Ever since I started diving, I’ve wanted to swim with whale sharks.
Photo by Zac Wolf and published under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.
I don’t know what it is about them, exactly. These enormous fish – not actually whales at all – are docile and easygoing, as if swimming – living – is a form of meditation for them. To me, they’re the epitome of calmness, the Buddhist fish of the sea. Where most denizens of the water are scatterbrained and easily distracted, darting about haphazardly, the whale shark cruises along contentedly, opening its gaping mouth occasionally for a scoop of plankton or fish, without veering from its path.
Granted, they are LARGE fish – up to 12.6 m (41.5 ft)! in length) – and it’s undoubtedly easier to swim in a straight line than to keep turning all the time. But these enormous creatures exude calmness and invite you to join them for a swim. They’re renowned for their gentleness with divers, and at certain times of the year, in certain places, they come out in droves. Though they’re often spotted swimming in solitude, if you can catch them during a migration you have much better chances of spotting, or – I could only hope! – swimming with one.
In the hunt to swim with the elusive whale shark, there are a few places in the world that come out on top.
“I WAS SNORKELING off the Pacific Coast of Mexico with my friend and former dive instructor, Ceci, when I saw what looked like a spiny tetherball with a beak spiraling from the depths towards the surface. I lifted my mask and Ceci lifted hers, preempting my question.
“It’s a blowfish,” she said, matter-of-factly. Then, “All fish are weird.”
To wit: the whale shark. Not a whale at all, and only technically a shark (with a cartilaginous skeleton, gill slits, and pectoral fins it belongs to the shark family of fish), the whale shark has an enormous mouth with up to 350 rows of tiny teeth and 10 filter pads. Like baleen whales, they’re filter-feeders and eat by straining algae, plankton, and krill from the seawater, but their name more likely derives from the fact that at sizes of up to 40 feet long and 47,000 pounds, they are the largest fish on the planet, and can live for up to 80 years. Weird, right?
Whale sharks live in all tropical and warm temperate seas, so the regions where you can swim with them — they’re known to be gentle with divers — are numerous. Whale shark numbers, however, are dwindling; the animal is on the endangered species list.
The migration patterns of whale sharks aren’t fully understood, but there are ways to increase your chances of a sighting. Where you catch up with the whale sharks will depend on the time of year and the region you’re in.” (Originally published on Matador Network.)
What’s your dream dive?
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