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All in the same boat: David Whitley

Ultimately, it’s not where you go or how you get there that matters — it’s who you’re stuck with along the way

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The last person to be picked up is a French woman who bounds in with a giddiness of someone a third of her age. “This will be the first time I’ve swum in the sea,” she yabbers, oblivious to how early it is and how hungover the guys from Tennessee in the back are.

For a first venture into saltwater swimming, it’s an extremely bold one. We’re going to the islands off Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, where whale sharks — the biggest fish on Earth — tend to be found from June to September.

Before that, though, there’s a long drive. Which offers ample time for observing the most fascinating part of any tour: the group dynamics.

Small talk is an absolute must in these scenarios, if only to prevent the whole thing seeming incredibly awkward. What’s your name? Where are you from? How long are you away for?

Sometimes, there will be a connection — usually based around where people are from. The group will divide into factions early on. These may be based on who’s sitting next to each other, or who got picked up first and struck up conversation before the rest jumped on board. Sometimes it’ll be on geographical connections, or else the age-old divide between people who are sickeningly bubbly in the mornings and those who prefer to grouch a bit before kicking into gear.

By the time we finally board the boat, though, it’s very obvious there’ll be a ‘back of the boat’ — the dad and son from Tennessee, and the mum and daughter from Milwaukee — and a ‘front of the boat’. Which is basically the rest of us who are less bellow-y. In our small motorboat, this means the Americans get gallons of spray chucked in their faces, while the United Nations at the front endures back-crippling bounces every time we hit a large swell at high speed.

After the long bus journey, there’s a long boat ride to where the whale sharks are. This is time to bond. While roars of laughter come from the back, the front is a hotbed of stilted chit-chat as everyone realises their language skills are somewhat limited. At first, it’s fun trying to group-translate from Spanish to French to English and all the way back again, but as one hour passes, then two, it soon gets wearing.

But the back of the boat is getting quieter too. And it’s not about being becalmed by the lazy bliss of bobbing around on the waves. Everyone has started to realise something is wrong. The guide is in serious discussion with the boat skipper and behaving notably less chirpily than earlier on. It’s not difficult to work out what they’re talking about, as for at least half an hour the scouring of the horizon for whale sharks has morphed into slumped-shoulder half-heartedness.

Finally, the guide rises, looking like she’s just seen a mass grave. “We have had reports of one shark about 40 minutes away,” she says with trepidation. “But there are 56 boats following it. We’ve got no chance.”

We have a choice. We can go snorkelling somewhere else, with no whale sharks, or go back as quickly as we can and get a 50% refund.

Tour group dynamics are at their best when things go wrong. No one wants to make the call. The Tennessee boys are furious at not getting a full refund; the Milwaukee girls are struggling to accept that wild animals don’t turn up on cue; the Mexicans want to at least make something of the day; and the French woman is silent. Partly due to not understanding what’s going on, partly due to feeling dog-rough on choppy seas.

It descends into noncommittal/passive- aggressive ‘I’m happy to go with the majority decision’-spouting. Then, just as we all agree to head home, we realise there’s no toilet on board.

The French lady may not have got to break her swimming-in-the-sea duck, but on the plus side, she did get to watch six strangers urinating in said sea while she was violently sick over the side of the boat.

Published in the October 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)