It All Started With A Whale Shark

Dudefluencer: The Whale Shark

It’s July of 2016 and I’ve found serenity out in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico. The sun is beating down over the clear blue waters, providing the perfect backdrop for snorkeling. At this exact moment, I’ve found myself swimming alongside a bus-sized beast, being taken along for the ride like the Snowy to its Tintin. After a couple of hundred yards swimming underwater, I peer up over the gently rolling waves to locate my boat. Spotting it off in the distance, I’m ready to make the trek back knowing the serenity I had just experienced was well worth the minor inconvenience. But I never would have guessed the eventual changes this experience would be the catalyst for.

Today, I am a young, award-winning Biomedical Engineer with a promising future in the medical device field. Let me rephrase that: I WAS a young, award-winning Biomedical Engineer with a promising future in the medical device field. I designed and developed medical devices, many of which are in hospitals today, in a burgeoning field with plenty of growth potential: a secure and honest living many would hope for.  But just three weeks ago, I put in my resignation in an attempt to find something more fulfilling: a [mostly] solo worldwide trip over the next year, leaving my former career behind. 

It was a shock to many, even if those closest to me knew it was inevitable. Though both amiable and respectful in the situation, my management was certainly taken aback by the sudden change. The initial “Uh-oh” was followed by questions: to what company was I going, was there anything that could be done to change my mind, if I would consider coming back in the future. But once he realized the motive behind my departure, travels

As requested, I shared with him and many of my former coworkers my plans: A couple of months in Europe and the Middle East, a couple of months in Africa, then open-ended travels in Asia. Once I’m done and/or out of money, I have no clue where I’ll go or end up, but for now, I want to live in the present.

How did I get here? It may have all started with a Whale Shark. 

The past 5 years, I’ve been planning annual week-long trips with a group of friends to different international locations. February 2016 landed us in Playa del Carmen, in the heart of the Mayan Riviera. This also happens to be serendipitously close to a major feeding ground of my favorite aquatic animal: The Whale Shark: the world’s largest fish. It’s an odd choice, I know. But the idea of a fish the size of a school bus, so docile, yet so beautiful, has always enraptured me.

Consequently, one of the best places in the world to see these magnificent creatures is the Gulf of Mexico, just off the coast of Cancun. Tour groups have taken full advantage of that, plastering advertisements for Whale Shark Tours all over the Mayan Riviera. As we drove from the Cancun airport down to Playa del Carmen, time flew by – I was both in awe of the scenic tropics around me and eagerly anticipating seven days with some of my closest friends. But even with the emotional high of the moment and the premonition of the week to come, I couldn’t help but notice the Whale Shark Tour billboards piquing my interest.

After our week exploring the Mayan Riviera, four of us were lucky enough to spend an extra day in Cancun. I hoped to sneak in a quick tour, but unfortunately, their annual migratory pattern has them far from the Mexican coast in February. To optimize one’s likelihood of seeing the animals, you would need to visit in the heart of the summer. Though I accepted that it wasn’t meant to be, I certainly earmarked it: “Maybe some other time,” I naively thought to myself.

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Rekindling The Flame

Flash forward five months to a Wednesday in July 2016. With an extra day off on Friday and feeling a deep sense of wanderlust, I felt an impromptu trip was in order. After some deliberation, I determined the most convenient weekend away would be Cancun. Make no mistake, the sole purpose of that trip (besides some sunbathing and drinks with fancy umbrellas) would be the adventure I courted in February but ultimately backed away from.

A few friends feigned interest before eventually absconding their involvement in the trip. This was fine by me. I’d never traveled alone, and I thought the quick weekend would be the perfect time to test my limits a little.

The Anticipation

Pearson Airport Toronto

Once Friday morning came, I drove up to Toronto and boarded my flight to Cancun. After landing, I took the shuttle to my hotel, checked in, met some fellow vacationers, and made sure to enjoy a couple of complimentary libations. I’m not typically a fan of the more lavish, all-inclusive version of travel, but in the words of Donna Meagle, sometimes you just gotta “treat yo’ self”. All joking aside, I made sure to retire reasonably early that night. At 6:00 the next morning, the shuttle was picking me up to head out on the water and I wasn’t going to let a little free food and drink get in the way of this.

When the shuttle came, I was eager and wide-awake with anticipation despite the early hours. Anyone who knows me probably wouldn’t consider me a morning person, but on that day, I was the embodiment of it. I can’t honestly say it was instant gratification; after being picked up we had to withstand the long shuttle ride to headquarters, the dry safety briefing, and wetsuit fittings. Still, I felt as though nothing could dampen my spirits that day. After all, the next step was to head out on the open waters.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous. I’ve been on a handful of excursions that didn’t quite fulfill expectations. The key for me was setting hopes high but keeping expectations low. On the ride out though, I talked with our guide Raul for some length. Even under the bucket hat, sunglasses, deep tan, long hair, and five o’clock shadow he couldn’t hide his enthusiasm: he had been informed via radio that Whale Sharks were plentiful that day. The 20+ foot, smooth-skinned, filter-feeding, gentle giants of the sea were out in abundance it seemed. Still, I tempered my expectations and told myself that I’d be happy to see a few. Getting to swim with them would just be gravy.

