The Off-the-Grid Guide to Swimming With Whale Sharks

RCL adventure correspondent Kinga Philipps takes you face-to-face with the world's biggest fish.

July 24, 2017 5:00 am

What better place for a solo sojourn than the turquoise waters of the Caribbean and a place called Isla Mujeres, the island of women. It was my eat, pray, love of sorts. Except instead of pasta, I indulged in tacos. Instead of in an ashram, I found my peace beneath the waves. Instead of Javier Bardem, I met a weathered fisherman named Ramon … and his whale sharks.

Isla Mujeres, a 20-minute ferry ride from the mainland, can actually be seen from Cancun’s hotel zone. Hidden in plain sight.

Because the island hasn’t yet received as much attention as neighboring hot spots like Tulum, the stunning beaches, inexpensive hotels, cheap eats and charming local vibe remain relatively unspoiled. You can feel the winds of change starting, but they’re still just a warm breeze.

The place looks like the set of a beer commercial. Transparent water, white sand that puts freshly fallen snow to shame, perfectly coifed palm trees and ridiculous sunsets. A slice of still unspoiled paradise. No one could fault you for a day spent lounging in a hammock with a cold one in hand.

Isla Mujeres
(Courtesy Kinga Philipps)

But I’m not much of a lounger. I came to see the whale sharks that migrate here each June to September. The largest gathering ever recorded, 420 strong, happened right in these waters.

After a mandatory arrival dip in the ocean, I was instructed to check in with my outfitter, Searious Divers, at an internet café in the town square. There I met Ramon. If I was looking for my version of The Old Man and the Sea, I found him. Hemingway would approve.

Two hours later, we had discussed everything from the migration habits of whale sharks, his long-standing conservation efforts to protect them too, randomly, the medicinal uses of various jungle plants. Ramon was one of the original fishermen in the area to encounter the whale shark gatherings back in the ’90s. It wasn’t till 2006 that the information was released to the scientific community. With research came the tourists and those wanting to capitalize on them. Ramon has been instrumental in orchestrating protective measures and continues to fight to protect the sharks. Although his livelihood is taking visitors to see them, he ultimately hopes to one day make the area completely protected and closed off to commercial tourism. That’s a bitter sweet thought as the sharks deserve their peace, but it’s also one of the most exceptional opportunities to encounter breathtaking wildlife up close and personal.

After all that however we checked the weather and Ramon informed me that whale sharks don’t like rain and disappear into the depths so tomorrows trip would be postponed.

Isla Mujeres
(Courtesy Kinga Philipps)

I, on the other hand, like rain. I rented a bike and cruised the five-mile long island, only slightly blinded by a mild tropical downpour. I explored every stretch of beach, gorgeous old cemeteries, visited Punta Sur where the sun first touches Mexican soil each morning, ate my fill of roadside tacos and made friends with several members of the islands well-groomed population of stray cats. My bike, nicknamed tetanus with wheels, proved itself to be a valuable off road option and a considerable amount of exercise, which balanced the foodie in me.

The food on the island is a mix of standard Mexican fare, all quite good, and the more touristy options offering the likes of “best pizza on the island.” Can’t say if it was. I opted for my fill of tacos instead. If street food is your calling, there are plenty of carts and small pop-up restaurants for your indulgence. I’m personally drawn to street food like a moth to a flame, so I happily ate local delights rarely spending more than a few dollars. Dollars being the key word because dollars are accepted everywhere. Plastic money is not.

The more time you spend on the island, the more unspoiled the place seems. The locals all know each other, the popular tourist spots are the local favorites as well, island children play on beautiful North Beach mixed with the more sunburned imports. The divide hasn’t reached the tipping point here yet. Of course, the locals will tell you that it’s changed in recent years, but that’s inevitable I suppose.

Fortunately for me, whale sharks are frugal and have chosen the low season to visit. Bonus for me as my beach front hotel, Cabanas Maria Del Mar, was $76 per night. Nothing fancy, but clean and safe with a lovely restaurant in the sand and a bar with swings and a view of the water. A variety of options from five-star hotels and various Airbnbs abound, so there’s an option for every taste.

On day three, I made it to the sharks. One hour by boat over choppy seas and we arrived at the feeding grounds. Whale sharks are filter feeders eating mostly plankton but show up to these waters to dine on Bonito tuna eggs and this was an all you can eat buffet.

Massive speckled beasts surrounded us like animatronic Disney creatures on rails. Giant mouths skimmed the surface.  Huge fins cut through the water all around our small craft. If they had been anything but gentle giants, this would be a nightmare. The Eiffel Tower, the Great Pyramid of Giza and zip lock sandwich bags are all ridiculously cool, but nature trumps us every time.

Rules are only two people in the water at one time. Only free swimming is allowed, no scuba gear. Touching the sharks is prohibited. However don’t be surprised if the sharks touch you. A brush of a tail or at least the pull of water as one swims intoxicatingly close.

I jumped in, camera in hand, and choked on my snorkel in amazement. Thirty-foot behemoths moved toward me with mouths agape until the very last second before impact when they would gracefully divert course and glide beneath like a semi truck with the delicate nature of a ballerina. If that’s not on your bucket list, write it in immediately.

Isla Mujeres
(Courtesy Kinga Philipps)

Among the sharks were hundreds of manta rays spinning underwater and occasionally leaping out of it in alien displays of mastery over air and water. I popped my head out of the water to assess distance to my next shark and felt the soft impact of a gelatinous mass. Realizing I had been blundered into by a clumsy manta is still at the top of my life highlight reel.

In a fortunate twist of events my camera equipment failed. Fortunate because it forced me to be present. I was no longer there to get the perfect shot. I was just there. As if on cue, a whale shark pulled up beside me and let me pace it. On my other side another joined us and I, sandwiched between two monster fish, swam watching mantas float past wishing to be nowhere else on earth in that moment but there.

Other than whale sharks, the area also offers superb diving. I made contact with a small dive shop, Scuba Garrido, which turned out to be an excellent choice for quality of dive options as well as the people who worked there. We did two dives exploring local reefs and the well known underwater museum where various statues, including a Volkswagen Beetle, have been erected to serve as a reconstructed reef.

On the morning of my departure, I swam with the whale sharks again. Then with salt in my hair, sand still stuck to my feet and one last taco in hand, I flew home.

Never one to sit still, Kinga Philipps has tested herself for the past decade by traveling the globe, rappelling, caving, scuba diving, jumping out of airplanes and diving with the sharks as a writer, producer and on-camera host. In her rare bits of free time, Kinga explores her singular fascination with sharks followed by a love for the beach, surfing, motorcycles, cars, charity work, travel, food and action sports.


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