Swimming with Whale Sharks in Mexico by guest blogger Rachel Ankney

There are two words that are synonymous with Reefs to Rockies: Travel and Trust.

On my second trip with the eco-tourism company, this became abundantly apparent. Granted, it was the same destination: Isla Mujeres. But by no means did that make this venture routine. Instead, it redefined these everyday terms for me, an admitted adventure junky with a knack for consuming breathtaking sunsets and a few Tecate Lights.

Sunset view from Ixchel Beach Hotel
Sunset view from Ixchel Beach Hotel

First, it begins with travel. We all know that in this day and age, this will mean a flight, long security lines, a passport for those of us who like to break out of our usual grind, and an opportunity to try something new. However, Travel is so much more than the mundane with Reefs to Rockies. Yes, R2R will make sure all of the details are covered, moving you, seamlessly, from point “A” to point “B.” And, yes, your travel to the destination will be uneventful. But that’s not why one would choose Reefs to Rockies.

Reefs to Rockies is chosen for days like August 6, 2013. On this specific date, Sheridan Samano, founder and fellow adventurer, opts to charter a private boat for our group an hour earlier than normal. That means no sleeping in because the open ocean is calling, and that is just fine when it comes to whale sharks.

By 7:30 AM, the boat is at full speed, gliding atop a placid Gulf of Mexico, powering toward a migration of the largest, most docile of sharks to inhabit our waters. And by 8:30 AM, the once calm ocean rivals a category 4 river rapid. The blue-green water is churned and twisted, not by the onset of poor weather, but by the mere presence of a dynamic number of whale sharks. On this day, our guide estimates that the number is between 200-250 whale sharks, and due to our early departure, we are one of the only boats to pull aside this pocket of slow moving, majestic creatures. As we prepare to enter the water, we are told that we are 25 miles from Isla Mujeres’ shores, and that the depths below can reach beyond 200 feet. When these statistics are offered, a new appreciation for space and wellbeing is quickly comprehended. And a better definition for Travel is created: we are alone, atop the Gulf, with only our guides, our thoughts, and, of course, an incredible number of giant fish, circling and waiting. We have traveled to the horizon and then some to come face to face with the adventure of a lifetime.

As we prepare to jump overboard, the notion of Trust must be considered. This activity is not for the faint of heart or the easily disheveled individual. This leap from boat to ocean, landing beside and between feeding whale sharks, is based solely on trust, the trust in Reefs to Rockies and in Samano because, once a traveler is in the water, safety and adventure must be combined. I know this firsthand.

Waiting to get in the water.
Waiting to get in the water.

As I dove below the surface and followed three whale sharks, which swam in unison, I ended up several yards away from my group. The distance was not insurmountable, but on the open ocean, in the midst of a literal whale shark rush hour, losing contact is not advised. I needn’t worry, though. Turning to find my swim partners, I was quickly met by our guide, who’d managed to follow me and keep the other swimmer in sight. No problem. No worry. Trust. It’s established in a simple fashion. Reefs to Rockies works with only reputable companies, who have been personally vetted by Samano. This is a necessity as whale shark tours have grown at an alarming rate. To combat this, the guides who work with Reefs to Rockies are accountable, professional, and accommodating. While I received a stern look for my meandering, I also earned a smile from our guide that matched my enthusiasm. He understood the excitement and the adrenaline of such a swim in such company.

Whale shark feeding at the surface off the coast of Isla Mujeres, Mexico.
Whale shark feeding at the surface off the coast of Isla Mujeres, Mexico.
Taking a break from swimming with whale sharks and manta rays.
Taking a break from swimming with whale sharks and manta rays.
Manta ray doing flips in front of us.
Manta ray doing flips in front of us.

Two hours later, as boats start to pile up on our group of whale sharks, Samano reiterates the mission of Reefs to Rockies: respect for nature while educating adventurists. The decision is an easy one; we are leaving because the crowded waters are forcing the whale sharks to dive deeper. Even though it is only one less boat on the surface, those that truly matter, our hosts for the day, the whale sharks of Isla Mujeres, feel the positive impact of our departure. Our boat throttles up, pointing back toward mainland. We travel away from the magnificent sight of fins and sunshine, trusting that others will also know when to return to the coast for a sunset and drink or two.

Sharing "big fish" tales at sunset - Playa Norte, Isla Mujeres.
Sharing “big fish” tales at sunset – Playa Norte, Isla Mujeres.
Sunset - Isla Mujeres, Mexico.
Sunset – Isla Mujeres, Mexico.

This blog was written by Rachel Ankney, a fellow traveler with Reefs to Rockies to Mexico in August 2013 for our annual whale shark adventure.