Day 56: Whale sharks

So on this most perfect of days, this photogenic expedition with ten shades of teal and four sunburnt smiles, we have to tell the story with no photos (we will persist). We could blame the wifi but let’s instead just accept it; too much infrastructure might spoil things.

To recap, we are on Holbox Island, a strip of land 20 km x 2km to the west of Cancun, just off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula in the south of Mexico. Does that make sense? We are where the Gulf of Mexico meets the Caribbean Sea, and when the currents mix so can the sands, which leads to a black mixture – hence the island’s name, ‘black hole’. Somehow ‘Holbox’ (pronounced Holbosch) sounds better.

The big draw are the whale sharks, who come to the sea near here each summer to gorge on plankton. Apparently this is one the best places to see them and in Mexico you’re even allowed to swim with them.

This is big business. In a country where we are told up to 30% of people only take home $100 a month, a day hunting (not literally) down whale sharks is £90 or $117. There are little wooden stands promoting whale shark tours everywhere – on the beach, lining the streets and you can see why. Our guide tells us he works for 3 months and parties for 9 – and who has the quality of life?

Anyway, the day starts with perfection, the sea as still as ice and the sky a perfect blue. The colours merge on the horizon and it feels like the last scene of the Truman Show, where they create the perfect sea before it is turned to storm.

10 of us board the boat with guide and Captain. We are about to go and Mrs C asks “Es possible un café con leche?” Mrs C does not like being decaffeinated.

‘No’ the Captain grunts and I want to commend him on his bravery, but the customer comes first in Mexico when they’ve paid £90 a head so he relents and says ‘Cinco minutos’ and Luce has 5 minutes to run for a coffee which means 10.

The twin 150cc engines are cranked up to the max and we skim across the water as if we’re auditioning for the opening scene of Miami Vice or fleeing Somali pirates. A disparate platoon of 10-tourist boats heads out to where they think whale sharks will be, and we all want the same thing: to see these fish but without 100 other boats around. That will prove to be impossible.

After 90 minutes the top layers of our faces have been sanded off by the wind and we are miles away. We spot a boat which has stopped moving. A-hah. Our Captain cruises over and senses the whale shark and suddenly we see two fins: the dorsal and tail fin of one fish.

Why are they so special? As they are bloody huge, very graceful, exceptionally beautiful with grey skin and little white Emma Bridgewater spots on their backs, and hard to track down. They grow to 12m in length and about 20 tonnes at maximum, and their claim to fame is to be the ‘biggest fish in the world’, or ‘the largest extant fish species’ if you are a pedant. They are filter feeders and head south in the winter. I note that Wikipedia says that ecotourism based on the sharks has grown to “unsustainable levels” in the Yucatan area. Hmm.

We see the fins and urgency grips us. ‘Listo, listo’ our guide shouts (get ready) and we line up. You jump in with the guide in teams of two; you get a minute or two in the water then it is the others’ turn; and you do this while all the other boats (we started with 6 other boats of 10 people and finished with 13 boats) take their turns too. The boats and snorkelers are circling this poor creature and the sense of humans loving their planet to death is hard to avoid. We are part of the problem, of course, and it is the same conflict that we’ve felt in Tanzania with rhinos and in Sri Lanka with blue whales and in Brazil with turtles: I really want to see them but I don’t feel good about screwing up their habitat. The selfish desire for experience tends to trump the ethical.

Lola and I jump in, with masks and flippers. It takes a few seconds to understand what is happening, which is that this enormous whale shark (5-6 metres in length) is about a metre away and if I carry on in the same direction I am going to hit it (which is a big no-no) so I start reversing in a clumsy manner. The shark is nonchalant, or perhaps bored by the humans, and drifts passed with an ease and a grace which few living things possess. It is surprisingly fast and we cannot keep up. After about 120 seconds we are called out to give the next couple of people a go.

Luce and Cesca are the last couple from our boat, but in fact they get a longer, closer experience then we all have a second dip. The experience is hard to do justice. We have never seen such large creatures in real life and being underwater makes the whole thing surreal, as if it is just a super-wide screen TV. The nose is a strange shape, squared off and theoretically unattractive, but being so close to this fish in its own home is perhaps the greatest privilege of our trip.

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