Feeding the Sharks

My piercing alarm shattered the early morning darkness on our third day in Puerto Morelos. I groaned reflexively and then immediately remembered that I had been hoping for this day for the past seven years. Since our last trip to Cancún, I had been waiting for an opportunity to return so that we could swim with the largest species of fish on the planet. The realization that it was finally time for our whale shark tour erased any thoughts of sleep and within an hour, Vince and I were in the car on our way to the marina to meet up with our tour operator, Contoy Adventures.

When we checked in, we were informed that we would have to either wear a life jacket while swimming with the sharks, or pay 15 USD a piece to rent wetsuits. We were both happy to fork over thirty dollars to avoid having to wear a clunky life vest that would slow us down and completely prevent us from diving, so we went on got fitted for wetsuits. Before long we were boarding our boat along with eight other tourists and our guide and captain.

Our guide gave us a quick briefing of how the day would go, mentioned that it would take about 45 minutes to get out to the area that hosts the largest annual whale shark aggregation on earth. After the short talk, the captain guided our boat out of the marina and onto the open sea where it became apparent that this would be a rough 45 minutes. As the little boat bounced off of large, rolling waves, I felt grateful that I’d remembered to take a Dramamine earlier. Every time the boat crested a wave, I would be momentarily lifted from my seat, only to crash back down in a spine-jarring landing.

45 minutes quickly turned into an hour, which turned into an hour and a half and still we were battling the waves as I held the side of the boat in a death grip, trying to avoid falling out of my seat. Finally, the boat slowed and we could see a handful of other vessels bobbing up and down on the waves. We had reached the area where whale sharks could be found and everyone on board began to look out for fins on the surface of the water.

Unfortunately, this did not mean that we would get a respite from the constant pitching motion of the little boat, and slowing down had only served to increase my nausea. I fought to keep my eyes open and focus on the horizon, but eventually my will gave out and I closed my eyes, surrendering to the desperation to escape my situation in sleep. That is until a sudden tingling in my fingers and checks brought me back to my senses. I’d never been seasick enough to actually throw up before. In fact I hadn’t thrown up in six years, but something in the recesses of my mind remembered that the tingling sensation preceded vomit.

I threw myself at the side of the boat and hung my head above the waves just in time, feeling simultaneously ashamed to be “that guy” who pukes on the boat trip, and relieved to have gotten it over with. A commotion on deck told me that my timing had been impeccable – there was a shark nearby. I glanced back at my fellow travelers, most of whom looked as green as I felt. No one seemed hurried to strap on their snorkel gear and jump into the choppy water, so in one of the most epic “puke and rallies” of all time, I slapped on a pair of fins and a mask.

Vince and I sat on the side of the boat per our guides instructions and waited for the order to jump. When it came, I was more than happy to plunge into the open water – anything to get a break from rolling about on top of the waves. Once underwater, I found myself face to face with one of the biggest animals I’ve ever seen.

Had I been this close to wild elephant without the protection of a vehicle, it would be time to start praying for my life, but in the presence of the mammoth shark I felt nothing but calm. I kicked my fins in a vain attempt to keep pace with the shark, but it wasn’t long before its entire spotted body had glided past me, leaving me with a fading view of a tail that was taller than me.

As the shark melted away into the haze of the ocean, I did my best to process everything that had happened. I’d gone immediately from hurling over the side of a boat to a close encounter with a whale shark all in the span of ten minutes. The voice of our guide tore me out of my thoughts. He was telling me it was time to get back to the boat, and wondering if I knew where Vince was. I of course did not, as we always seem to lose each other when snorkeling (a habit that thankfully hasn’t transferred over to diving). I squinted at a group of swimmers a few yards away until I could pick out which one was Vince. Then we collected him and returned to the boat, where it seemed that the other passengers weren’t faring any better than I had been.

Dripping salt water, I took a seat and cracked open a water bottle in a misguided attempt to rehydrate. I was vaguely aware that the other passengers were taking their turns jumping in to swim with the shark. I also took note when another particularly miserable looking tourist had an unpleasant reunion with the blue Powerade he’d downed earlier, but I was too groggy to register any sensation but my own churning stomach.

After everyone who was able had swam with the shark (Powerade Guy was too sick to move), our captain jetted off in search of another sighting. Somehow the ocean had become even choppier, and we rode right through a storm where cold, partly-frozen rain drops stung our skin. This had to be the worst experience I’d ever had on a boat, ironically juxtaposed against one of the most amazing experiences of my life. When we finally slowed down near another shark, I once again found myself hanging over the side of the boat, parting with the water I’d dutifully managed to choke down. A quick scan of the horizon revealed a handful of identical vessels bobbing on the waves, each with their own tourist hanging over the side.

But there wasn’t time to dwell on that; I had to rally again because it was me and Vince’s turn to get back into the sea. This round felt more substantial. The shark was farther off and we got to watch it for a while as it swam toward us. I admired its intricate patterning, and watched a few smaller fish swimming along in its shadow.

Everyone except for Powerade Guy (who I felt extremely bad for) got another turn swimming with the shark before the guide asked if anyone else wanted to go again. Vince was the only volunteer as the rest of us were eager to set foot on land and put the boat ride from hell behind us. I spent the long ride back in good company as seven out of the ten of us took turns hanging over the side while Vince chatted brightly with a father and son from Greece who were also unaffected.

When our captain finally let down anchor in the shallows of Playa Norte on Isla Mujeres, I jumped immediately into the water, not bothering to remove my wetsuit or my floppy hat. The guide and captain busied themselves preparing the ceviche lunch we’d been promised, but I was more concerned with relishing the first moment of comfort I’d had in hours. Being in the warm, turquoise water immediately cured my seasickness. Vince and I swam around and threw seaweed at each other as pop songs blasted from somewhere onshore. It was the quintessential sunny beach day that you hope for when you visit the Caribbean.

All too soon, the ceviche was ready. Everyone began getting back onto the boat to enjoy their meal, but Powerade Guy and I stayed in the shallow water as long as possible, taking a hard pass on the seafood lunch.

The ride back to Cancún from Isla Mujeres was mercifully short and calm, and my nausea faded away into a warm contentment as I looked at the beautiful blue ocean and remembered the majestic whale sharks. The day may not have gone exactly as I envisioned, but it was decidedly worth it.


  1. We swam with whale sharks during the same storm! And I was definitely one of the few on our boat leaning over the side with seasickness. I wish I could say that the swim with whale sharks was worth it, but while the creatures are incredible, the way some of the boats raced up and congregated around the sharks just felt so unethical. If this activity continues, I hope more regulations are put in place – otherwise, humans don’t deserve the experience.

    1. I definitely know what you mean. Activities like these can be a real ethical gray area. On the one hand, tourism like this is a great incentive for people to protect wildlife populations, on the other hand you run the risk of disrupting the wildlife’s behavior. More regulations would probably be a good idea. Maybe a stricter cap on how many boats can go out a time would be a start.

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