Each year massive whale sharks return to the Mexican Caribbean,off the coast of Cancun and Mexico’s Riviera Maya,to feed between May and September during their annual migration. These enormous creatures are the largest fish in the world,and at first glance it does look like they could easily swallow a human whole,reported Caroline Winter for Bloomberg Pursuits.
“’There’s one coming right at us,’ says our guide. She’s pointing at a shark fin about 40 feet away. Moments later the whale shark glides underneath us. It’s the same size as our 34-foot motorboat,if not bigger. She zips up her wetsuit. ‘Ok,who’s ready to get in the water?’”
Winter and her crew were 30 miles offshore from Isla Mujeres in the Mexican Caribbean and no land was in sight. Here,the ocean is at least 300 feet deep and right below is a group of what appears to be about 20 whale sharks. As the largest fish in the world,whale sharks can easily reach more than 40 feet in length and can weigh upwards of 47,000 pounds. To put this in perspective,this equals around five good-size elephants. Their mouths can open to around five feet wide and they have three rows of hundreds of tiny,raspy teeth. Fortunately,whale sharks are filter feeders,subsisting on plankton and the occasional fish,but humans aren’t on the menu.
“Still,it’s easy to imagine a whale shark swallowing an entire person,like Jonah in the bible,” wrote Winter.
Before embarking on her trip,marine biologist and whale shark researcher James Hancock advised Winter to wear a life jacket,even if she fancied herself a strong swimmer.
“I’ve witnessed plenty of burly men panic in the water when they see something that big coming at them,” he told her. “The adrenaline just kicks in. It’s natural.”
Winter opted for snorkeling gear and a wet suit,but no life jacket when she finally entered the water with the whale sharks. Instead of fear,she felt awe.
“The fish’s movements are slow but powerful,” she wrote. “My whale shark begins descending,its elegant silhouette growing smaller and smaller. For a moment it seems I’ll be able to watch the enormous fish vanish into the dark blue depths. Then it comes back to the surface about a foot away from me and pauses,opening its mouth to feed.”
Although finding whale sharks in their natural habitat is often tricky,the waters near Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula,which are home to Cancun and the Riviera Maya,including the towns of Tulum,Puerto Aventuras and Playa del Carmen,happen to be one of the whale sharks’ favorite places to visit each summer (much like many humans we know!).
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