When I told my mother that I was flying to Cabo San Lucas to visit whale sharks, she was convinced I meant a Great White. But gobs of people know what Rhincodon typus is: the world’s biggest fish.
Almost 10 times larger than Great Whites, whale sharks have a silhouette like a predatory shark’s, with an unnervingly jutting dorsal fin. But they’re harmless filter feeders. They swim near the water’s surface with their great mouths agape, scooping up plankton, krill, and the occasional unfortunate small fish. They can grow as big as a semi-truck, weigh 20 tons, and live for a century. They are covered with luminescent white polka dots, in patterns unique to each animal, like a fingerprint.
Whale sharks have teeny-weeny teeth, but you still don’t want your limbs in their mouths as they feed.
Every year, these prehistoric behemoths binge on plankton in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez. And since the 1990s, tourists have descended on this and other whale shark hotspots, to the point that some scientists have begun to wring their hands. These gentle giants are endangered, after all. The last thing they need is some punk tourist climbing aboard them for a selfie.
But making physical contact was the last thing I planned to do. I just wanted to see this gorgeous wonder in the wild.
So one bright morning, six of us gringo tourists, having paid $200, boarded a roomy boat in the busy marina in La Paz, Mexico, and set out. Our ever-smiling guide, Carlos, scanned the flat waters and quickly spotted a whale shark. As we clumsily grabbed our fins and masks, Carlos went over the rules. Don’t touch them. Keep away from their sizable tail fins, which can give you a good whack. Keep your hands and feet away from their great maws. (Whale sharks have teeny-weeny teeth, but you still don’t want your limbs in their mouths as they feed.)
The boat pulled ahead of the creature. We plopped off the back, into the water, to fall in along either side of the giant. I was the last to go. The water’s coldness seized me, and I struggled to pull my mask on. Once I did, it felt like I was looking into a cave — a cave that was coming at me. I lunged to my left as the animal cruised past me with the other snorkelers in pursuit. I kicked wildly to catch up, but couldn’t. Defeated, I swam to the boat.
The great fish soon outran all the snorkelers. They piled back aboard, fist pumping and chanting, “Awesome!” I shivered in my dripping wet suit. When Carlos found another shark, he had me hop in first.
The sea was so murky, I couldn’t see. A guide in the water took my hand and pulled me along until suddenly, white spots appeared inches from my eyes. Again, I was far too close. I tried to move back, but two other snorkelers crowded behind me. I watched the row of dots pass me like train cars and hoped the tail wouldn’t thump me on the head.
Back in the boat, I told Carlos I’d had enough. Sometimes, once-in-a-lifetime experiences just refuse to happen. He shook his head. “Go,” he hollered, and without much hope, I jumped in again.
Below me to my right, about 10 feet away, a whale shark lazily fed. Its dots shimmered in the gray-green water. Little fish squirmed under the whale shark’s belly. Its great tail swayed slowly as if keeping time.
I froze, dumbstruck by my sudden turn of luck and the complete weirdness of what I was doing. Then I began swimming along the whale shark, which ignored me as it feasted in the silent water. We had no moment of eye contact, no spiritual mind meld, which wasn’t a surprise. Whale sharks care only about eating. Still, this creature showed me what I had come to see — how beautiful and mysterious the world can be.