A First: Swimming With Whale Sharks

We’d been trying to organize our whale shark tour for a few weeks; the season for doing so coinciding with the region’s tumultuous summer weather. Our booking was pushed back due to storms in the area (thankfully, as we wanted to actually see the damn things if we were going to go all the way out there), and then my sister arrived. I was pretty sure snorkeling with giant sharks in the Caribbean Sea, 10 miles from the nearest land mass was not on her list of ways to relax and rejuvenate.

I broached the subject with her carefully. The season runs from June to September and was approaching its end. Though I didn’t want to miss out on the experience, I didn’t want Holly to feel forced to do it, or abandoned when we went without her.

“Would you be interested in snorkeling with whale sharks?” I asked casually over our first dinner at popular local restaurant, El Fogon. I forked over our giant share-plate of Arrachera non-nonchalantly, as though I’d just asked her if she fancied dessert.

“Umm, no, I don’t think so…” she hesitated, probably wondering if someone had spiked my Jamaica (hibiscus tea) to make me ask such ridiculous things of someone who had never snorkeled before, let alone done so with GIANT SHARKS.

“That’s fine,” I replied quickly, before launching into a fumbled explanation of the fact that I didn’t think she would want to do it but that we had meant to go before she arrived and the weather had been bad and that now the season was coming to an end which was why we had to do it soon… all very apologetically, of course.

“Of course, you guys go for it!” she insisted, “I just don’t think it’s really my thing…”

“Aw come on,” Tyrhone interjected, “You’ll love it, it’s a once in a lifetime experience and apparently they are huge!”

A concerned look crept over my sister’s face.

“But they only eat plankton, so they are totally vegetarian and not at all interested in eating us,” Tyrhone continued, in an obvious attempt to save the situation.

“Well, I hadn’t thought about becoming their dinner, but THANKS VERY MUCH FOR THAT IMAGE, BOS!” Holly said, admonishing her ‘Brother-Of-Sorts’ with a light slap on the arm.

We all laughed, slightly nervously.

“Ah, what the hell, I’ll do it…” Holly said a few seconds later. “It’s not something I’d normally sign up for, especially considering I’ve never even snorkeled before, but if I absolutely hate it, I’ll just get back in the boat.”

And just like that, it was decided – we were off to swim with some gentle, completely herbivorous giants of the sea.


Our speedboat departed the harbour near Cancun just after 7:45 AM. None of us had any idea where we were going or how long it would take to get there, which added to the slightly anxious mood on board. The only thing I was actually afraid of was sea-sickness, but after popping a Dramamine at the direction of friends who’d done the trip before, I felt confident I wouldn’t be sharing my breakfast with the creatures of the deep. 

About 30 minutes into the journey out to sea, a small pod of dolphins skittered along in the inky blue water to the left of our boat, their long snouts threading through the surface of the water like shiny needles.

I erupted into a round of applause… for some reason.

Maybe I was more nervous than I thought, although excited was probably a more apt description of my emotional state.  It felt good to be on a journey into the unknown again. The previous few days had been spent at beautiful Akumal bay, teaching Holly how to snorkel and spotting giant sea turtles, lounging at our local beach club, Mamita’s and living it up at some luxury digs; all of which were great experiences, just ones which I was already familiar with.

This, however, was different. Seeing a whale shark, let alone swimming with one, was new to me and the feeling of not knowing what was next with no idea what to expect, heightened my awareness and made my limbs tremble a little.

Hence clapping at a pod of dolphins, I suppose.

There are fewer and fewer times when, as an adult, we get to enjoy a child-like ‘newness’, where life is fresh and exciting and as yet unexplored. To do something for the sake of never having done it before seems to be an emerging theme for us of late; a way of staying connected to the vastness of life and all it’s many opportunities for new experiences. I think the reason I chase these experiences is because when I am on auto-pilot in my life, doing the things I normally do, time seems to go by unnoticed. Yet when I am emerged in an experience for the first time, time slows down and gets bigger as though being filled with life like a balloon inflated with helium – full and weightless.

The last twenty second time period I could account for in precise detail was falling from 10,000 ft with a parachute (and a guy) strapped to my back. There isn’t much more life that can be packed into such a short space of time which would otherwise be filled by an un-conscious scroll through my facebook feed.

The first sighting of a dark grey fin slicing through the water was met with involuntary, excited shrieks from us, further amplified by the emergence of wide, flat heads ploughing  the sea with mouths agape.

For some reason, I never expected to see the creatures from the surface, which added another level of surprise.

Cancun whale shark

whale shark mouth

I volunteered Holly and I to take to the water first out of our group of ten or so, because I desperately needed to pee. Yes, I’m a thoughtful sister. Luckily, we were encouraged to choose a third person to go with us and after a thoughtful discussion, we settled for Tyrhone. Ha!

“Okay! Go, go!” our guide directed us, as we quickly donned our masks and dropped off the side of the boat into the water. I can count on one hand the number of times I have swum in deep water, so the lack of clarity compared to near the shore was a little unsettling. I apprehensively swum along with the guide until we were stopped in our tracks by a large shark emerging from the dark depths.

