“Swim, swim!” bellowed Captain Beto with a startling sense of urgency. But he wasn’t panicked and ordering me to return to the boat. No, he was urging me to paddle straight towards the five-metre shark that was closing in on me.
There was nothing to fear though. I was off the coast of Mexico to swim with the gentle giants of the ocean. Every year between June and September, hundreds of migrating whale sharks descend upon the waters north of Cancun making it one of the best places in the world to get up close and personal with the largest fish on the planet.
And they are indeed large. Very large. Measuring up to 20m in length, the docile creatures are famed for their colossal mouths — some times 2m wide — that hoover up 1,500 gallons of plankton-rich water every hour.
Leaving the high-rise hotels of Cancun behind, we had sailed for over an hour to a spot of open water where a dozen boats had gathered. Onboard each were a handful of passengers kitted out in snorkels and flippers, all peering over the edge eagerly at the 20 or so blackened shapes moving slowly through the water.
But unlike other such marine experiences, like swimming with seals and wild dolphins in New Zealand, strict rules are in place when it comes to hanging out with whale sharks. Only two people are permitted around a shark at any one time and must be accompanied by a guide. Boats, meanwhile, must leave a gap of at least 10m.
Soon, it was time to slip into the tepid water. Following Beto’s advice, I plunged below the surface and gazed into the slightly cloudy water. A dark shape formed in the depths. Emerging directly ahead, its gaping mouth opening and closing, the shark’s giant gills rippled in the current. My heart thumped loudly as it drew closer and all thoughts of Jaws evaporated in an instant, replaced instead with the story of Jonah and the Whale.
Unfazed by the goggling snorkeller ahead, the shark merely changed course lethargically. For several lingering seconds we swam alongside each other, eye to eye, while I thrashed my legs wildly in a desperate bid to keep up. Energy levels depleting I soon conceded, and the shark’s slick grey body glided by like a submarine speckled with white spots and yellow stripes. With a swish of the tail, it vanished into blue abyss joined by small fish that swam beside its pale underbelly.
“I’ve been leading trips to see the whale sharks for six years and it’s still exciting,” said Beto as I climbed back onboard with an euphoric smile. “They are the most beautiful animals and so peaceful but they need our help.”
He had a point. It’s a sad but true fact that some 73 million sharks are cruelly slaughtered every year — the majority of which to meet demand for shark fin soup in the Far East. Whale sharks are rarely used in the controversial delicacy but continue to be hunted so their fins can be placed in restaurant windows to advertise the dish.
For the next couple of hours, I took several unforgettable dips with my new underwater friends: a precious few minutes that were each spine-tingling, serene and just a tad terrifying all rolled into one.