Swimming with Whale Sharks & Manta Rays
Now everyone I had spoke to or things I read online stated to make sure that you take some type of motion sickness pills before doing this excursion. We don't get sea sick, but everyone had me worried saying that those who don't get sea sick, will still feel queasy. I did bring some dramamine with me but totally forgot to take it before leaving.
Our driver of the boat was Juan (the brother of Andres, who owns Squalo) and we also had Francisco with us. It's a family owned business, but Juan owned this boat and his business was Aaron's Tours. He was helping his brother out today he said. His boat was shaped with a wide flat front so he said that it didn't sway back and forth as much as other boats with the pointed front. That would make all the difference in getting sea sick or not. Well, we did not get sick at all. Could just be because we are used to it and don't get sea sick. Who knows.
We got on the boat and they handed out the lifejackets and off we went.
We we headed out, Juan had said that they received a report that the whale sharks were close today, maybe 20 minutes out. That was awesome news, however, that was not the case. We most definitely was traveling for around 1 hour (confirmed by my videos time stamp on them).
When we started getting close, you seen other boats leaving the area and waving. Juan said his report was that there weren't many sharks today, maybe 5. Well that's enough for me as long as I get to see one I'll be happy.
I ask him how they located the whale sharks when they go out. He said they are not allowed to use sonar because it disturbed the whales and that a bunch of guides would go out in their boats in a line, so far apart, and leave at the same time until they found them. Team work! Then they would radio everyone and let them know where to find them.
The excitement was building as we pulled up in the area the sharks were in. We were actually swimming with whale sharks today!!! Who would have thought! A once in a lifetime event.
Then we started spotting them. You'd see a dark area under the water and then you'd see the fin and tail pop up. Such a beautiful site!
It was time for the first pair to go out. You see, they will only allow only 2 people at a time per each tour boat. They do have the marine patrol out there as well watching everyone and making sure they abide by the rules. We let the other family go in at first. I kinda wanted to sit back and see how this was all going to go down so that I could plan for my swim.
Then it was our turn. Sakari and I were going together for our first jump. We sat on the side of the boat and I put my snorkel in my mouth and something didn't feel right. It felt twisted. They positioned the boat in front of the whale shark and then when Francisco said to jump, you jump and start swimming. However, those magic words "jump" came and I sat there. Something just didn't feel right. I told Juan my snorkel felt funny and he looked at it and said "It's fine" so I jumped and when I did, I was situated right in front of a whale shark coming my way....WOW!
I was completely blown away by the size of these sharks. I mean I knew they were big and I've seen pictures, but until you are in the water with them and right beside them, you really don't get the concept of their size and beauty.
I think the first thing I did was gasp when I seen it coming at me. I took a big old gulp of sea water and came up real quick to spit it out.
Then I realized, hey...we are "swimming with sharks"....that means I have to swim with it. So off I went swimming along side of it. They moved with such grace and rhythm with their tail swaying back and forth as they effortlessly flowed through the water. I had my camera, Sakari had the GoPro Hero 10 (a new piece of equipment I bought for this trip) and Francisco took my other GoPro 7 that I had put in a dome. I told Francisco to get some over/under pictures for me and he said he knew that that was and what the dome did (this is a new piece of equipment for me I purchased for this vacation as well).
I'm the one with the pink rash guard on and Sakari would have a blue rash guard on.
I felt like we got to spend quite some time in the water with our shark. Our shark was moving slowly and just enjoying his/her lunch. I was still struggling. Something was just not right. I wasn't able to breathe through my snorkel. I was taking in water. It didn't fit right in my mouth. Then I discovered the problem....my snorkel was on the wrong side of my mask, therefore it was pointing in the wrong direction on top of the water. Ah ha! I knew something was off. I tried to deal with it for awhile, but I was not enjoying the swim like I should be and finally gave up and came up and took my mask off to fix it. Francisco was trying to figure out why I wasn't swimming or having my head under water (you'll see in the video). But I needed to fix this and needed to be done now, even if I was missing out on the swim. Once I did that, all was good and I of course it was time to go back so others could have a chance.
Sam and Sakari decided to go together on the next round. I handed off my equipment to the hubby. They located them a shark and off they went.
They said the mouth of the whale shark is about 4 feet across. WOW!
Ok, time for me to get another jump and in we went after we located our next shark.
Francisco got this awesome shot of us in the water.
Then it was time for the hubby and Sakari again.
One of the whale sharks had a sonar on his fin. I guess they track some of them and this one was super fast in swimming. We were told they only swim 3mph but I think Mr Sonar ate his Wheaties today because the swimmers couldn't keep up with him.
My turn again...
You can definitely tell the difference between the quality of my GoPros (which is why I probably don't use my other often...I never really liked the pictures and it has always given me issues during diving).
We were done and time to get back on the boat. I hear Juan talking about the whale sharks and eating the plankton, krill and fish eggs and I hear him say there's so much here and that's why they are feeding here right now. Then I hear him say "See, she has fish eggs in her hair" Wait, what? I had to see this...and of course take a picture of it too. LOL
Juan ask if we were ok or wanted to do more: "You good momma? It's up to you. You can go in again if you want or we can head back and do some troll fishing." Well, I knew that Sakari would love that and I did have enough pictures (fingers crossed they turned out) so I guess we were done. I'm not sure how I became ring leader of the group on decisions, but hey...I'm good with it.
