, is about a 20 minute, or four horribly sung American rock songs sung by a Mexican street artist, ferry ride from Cancun. Starting from Orange County, we connected through Dallas, and ended up in Cancun around 4:30 PM. Cancun is in the Central Time Zone. We arrived on Isla Mujeres and were met by our trip organizer, photographer and resident Isla Mujeres local, Marshall Lally @marshall_lally. Anytime you get met with a golf cart, you know you are in a good place. Our hotel was a short ride- which most places would be since the island is only 5 miles from tip to tip. We were staying on the Northern tip in a hotel called the Playa Media Luna. What it lacks in luxury amenities, it makes up with in charm, location and views.

View from the room

View from the room

We rinsed the travel off of us, grabbed a margarita at the adjacent bar, and headed into the main commercial area for dinner. One thing was instantly apparent. Isla Mujeres wasn’t Cabo, and in a good way. Isla Mujeres is an island of 5,000 inhabitants; Cancun is 1,000,000. The former is a summer destination for the latter. Isla, as it is affectionately known, has more Mexican tourists than Americans, which is also a good thing. While we were certainly were approached by solicitors for music, cigars and to come into their restaurant, it was no where near the level of Cabo, which felt like we were the last consumers on earth.

Golf carts are the main mode for the tourists, and the locals opt for scooters. I kept thinking they had a civic meeting and tried to come up with the most unsafe method of transportation.

Moderator: Please provide suggestions, guys. What else can we use?

Crowd: Unicycles?!

Moderatator: No, but I like where your head is at. Keep going.

Crowd: Skateboards. Bikes? I got it- scooters.

Moderator: Good idea. Unstable and potentially hazardous. But, let’s make it more unsafe. Let’s recommend that you all ride two, three or four at a time. And bring your kids- don’t give them helmets- and if you have baby bjorns, please use those, too.

Anyway, I digress. After a great dinner at Lola Valentino, we turned in to get some rest and for the early start for the whale sharks.

The cute commercial street...

The cute commercial street…

Day 1: I will start by saying that I have always been fascinated by whale sharks and have had swimming them on my bucket list. With that being said, I wasn’t quite sure what it entailed. We met in the lobby at 7 and took the golf cart back near the ferry landing. Our boat was a 36 foot tuna fishing boat, and was reserved for four of us, plus Marshall. We had our captain and first mate as well. The fellow swimmers, and co-winners of the trip, were Doug and Dana McCaulley. Getting thrown into this experience in another country with people you don’t know can go one of two ways:epic or disastrous. We landed on the former. Doug and Dana were great to spend time with, swim with, and drink with… Back to the shark. The whale sharks arrive in Isla in June and stay until mid-August. They are brought here to eat of the abundance of bonito spawn/eggs in the water. When I say in the water, I mean everywhere. When you get out of the water, you are dotted with eggs. Our captain, Rogelio, is about as type-cast a fisherman as you can get. Tanned, sunglasses tan around his eyes, handy and knowledgeable. Rogelio came across the sharks 30 years ago while fishing and would see them annually over the next 25 years. In 2007, he ran a few tourist trips out to the sharks. In 2008, he ran more trips, and from that point on, a veritable eco-tourism economy was hatched. Now, about 40 boats head out each morning during shark season. Incredibly, they work in tandem and collaboratively, fanning out across the expanse of the ocean. The sharks are 20 miles off the coast, or about an hour boat ride. After checking the previous day’s location of the sharks, and currents, they have an idea where they will be. But, this is Mother Nature, and the sharks are certainly not on our schedule. You are not guaranteed to find them. After 20 miles, Rogelio slows the boat, and Juan, our first mate, sits atop the third level of our boat on the tuna tower. The water is typically rather calm, and warm.

Our boat...the Lilly M.

Our boat…the Lilly M.

