Snorkeling with a Giant
We were finishing off the last bites of another fabulous dessert on the Safari Endeavour when our expedition leader announced, "Tomorrow, we're going to snorkel with whale sharks!"
My only exposure to whale sharks thus far were half-remembered aquarium plaques and the image of a wide, flat-headed, spotted monster swimming out of the depths of some magazine cover.
It’s cheerfully explained to us that the whale sharks will be juveniles, therefore much smaller at only about 20 feet long, than the giant adults that are rarely seen. I asked exactly how big do whale sharks get? The told me they can reach lengths of 40 feet or more.
While our guides cannot guarantee a sighting, it’s been rumored that young whale sharks tend to frequent the plankton-rich waters off a tiny strip of coast outside La Paz and it’s quite likely that we will run across one or two when we are shuttled out to the area via a small transport boat.
I am a bit apprehensive as this will be only my second time snorkeling in recent memory. The first time was yesterday when we were introduced to our snorkeling gear at a small reef off Isla Espiritu Santo. Now, apparently, we are going to jump into the drink with monster fish.
Adventure ho, me hearties!
The next morning we suit up in our wetsuits, clutching our fins, masks and lunches as we head out. The local guides tell us more about the habits and lives of the whale sharks, but I'm afraid I don't remember much of the biology lesson.
I tuned back in when someone asked, "are whale sharks dangerous?" Lucky for us the answer was no as they actually like plankton much better.
After wondering about Jonah and whale shark stomachs, I focus on remembering how to get out of the boat, back into the boat, and all the rules about no touching and no swimming in front of their mouths while the sharks are feeding. We’re also not supposed to swim over the top of the sharks and keep an eye out for the tails as they will swing side-to-side.
Our guides steered our boat into the purported feeding grounds and suddenly whale sharks were being spotted one right after the other. I couldn't see the sharks all at once; they would fall in and out of view in the three foot swells. But suddenly there would be a large whitish smudge in the water next to the boat.
I would look closer and there would in fact be a whale shark with its maw gaping, positioned almost vertically in the water just a couple of feet away!
We immediately did our best to put our fins on and follow the guide into the water as expediently as possible.
I could almost see the whale sharks' blunt heads more clearly above the water then when I put my mask in the water because it was so murky with plankton.
Orientation in the swells was a bit tricky. However, once I got close enough, I had an extremely immediate view of the gills, the spotted backs, the tiny eye and the occasional remora fish attached to the long body.
Then, either due to the difficulty of staying in one spot in the swells, or a bit of mischievousness on the part of the juvenile whale sharks, I would find myself staring down the gaping maw of the same fish I had just been comfortably swimming alongside.
Eventually, the shark would deplete the plankton where it had been feeding and swim away.
Just as we were getting all eight of us back into the boat another whale shark was spotted. On the guide's signal we cheerfully trundled off the boat again in hot pursuit.
At one point we had three sharks in the immediate vicinity of our snorkeling crew and it seemed like quite a bit of work to avoid accidentally touching any one of them.
While the whale sharks were magnificent and extremely interesting to observe, they were not alone out there in the murky plankton fields. There were large shadowy schools of fish frequently following them. Not to mention the magnificently goofy blue footed boobies circling above, occasionally diving torpedo-like into the water around us.
All in all, it was a grand adventure. Many thanks to the young whale sharks for putting up with us and our guides for showing us the way.