Before pulling out, we had a whale shark get really close to the boat.
One last photo that I think turned out super neat. It shows just how massive these gentle giants are compared to us. I also loved how the sunlight was beaming down in the water and even when I was in the water, I kept looking down at it. It was so cool and never ending as it went down into the deep blue. I feel like this picture shows the massive size of these sharks.
Whale Shark information:
Whale sharks migrate thousands of miles for feeding. You will find them here around the island during the summer months (June-September). They are usually located within a 7 mile radius and come to feed on the plankton rich waters that is created by the joining of the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea.
Whale sharks are the worlds largest fish (despite their name "whale" sharks, they are not whales) and can reach up to 40 feet in length and weigh nearly 50,000 pounds. It is estimated that they live between 70-100 years old. Whale sharks are one of only 3 species of filter feeding sharks and swallow their food whole (despite having thousands of teeth) and use their gills to filter the food from the water.
Each whale shark has a unique pattern of spots on their body just like a humans fingerprint, they are all different.
Females produce eggs that hatch inside them. They give birth to live young and can produce around 300 babies at a time. Female whale sharks are usually larger than the males. They usually don't produce young until they are around 30 years old.
They are known as the gentle giants of the ocean and are friendly and not harmful to humans.
Time to head back. It was a great day for sure. We can now check this off our bucket list.
They set up the fishing poles and cast the line out. They said they were going to be trolling for tuna on the way back for 5 miles. Something about the depth of the water. They ask Sakari if she wanted to do the fishing and of course she couldn't pass that up.
They said that she did have something following her line, but it never did nibble. So no tuna caught today. They ask Sakari if it was ok to let the other girl fish so she relinquished her rod over. She didn't catch anything either. Our 5 miles was up and time to reel it in and head back.
Then all of a sudden the boat slowed down. Something was spotted in the water.
What were these large creatures thrashing around in the waters and zipping back and forth? They were a pair of MANTA RAYS!!! Oh my goodness! What are the chances of actually seeing these in person? Another once in a lifetime event!
They told us to gear up...we were swimming with the Manta Rays now. Sakari and I geared up but the hubby decided to sit this one out. He said "That's just too sketchy for me. They have stingers!" LOL You just swam with the biggest sharks on earth but this would be too sketchy. Ok.
We sat along the side of the boat (the other family had jumped in). We were waiting our turn. They told us to get in. I guess more than 2 people could be in the water with them and there were no rules about swimming with Manta Rays.
Once we were in, the rays just circled around and around us. We didn't even have to swim. Just jump in. I guess they are curious creatures and they were checking us out. Around and around they went. Then they would leave around the boat and come back and circle us again. This was the coolest thing ever! They were so large. Juan said the female had a width of about 12' and the male was a little smaller (as they always are).
When I first jumped in, they were both coming right at me and swooshed by so quickly.
The pictures above were taken as stills from my video. I was having major camera malfunction (when do I never??) and with getting a new GoPro, I'm just trying to learn to work it. Even though I've had another GoPro for a few years now, I've never really used it. Only the hubby used it when we went diving.
For some reason GoPro decided to have the screen on and after a certain amount of time (very small time) the screen will shut off. I would think this meant that the camera was off. So when I would hit the button to "turn it back on" I was actually changing the "type" of video I was doing. So on a GoPro you have 3 settings on the main screen: Time Lapse, Video and Camera. I kept getting my videos on the time lapse setting, therefore screwing everything up. I honestly wish this wasn't even on the front screen. I mean how often are you going to be doing a time lapse and why can't it just be a setting within the camera?
So BOTH of the video's I got from our swim with the rays were on time lapse. I was so upset after I discovered this when the swim was over and we were heading back. Hubby assured me it would be ok... "Just slow the video down and it will look normal". But, things don't work this way with time lapse. You have less pictures per second so if you slow it down, you don't have enough pictures to fill in the blanks. It looks choppy. But, it is what it is and you can see for yourself in my video at the end, even though I slowed it down.
So now we were getting a second jump and off we went into the water again. Again, being circled by the Manta Rays. Just the coolest experience ever! They got so close to us!
Manta Ray facts:
Manta Rays can reach up to 29 feet in width and weigh up to 5300 pounds. They are also known to live up to 40 years.
They are highly intelligent species and have the largest brain-to-body ratio of any living fish. They can even recognize themselves in a mirror. They are very curious and inquisitive, which is why they allow humans to come very close to them. They are very social animals and exhibit behaviors such as playing and they do like to jump out of the water.
They are not harmful to humans and feed on zooplankton and krill in the water. They glide by large schools of plankton and scoop them up with their mouths wide open. Then they filter out anything they do not want to feed on. This is much like how the Whale Sharks feed. They do not have teeth.
Manta Rays are harmless and do not have a stinger like their cousins the sting rays. If they feel in danger, they will simply race away from the scene.