About 80 degrees, which is great for us, too. Juan is looking for the dorsal fin and the large tail fin to pierce the water; after all, the sharks are skimming the surface for their food. Each of the boat’s captains is reporting over the radio on where he is and what he sees, or doesn’t see. Upon seeing a shark, or sharks, he alerts the others, and it is a mass convergence at those coordinates. After the chaos on the radio, and arriving at the location of the sharks, we were told to get geared up and ready to jump in. That’s it. Swim. Swim next to them, at them and don’t touch them. A few boats were dropping their guests in near, and almost on the sharks. It looked like a war scene, with troops deploying into a battle zone. “Go, go, go! he screamed. “Here he comes- go! In the water!” I jumped. Amy jumped right after. I cleared my snorkel, found Amy and looked down. The water was a beautiful blue hue, but no bottom to be seen. We were 20 miles out and the water is around 120 feet deep.

Love the spots on this one, both on the shark and reflecting.

Love the spots on this one, both on the shark and reflecting.

Then, you see it. Sometimes it is a mouth. Sometimes, a rough outline of something big. Really big. Really, really big. The shape comes into focus- usually the spots take shape and you can get a bearing of which way the shark is heading. Ideally, he is coming straight at you. They swim slowly, and open their huge mouths to let the water pass through, filtering thousands of pounds of fish eggs into their stomach. The first shark I saw, I swam as fast as I could toward it. They may swim slow most of the time, but they are also 40 feet long and weigh 30 tons. They are strong, and can be fast. As I swam toward him, he slowly changed course and swam by. There is a scene in Jaws, when Roy Schneider and Richard Dreyfuss see that shark for the first time as it slowly swims by. It was the impetus for the famous line, “We’re gonna need a bigger boat…” As that first shark swam by me, I thought the same thing. It just kept going and going. The tail, propelling the massive shark through the water, elegantly and serenely. The goofy mouth, polka dots and adolescent eyes betraying its regal nature.

Eggs taste better than humans.

Eggs taste better than humans.

It is a shark. But, primarily eats plankton, fish eggs, or on occasion, small fish. Not humans. We/I never felt in danger or threatened, although they probably felt disturbed while trying to eat. Marshall told a story that a kid must have designed the whale shark. They are huge. Swim slowly on the surface, don’t mind humans and are polka dotted. After scaring away the first shark, you begin to get the hang of it. There is a scene in the movie, “Colors”, when Sean Penn and Robert Duvall are talking. Penn is the newbie and Duvall is the seasoned veteran. Duvall tells the story of two bulls overlooking a flock of cows. The macho one says to the other, “I’m gonna run down there and mate with that one!” The wiser bull, scoffs at the younger one. The younger one looks over indignantly, and asks,”What’s your problem?” The wise bull looks at him and chides the younger one,”I’m gonna walk down there and mate with them all.” That message was the same for the whale sharks. Swim slowly and don’t use your arms to swim and splash. Slowly kick next to the sharks and you get a longer, better experience. After that first one, we had that experience. Swimming slowly, we could amble up next to sharks, and vice versa. They were everywhere, corralled by the outlying boats, we floated in the water with these massive creatures.

amy side view_shark

Amy hanging with her shark.

At one point I was swimming next to a shark and I was resigned to let it go. I felt a wack on my leg. I assumed it was another swimmer pushing by me and trying to nudge me out of the way. (That happens) As I turned around to see who was impatiently hitting me, I realized it was the shark’s massive tail fin pushing me out of the way. I was a fly it was brushing away from its face on a hot day, most likely not even knowing it had touched me. There were times when I would be swimming next to a shark and another one would pass right by us, swimming the opposite direction. “Botella! Marshall!! Botella!” Those words were the most desired words to hear from Juan or Rogelio, spotting from the boat. A botella, or bottle, is when the sharks stop swimming, and float vertically. As they are upright, they open their massive mouths and water pours in, and with it, massive amounts of fish eggs. It is an amazing sight to witness. A very cool dynamic exists between Marshall, our boat captains, and actually, the other captains, as well. Marshall isn’t seen as an American looking to exploit the sharks or the captains. Rather, he is respected by them and is seen as a protector and promoter of the sharks; which in turn creates a mutually respectful relationship. The picture below of the shark silhouette with Amy and I flanking it, is a great shot. Here is a video of the shot taking place.

