Isla Mujeres, Mexico: Swimming with Giants Part Uno

Where do I begin. Where do I even friggin begin. I’ve been avoiding this post because it’s just so difficult to convey the magic of an experience in writing. For me at least. But I’ll give it a shot, so here goes.

As explained before, I’ve always fantasized about swimming with whale sharks and manta rays but never thought it was something that was feasible, let alone relatively inexpensive. I intentionally booked the excursion for the day after we arrived in the event of inclement weather or cancellation by the business for any other reason. That way, I had two alternate days I could book. I was NOT leaving that island until I got the opportunity to see them. If we couldn’t find them in the ocean, fine, but I sure as hell didn’t travel to Mexico to sip on margaritas. This was surely a gamble and the first time I’ve ever traveled with one specific goal in mind. One that mother nature would control. Luckily, my wildest dreams came true on an absolutely perfectly calm and sunny day.

I’d been watching the weather like a hawk. Not only did I have the potential for clouds and rain to contend with, but when you’re dream also involves boating to the middle of the ocean, the swell also comes into play. But the day was absolutely gorgeous. Sunny, hot as you know what, not even an island breeze, and glassy calm waters. High friggin five. We had to get ourselves to the dock at Oscar’s Restaurant, where our boat would be departing. I fully expected, and dreaded, a gaggle of tourists to be waiting with us to get on the boat but my dismay, we were the only ones on the dock. We were greeted by a young man with On Isla Mujeres Water Tours, introduced to the captain and first mate (Manny and Andres), and presented with “breakfast” that consisted of some granola, yogurt cups, and a slice of pound cake.

The greeter gave us the run down on what to expect, the schedule of events, what we needed, etc. He also presented his disclaimer about whale shark sightings, explaining that it wasn’t guaranteed, blah blah blah, it’s a wild animal, blah blah, but that they had successfully spotted them for 28 straight days. Good call on his part but it caused a wee bit of panic. What if I was the first in 28 days to NOT see them? Deep breath. Tip: we opted to rent wetsuits instead of lifejackets so we paid the extra $10 to have the freedom to freedive a little when swimming. I recommend it if you are a good swimmer. Second note: There are many whale shark tour regulations and one of them is that every swimmer has to wear a wetsuit or lifejacket. Details about the regulations later.

We hopped on our boat, “Anastacia 2”, and we were off. It was just the two of us, one other American couple that lived on the island (and knew the boat crew), and the Captain (Andres), First Mate (Manny), and their little nephew. I was beaming knowing that I wasn’t going to be packed like a sardine into a trove of other hot sweaty people. Anastacia was a big blue beast that has seen her day. Manny had to take the cover off the motor and manually jump start it. You know what the trim on a house looks like when you’ve painted it so many times that you can no longer see the wood joints? That’s what Anastacia looked like, only worse. She had an open but covered seating area which was MONEY on this hot day. It looked like at one point there were, or should have been, windows so you can drive the boat from the inside but instead, it was fiberglassed over. Anastacia almost looked like she was handmade, but she definitely didn’t disappoint. She cut through the water like a submarine and it was amazing to have shade when needed. Most of the tour boats in Mexico are pangas (local fishing boat) but they are much smaller than our big blue beast. Although they were much faster than Anastacia, they were bouncing around quite a bit.

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There she is in all her glory.  Don’t you think the front was a window at one point?

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Manny manually starting the engine with a towel and a couple twists and turns of something.

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After a little over an hour, Manny waived to get my attention and pointed to a group of boats on the horizon. All of the tour boats congregate in the same spot when they’ve located the whale sharks. It was a good sign and meant that my dream would now be realized. I couldn’t even control myself at this point. We were one of the last ones to arrive and, per our greeter, that was intentional. Why leave at the crack of dawn and waste all this time motoring around to find them when you can just arrive late to the party? Love it! As we got closer, Manny and Andres started excitedly screaming to each other in Spanish. Manny was down in the boat with us, while Andres is driving from a tower on top of the boat. So every communication between the two involves screaming. I can only understand every few words but it’s getting me all nervous and worked up.

Manny screams, “There, there, there. Whale shark, whale shark!” Dyyyyyyinnnnggggg. Yep, got all choked up. Just off the front of the boat, I can see the tip of a fin and a mouth as wide as a car (ok maybe not that big), feasting on a sheet of plankton along the surface of the water. More Spanish screaming between the crew occurs. Manny screams to us to get ready. By this point I had my wetsuit on but nothing else prepared. So I hurriedly put on my gear and grabbed my GoPro but I didn’t know what else he wanted me to do. How does this work? What do I do? I’m in a rush but I don’t know what I’m rushing to do! We pull up along side the first one and got a glimpse of just how clear the water was and the enormity of these creatures. Hoooooooly crap. It was longer than our boat, maybe 60 feet or so. I could be way off but it was effing huge. It had no care in the world that we were chasing it. From the surface, it looked like it was just chilling and in no hurry to get anywhere. More on that later.  See my Facebook page for videos.  They might involve involve shrieking and a lot of “oh my goshes”.  Sorry, not sorry.

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Hard to see its size relative to the boat in this pic.  More underwater pics in the next blog.

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Nervous smiles!

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This is the open cabin, complete with rosary beads.

Manny told us to sit on the edge of the boat and get ready to jump. He squeezes in between my mom and I and links his arms into ours. He explained that he would tell us when to jump, we would all go at the same time and then swim like hell together towards the whale shark.

I’m shaking like a leaf.

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