Mantas need to constantly swim to stay alive. Swimming pushes water over their gills, which they use to extract oxygen. If they are not swimming, they do not have any oxygen. It is believed that they do not sleep for this reason.
Manta Rays reach maturity around the age of 8 and usually give birth to one or two pups every couple of years. The young hatch from an egg inside the mother and then the mother gives birth to a live well-developed pup. Their pregnancy lasts between 12-13 months and are born looking like mini-versions of adults with a wingspan of around 2-3 feet. They receive no further care from their mothers after being born.
They are clean freaks. They will return to the "underwater cleaning stations" to have smaller fishes clean the parasites and dirt off of them. In fact, they can spend hours a day getting cleaned and will wait in line for their turn.
At least I was able to get a few good pictures from the video. Sakari couldn't stop talking about getting a chance to see and swim with Manta Rays. Something she never thought she'd have the chance to do and we did it today! She was smiling ear to ear. I have to say I was pretty darn happy too!
The Manta's would circle around and go under our boat as we sat there. We were waiting on one of Juan's friends to arrive. He had messaged them to let them know we had found Manta Rays and bribed them with the location. :D He said "Tell me I'm number one and I'll tell you the location". In the end, he got what he wanted and the other boat arrived.
We were given ham and cheese sandwiches and it really hit the spot after all of that activity.
Heading back to Isla, Sakari and I sat up on the front of the boat.
They took us to Playa Norte and anchored. The other family got off the boat and we remained on...well, other than a quick potty break. ;) They did recently put up these ropes that you have to dock behind. I believe this might be something new because prior to coming, it was a big discussion on the facebook group how the boats were docking so close to all of the swimmers and taking up room on the beach that it was getting dangerous. So, they put this rope up that the boaters have to stay behind, which is quiet a ways out. There was also talk about how some boaters had been going "across" the line and people were upset. I did not witness anyone going across the line the day we were there.
Here Juan would prepare us some fresh ceviche and Francisco was making fresh guacamole. We couldn't wait! Now the hubby and I do not eat anything that is uncooked and the ceviche had us on edge. The hubby also doesn't eat fish and only over the last 3-4 years I have managed to get him to eat shrimp....but usually only if it's shrimp scampi. But fish? NEVER!
I went up to watch how they prepare this non-cooked fish and ask questions. I told them I had never had it before and not sure if we were going to give it a try. I told him that we don't eat things that are not cooked and how bad it creeps me out. He explained that although they don't cook it, it is cooking with all of the ingredients they put in it including the citrus juices. Sitting in this citric acid juice causes the fish to cook the same way as heating it up. That put my mind at ease some and I told the hubby about it. We all decided we were going to give it a try. He even picked up a piece of fish and showed me how it was cooking and parts that weren't yet cooked. Pretty cool.
So here was the final product...ceviche, guac, chips and pineapple.
The moment of truth had came....we took our first bite. I swirled it around in my mouth. I made myself swallow. Then waited for any signs and symptoms of toxicity. Hmmm, nothing. I looked at Sakari and the hubby. They were still standing. They looked at me and we all said "This is really good!" We loved it as a matter of fact. Wow, we've really been missing out on this stuff in the past. We ate and ate and were so full by the time we were done. This was definitely a success! Today was filled with many first: swimming with whale sharks, swimming with manta rays and trying ceviche. What a great day.
The hubby trying to pop the top of his beer lid with another beer like Juan had done for him earlier. No matter what he did, it wasn't working. LOL I think we need to spend more time here so that he can perfect his skills. wink wink
When we were done, it was time to head back to our dock. We were not very far down from the dock we had gotten on at and we said our goodbyes and wished the other family well.
Recap: Swimming with the whale sharks was such an amazing time! More than I could have ever imagined. The size of these sharks were massive...even the smaller ones. They were so gentle gliding through the water even though we were invading their space. If you get a chance to do this, DEFINITELY DO IT! You won't regret it...honestly.
Of course it was an added bonus that we encountered Manta Rays and I can't imagine a better day. I highly recommend booking with Squalo and if you do, hopefully you'll get his brother Juan and Francisco of Aaron Tours. They were absolutely amazing. I can't stress that enough. They told us about their businesses within the family, the amount they make with tourism and how it all started. They did a lot of talking and kept us occupied with information. They were just awesome.
So the whale shark tour is $125/pp IF you are staying on Isla Mujeres. They did give us a discount since we booked 2 excursions with them, so they will give you a better deal if you do that. For the experience, not to mention the food included, it was a great deal!
The ONLY thing I was disappointed in was I had given Francisco my dome GoPro to get over/under pictures and he did not take a single picture like that. When we talked about it, he said he knew what the dome was for and what and over/under picture was so I thought he understood. When I got back to review my pictures, there were none. This is why I normally don't rely on anyone else for the shots that I want. I know what I want and if I don't get the shot, I can only blame myself if I have the camera (like the Manta Ray pictures being on the wrong setting). I thought an over/under picture of these sharks swimming would have been super cool. Lesson learned.
Lastly, here's my video from the day. Please like, comment and subscribe. Hopefully you'll find it informative. It takes a full day to create these videos and put it all together...but I'm learning.