(And if you want to check out a few minute video montage of some of my videos, here is a link to them. It provides a pretty good idea of what you are getting on the trip:

Silhoutte of the whale shark, flanked by me and Amy.

Silhoutte of the whale shark, flanked by me and Amy.

Some well deserved zzzz's

Some well deserved zzzz’s

The videos of the trip are great and provide a view into what it is like to swim with them. But, I must say, the photographs from Marshall are much more dramatic, powerful, beautiful and visually stunning. They tell a better story of the experience. I am trying to convince Marshall to be my official vacation photographer…

He's smiling at Amy...

He’s smiling at Amy…

At a certain point in the late morning, the sharks are sated and need a break from their buffet. Capable of diving to almost 5,000 feet, they head down from the surface and the show is over. Elated, we climb back on the boat and head back to shore, but the day isn’t over yet. Just north of Isla Mujeres is a beautiful reef. Shallow, with incredible white sand on the bottom and spectacular blue water, that is usually reserved for the Caribbean or Bora Bora. We anchor in the reef, and have the place to ourselves. Snorkeling, relaxing and telling fish stories…while Juan prepares fresh ceviche. Freshly caught trigger fish was diced and marinated and cooked with lime as we started in from the whale shark location. Arriving at the reef, it was mixed with onion, cilantro, salt, pepper and once ready to serve, tomato is added. Sitting on a spectacular reef, with a cold drink and freshly made ceviche is about as good as it gets.

Nothing like hanging with these animals.

Nothing like hanging with these animals.

(As an aside, a while back, Rogelio made ceviche for the group after the shark dive. Marshall made a comment that it was really good and asked if he could do make it again the next day. He did. And every day after. Now, each boat captain or first mate makes ceviche as part of their tour…)

Relaxing on the Lilly M after our ceviche and snorkel

Relaxing on the Lilly M after our ceviche and snorkel

After a couple hours at the reef, we head back the final 10 miles to Isla, where we grab a beer to recap the day. Following that, a nap is about as inevitable as me speaking broken Spanish to the locals. We head back to the main commercial street, this time at Compadres. Amy crushed the Mexico Combo while my flank steak couldn’t have been better. The two ex-pats next to us bought us some wine and told old stories about the island, having lived here since 1987. That was Day 1. We weren’t sure it could be topped but were anxious for Day 2.

Day 2: The permit division in Mexico does not allow the same captain to take out the same boat on consecutive days, so we moved from the Lilly M to the Andrea M. We traded in Rogelio for Dave, Tito for Juan. The Lilly M was a diesel inboard motor, while the Andrea M had two outboard motors, which made it faster. Hopefully, a little more reliable, too. On our way back in yesterday, Rogelio quickly turned off the engine, and climbed into the engine compartment. We had a fuel filter problem. Amazingly, he had a spare, and 20 minutes later, we were good to go. Day 2 saw us add two more swimmers, Asher and Jordan. The new total of 6 meant that instead of all of us in the water at the same time, we had to go in groups of two, taking turns on a revolving “drops”. As I mentioned previously, the captains call out when they spot a shark. It took longer this day, and unlike the day before the call today was for a lone shark. By the time we arrived, there were five boats around one shark. The way it works with a lone shark is that the boats queue up and drop their swimmers in for a pass, pick them up and get back in line. With six swimmers, you may get one pass an hour.

They are really hungry.

They are really hungry. Amy sharing his meal-

Luckily, as we were about to queue up, the call came in that a group of sharks was spotted nearby and we took off to meet them. The ocean was rougher today than the first day with fewer sharks; and we had more divers. We lowered our expectations from day one. With bigger swells, the sharks were more difficult to spot from the surface and we had less time in the water with them due to the rotation system. But, seeing the sharks on day two was no less amazing than the first day. Once again, we had instances of multiple sharks at one time, long swims with one sharks and cool feeding experiences.