While I wasn’t afraid of the shark, the surreal experience of sharing the water with such a large creature caused me to cling to the guide for reassurance.

Very soon after, muffled squeals rose from our snorkel tubes as the Mac Daddy of whale sharks swam right underneath Holly, gliding underneath our flippers in it’s majestic, humongous glory.

“OH MY GOD, oh my God, oh my GOD!” was all I could yell through my snorkel as my eyes transfixed on the mighty creature, sensing the same excitement from Holly who clung to Tyrhone and repeated the same mantra of disbelief.

After he glided out of view, we joined at the surface to exclaim our awe to each other, even though we had already communicated with overtly dramatic ‘thumbs ups’ thrust towards each other’s masks.

“OH MY GOD! DID YOU SEE THAT?!” Because we had to check everyone had seen the swimming bus.

“HE WAS HUGE!!!!” It had to be a ‘he’ didn’t it?

“HE WENT RIGHT UNDER MY FEET!!!!” Yeah, mine too.

And there it was – that moment of discovery, newness and excitement, for having seen what was moments before unseen; the pride of knowing the previously unknown, and the bond formed by having experienced ‘a first’… together.

Whale shark body

whale shark gills

whale shark eye

Ty and whale shark

Sarah Somewhere

Check out Tyrhone’s blog to watch the video of our second turn snorkeling with the whale sharks, where instead of huddling with our guide, we became confident swimming along with these awesome creatures. Staring into the eye of a giant whale shark as it carries out its natural feeding pattern is ‘a first’ I’m not likely to forget…

A BIG THANK YOU to Graham at The Snorkel Shop Playa del Carmen for organizing our tour and providing us with a discount. He went out of his way to ensure we had the best conditions for shark spotting, and was an all-round great guy to deal with. They are located just back from Mamita’s beach.

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A First: Swimming With Whale Sharks — 20 Comments

  1. what an incredibly beautiful and scary experience. you articulate it so well- that feeling of pure awe, intimidation, and child-like excitement all mixed together. i will never forget screaming into my snorkel “holy shit! holy shit! holy shit!” repeatedly until Tyrhone took my hand to steady me. hahahahhaa! what a freak i am! thank u for inviting me, and for gently prodding me, to challenge myself to do something i never, ever would have done before. this experience, among others on that 10day trip, changed me.
    holly recently posted..mondays & aMasongraceMy Profile

  2. Wow, I would absolutely love to do this one day. I think it’s one of those things where you simply cannot appreciate the awesome size of these creatures until you clap eyes on them. What an amazing experience for you all.
    Maddie recently posted..City hopping in the AndesMy Profile

    • Wow, yes, we were. Apparently it’s one of the most prolific sites in the world up here, but I have heard reports of other sites around the world (such as the Philippines)that have seen fewer sharks. Hope the big guys are okay and just choosing somewhere else to feed 😉

  3. Ack! This is one of the experiences that tops my bucket list… provided I had a bucket list, which I don’t, but you take my point! Tony & I have seen some really amazing creatures while diving around Asia, but there is something just so supremely majestic about whale sharks and I desperately want to see one in the wild. I keep telling Tony that whenever we do happen to see a whale shark, I’ll probably pee in my wet suit I’ll be so excited. He just points out that I do that anyway, even when I’m not excited…

    To trying new things simply because we’ve never done so before! Such a great way to live!
    Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) recently posted..Everything You Ever Wanted to Know (& More!) About: TAIWANMy Profile

    • Hey Steph, I’m sure you will see them some day… maybe even use your prize after you return home to fly to Cancun especially to see them?! Apparently it’s one of the best sites in the world :-)

    • Hey Tracy, turtles are amazing – I love them :-) Just south of here you can swim with turtles all year round, then it’s the whale sharks to the north from June – Sept (if you ever find yourselves in this part of the world) :-)

  4. Whoa that is so cool!! This is like my number two thing I want to do! My number one things is kayaking with whales. But you totally rocked my number two. It looks so crazy and awesome!
    Angela recently posted..Time to get personalMy Profile

  5. What an amazing post, Sarah! I’ve always wondered what it would be like to do this specific adventure with the whale sharks. I think they are can be smaller gods of the sea as they are so big yet so graceful. I really enjoyed reading this and AMAZING pictures too!!! :)
    Mike recently posted..My Top 10 +1 Favorite Tom Hanks MoviesMy Profile

  6. OH MY GOSH!!! That is so unreal. I love this: “To do something for the sake of never having done it before seems to be an emerging theme for us of late”…I’ve been trying to do the same. It started with my 33rd birthday and trying waterskiing and has been continuing on this trip (obviously just the trip itself is a big step). That looks amazing, although I also have nervous habits and probably would have let out a little shriek or laughed or something when first seeing dolphins. Because I’m a dork. So glad your sister went and had a good time!
    Carmel recently posted..GOBI DESERT TRIP, PART 1My Profile