Whale shark swim sparks waves of remorse
"Go! Now! Jump!"
Frantically adjusting my mask and snorkel while trying not to tumble head first over the edge of our open boat, I followed our tour guide's barked orders and leapt - into the choppy waters off Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, and into a growing controversy.
Swimming side by side in the wild with a schoolbus-sized whale shark, the biggest fish in the sea, had been on my bucket list for years. We'd booked our mid-August trip to Isla Holbox, a slender spit of sand, mangroves and small boho-chic hotels about 120 miles northwest of Cancun, knowing that summer was prime time for the gentle giants. Feeding on plankton and krill just below the surface, they congregate near here in groups that can number in the hundreds - and tour companies that offer the prospect of a close encounter (for $125 or so per person) are booming.
After nearly three hours of seemingly aimless careening across the bounding main, I knew we were finally getting close when I spotted an armada of other boats on the horizon. By the time our captain cut his engine, we were surrounded - not by whale sharks, but by scores of skiffs jostling for prime positions like hyenas circling a fresh carcass.
Officially, whale shark swims in Mexico are subject to strict regulations, including snorkeling only in groups of two with a guide, mandatory use of lifejackets or wetsuits, and keeping a minimum distance (16 feet between whale shark and swimmer, 32 feet between whale sharks and boats).
Our reality: Immediately after jumping overboard with our guide (and receiving no instructions beforehand), we saw a dark, looming shadow and paddled furiously toward it...only to be motioned back to our boat to give the next two passengers a shot. So much, I groused, for ethereal communing with a creature of the deep.
A few minutes later, we got a second chance. And this time, swimming close enough to see the polka-dotted whale shark's massive gills whooshing in and out, I felt incredibly fortunate. Yes, the experience had lasted only a couple of moments. But it was worth it - until the doubts seeped in.
Back home, I kept thinking about the scrum of tour boats and the hordes of human admirers. I had headed to Holbox thinking that swimming in the wild would be a more natural, less intrusive alternative than the orchestrated encounters with captive whale sharks at Atlanta's Georgia Aquarium ($234 a pop for non-members).
Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist with the Animal Welfare Institute, blames my misguided longings on a worldwide, "Disneyfied concept of nature," in which an entire generation of tourists has been trained to think that interaction with wildlife is an entitlement.
Whale sharks are "completely benign" and may not be the sharpest knives in the ocean drawer, but "just because they don't think much doesn't mean they can't feel hemmed in and feel stress," Rose told me. "You're not removing them from their natural habitat, but you're invading their livingroom."
So, as I celebrate International Whale Shark Day, I'm also apologizing to the 10-ton denizens of the deep for barging into their home.