We are having more fun than the shark...

We are having more fun than the shark…

The most dangerous animal in the sea certainly isn’t the whale shark or a great white, but man. I proved no exception. As I was approaching the boat, a swell hit me as I was taking off my mask. I reached for the outside of the swim ladder just as Amy was climbing up and my fin pushed her pinky toe down, breaking her toe. Lucky for her, we decided not to use her for bait and we kept her around. She even joined me on our last rotation- although you can see her favoring that leg… Like the previous day, we headed back to ‘our’ reef for more snorkeling, ceviche and some beers. While I once again proved I am not competent at catching lobster with my hands, we did see barracuda, trigger fish(we ate his cousin again for lunch), puffer fish, a school of Jax, amongst others. We returned, washed off the fish eggs, and napped again. We awoke, went to our favorite outdoor bar for a margarita, and then took the cart around the island for a tour. Unfortunately, both the dolphin and turtle experiences were closed, and we ended up back at our margarita bar for dinner. We bumped into Marshall and had an awesome dinner overlooking the reef.

Day 3: Back down to four divers again, and back with Rogelio and Juan on the Lilly M, we headed back out for our last day of diving. Day three was calm and still. The air temp was around 90 again, with the water still hovering around 80. But, we had no swells today. Right as we got into the ‘search’ mode for the tiburones ballenas, we heard the “lo se voy”, and we knew they were spotted. I peered around the side of the boat and saw us approaching about three boats and asked Rogelio if it was a single shark or a group. “Un grupo”, came back to me. That was a relief and we all geared up.

Amy looks, um, small next to the shark.

Amy looks, um, small next to the shark.

We asked we were all going out together again or in turns, and Rogelio gave us the nod to all go in again. The water was lake-like and we slid into the water with shimmering dorsal fins all around us. We had sharks to ourselves, enjoying their whimsical feeding and swimming. Without the anxiety of the boat hordes, or a dearth of sharks, we reveled in the moment. With intermittent calls from the boat, “Marshall! Marshall! (and the accent on the ‘all’) we followed the sharks for a good 2 hours, never coming back to the boat. Floating in the middle of the ocean is a unique experience- at once liberating while also suffocating. You are alone, yet surrounded. Surrounded by the largest fish in the world, and protected by the boat captains. Not long again it was these captains that were fishing, and maybe catching these sharks. Now, they are their most ardent defenders. Rogelio imploring us not to touch ‘his’ sharks, for his livelihood depended on it.

Just awesome.

Just awesome.

After the activity slowed down, we opted to bypass the reef and go closer to the island. We opted to head to North Beach, which is the shallow water on the northern tip of our hotel. Waist to chest high crystal clear water awaited us. Once anchored we jumped in and quickly finished our last five beers.

Relaxing with beers and ceviche on North Beach

Relaxing with beers and ceviche on North Beach

Our partners in crime, Doug and Dana, walked to shore and up to a bar, where they got us re-enforcements, and waded back out to our boat. Now that we were replenished, we had time to relax and enjoy the scenery. This reef is the summer stomping ground of boaters across Mexico who pull up, anchor and party on their boats and at the bars nearby. The ceviche was soon ready and we crushed the last servings of Juan’s batch. Shower, nap and a trip to Fenix was again in the cards. As I walked up, the same bartender greeted me. “Two margaritas, con rocos, sin sal, para llevar.” Two margaritas on the rocks, no salt, to go. He knew me. It was time to go…

Sunset view from our last dinner.

Sunset view from our last dinner.

A good way to end the trip.

A good way to end the trip.

We regrouped for one last dinner, huge margaritas, a few Cuban cigars, bad Spanish and resignation that the trip was over. For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to swim with the whale sharks. I just never knew what it was going to be like. I didn’t know the entire experience was going to be better than I expected. The people warmer, the sights more amazing, the memories deeper and the profound feeling to return sooner. The true testament to a good vacation is not having bought a time-share and wanting to return the next year.


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