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Published: September 22nd 2011
Can you imagine what it would be like if you didn't know what this thing was and you just saw that headed for you?
We’re at the pier (it’s a one-pier town) by 7:30 AM. Morning Holbox is slow but not drowsy. There is too much sunlight, unyellowed by the fullness of day, to be sleepy. Multiple boats are readying their passengers and checking their reservation lists. We are with Willy’s Tours and there are 2 Americans (me and Kurt), one Swiss woman, and six Mexicans (three couples from Cancun). That proportion is pretty spot-on for the tourist demographic we see in town. Kurt and I both remark on it; this pleasant, slightly posh beach town has far more Mexican tourists than foreign ones. Which makes it feel much more homey.
Our guide, Abram, is a 30-something sweet-faced man who brings along his shy wife (turns out she’s only been out 3 times before!). Our captain is a gray-bearded fellow who lets the younger man do his thing and only adds an occasional comment here and there. Abram starts to speak to us in English but I ask him to give us the Spanish spiel. And so he does telling us a bit about the creatures we’re about to swim with. He calls them “chicitito” (little ones) since these ones are
Swimming with sharks
Snorkelers just as they have turned to swim alongside the animal
only 10-12m (33-39ft) long! The Galapagos ones get up to 20m. There are rules about snorkeling with whale sharks, no touching, keep about 3m of distance, and minimize noise/vibration disturbance by not flopping about on the surface with your flippers.
During the ride over, I find myself standing the whole time, reveling in the wind and the movement of the boat, chopping down over the wakes left by other boats. The captain spots pelicans wheeling and he says that that is always a sure sign of whale sharks. The birds feed on the smaller pelagic fish that chum around with the gargantuan one. Turns out that we’re lucky. There are multiple whale sharks out today and thus the boats don’t have to gang up on just one or two unfortunates. Our captain and guide are very diligent about moving away from other boats and finding “unclaimed” whale sharks.
From the surface, you can only see a small wake, the top of the enormous mouth, a sleek back with a spattering of white spots, and one fin. We go in pairs (max of 2 plus guide in the water). The boat curves around so that it is perpendicular to
the feeding shark and suddenly it’s “Vamos! Vamos! Vamos!” (Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!) Abram, Kurt and I push off the side of the boat and swim like hell straight at the approaching behemoth. As soon as we can see it through our goggles, we turn so we are swimming alongside of it. The first time is slightly overwhelming with the shouts from the captain on board directing our guide (and us), trying not to veer into the whale shark, being aware of my flipper action, making sure my snorkel tube doesn’t bob underwater, and of course, trying to take in this fast-moving incredible view. We all go 5 times and every time, my eyes and mind open wide to take it all in.
The whole is fractured by the creature’s effortless speed and my clumsy sea-floundering. But each time I see something new, get to absorb an additional piece. Images filter through in jumbled flashes: gaping capacious mouth, small black eye, a silvery retinue of sardines swimming beneath, white spots on a smooth surface, turn sideways so flippers don’t disturb, gills expanding and collapsing, ooh! lamprey!, dark narrow tail cutting deepdeep, surface view again, pelican, boat, snorkeled guide.
After our first round, Abram gently but firmly guides me with a hand on my shoulder. Sure enough, I relax a bit, knowing he will keep from bumping into the animal.
We are all happy-tired and talk is minimal on the way back. But somehow I find the energy to still squeal at pelicans and cry out in surprised joy as a manta rays pops out of the ocean for a split second of flight. I can’t seem to remain sitting for more than a minute despite my body's urgings. The boat slows briefly to check out some dolphins and Abram leans close to me and tells me “Go up! Up top!” I turn and clamber up a white ladder to the top without hesitation, not even telling Kurt who’s still looking for dolphins. It blocks my view of the entire boat and it’s just me, on a white deck, and the ocean and the shore spool out without distraction.
And now there is unfiltered glee. I ride firmly planted, legs wide, leaning against the wind. Butterflies flit out to sea and back, another ray explodes out of the water, a small flock of washed-out
pink flamingos sift near the shore. Abram checks up on me once and smiles. I stay on top the rest of the way back.
After that, the afternoon and evening spiral slowly down. The rest of my afternoon is appropriated by a determined 7-year-old (daughter of the hostel’s cleaners) bent on beauty. I bring my nail polish out to the hammocks with a book and paint one toenail and then there she is, smiling in anticipation. She insists on painting my toenails with three colors and then proceeds to work on my hair, refusing all offers from me to let me pretty her up as well.
Then a dip in the ocean, dinner again in a more subdued Sunday night plaza, drinks on a swing, wade in the ocean shallows lit by a nearly full moon. And we spiral back to our treetop hostel and into sleep.
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