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The Payoff

When we arrived at our dive site, I instantly knew why Raul had such a cheeky attitude: Whale Sharks were breaching the ocean’s surface like a whack-a-mole game at your county fair.

An interesting thing happens during the summer months in the Gulf of Mexico. As currents come up off the Yucatan they form a bit of a cyclone, picking up fish eggs, krill, and plankton along the way. The “vortex” created about 50 miles northeast of Cancun forms a proverbial buffet for Whale Sharks. These giant filter feeders gather in massive quantities to feed at the surface. And the buffet was certainly open that day.

Getting the boat into optimal position was easy enough, and once we did, we were off to start snorkeling. With a boat of 9 people and only one tour guide, we couldn’t all go at once.  In small groups, we took our turns in the water. Selfishly, I went first and listened closely to Raul’s instructions. Though we definitively were in no palpable danger, he wanted us to maximize this unique experience. The first three of us waited patiently, bobbing in the water, as he provided best practices for catching their wake and riding their momentum. In my attempt to recall (albeit imperfectly) it went a little something like this: 

With your mask just underwater, keep your head on a swivel and look in all directions for a shadow growing larger. Once you see it come into view, let the shark choose its path, and turn to swim alongside it. When you get close to the animal, swim adjacent to it. At that point, something magical will happen. The water around the shark will form a wake, pulling you forward faster than you could normally swim, much like how a wake surfer without a tow-line can still keep up with a boat. And at that point, it’s yours to freestyle; take it for as long as you want..

It was a bit tricky at first. If you didn’t keep your snorkel perfectly upright, the wake pulled by the massive creatures would wash up into your snorkel and cut your swim a little short. As you stopped to gather your breath, the shark would be long-gone. After a few relatively unsuccessful rounds for everyone, I went back out again.

Swimming with Whale Sharks

It’s hard to describe the feeling when seeing a 20+-foot fish swimming directly towards you while simultaneously opening its mouth to feed. While surprisingly non-threatening, it’s both awe-inspiring and humbling. The sharks are both apathetic to and alert to your presence in the water with them.

Just a gentle turn of its caudal fin steers the shark away from you, like a massive oil-tanker navigating through a canal. Once you see that, it’s your turn to act, and you better pick up speed quickly. Whale Sharks may appear to be plodding, but that is merely an illusion due to their massive size.

Finally, I found my mark: a solid twenty-five-footer coming right towards me. As it gently breached the surface, it became my time to act. Like a surfer trying to catch a wave, I began swimming alongside the shark in an attempt to ride in its wake. Once I successfully navigated the slipstream for the first time, I knew exactly what Raul had been trying to teach us. With minimal effort, you can glide through the water adjacent to the behemoths.

When you find yourself in that position, something magical transpires. The world outside, with its chaotic sights and sounds, washes away into a blue blur of serenity. For that brief moment, the only things I heard was my respiratory pattern; the only thing I saw was the gentle giant swimming alongside.

If you’ve ever watched a Sci-Fi movie where the protagonist enters a wormhole, it felt akin to that. Though the speeds were drastically slower, all I could feel around me was the Whale Shark and the wake pulling me with it. I would use the word tranquil, but that doesn’t quite encapsulate just how incredible a feeling it was.

At last call, I decided it was my time to be a little selfish. If I had booked the entire trip for this purpose, I was going to make the most of it. While the rest of the boat waited, I attempted one last cavort with a colossus. I pinpointed my target, ducked my head under the water, and began my last excursion.

For what seemed like hours (though it was closer to about 5 minutes), I fervently observed the pattern the whale shark adjacent to me. I wanted to burn the image of this creature and every detail of that moment so deep into my memory that it would never be forgotten. Eventually, I had taken in the experience to my desire and I had to let my friend go. After the long majestic swim, I finally poked my head up out of the water in an attempt to locate my boat, as I alluded to earlier. And though I said it once, I will gladly repeat it: the long swim back was well worth the ride I was taken on.

Swimming next to Whale Sharks

I’m Not As Young As I Used To Be

Once we were ready to pack it in and retire from our hours of shark-swimming, the captain navigated the boat to Isla de Mujeres where he prepared some ceviche (and opened some cervezas) for us all. Ceviche, raw fish “salsa” marinated in citrus with diced vegetables/fruits, a fitting cap to the day.

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