By Jill Smith
Rhincodon Typus (Whale Shark)
Fresh from our Whale Shark trip... and it was awesome! Although these beautiful beasts may be found in tropical waters all over the world, they are not commonly experienced by divers and snorkelers. That makes our encounter with them extra special!
Luckily for us, hundreds of these gentle giants congregate to feed around the Yucatan Peninsula and the Gulf of Mexico from June to August, so planning our encounters has been relatively easy. We have a good relationship with Solo Buceo Dive Shop* in Cancun, which helps to make it an amazing adventure!
Whale sharks are filter feeders, and although they are the largest fish in the ocean, they feed on the tiniest creatures, barely visible to the human eye; they can grow up to 40 feet in length, so naturally, they have to eat almost continuously! These animals can live to be over 100 years old (if they are not hunted by humans). Females are larger than males. The more you learn about these fish, the more fascinating they are!
Whale Shark Photography
Traditional underwater photography rules still apply, such as holding the camera as steady as possible. If you are snorkeling, try holding your breath as you squeeze the shutter release, and of course, try to keep your shutter speed fast enough to freeze the action. The shark is moving, the water is moving, you are moving. If possible I want my shutter speed set to 1/125 or faster.
In Mexico, you are permitted only to snorkel with whale sharks, and whale sharks glide across the top of the water, so your experience with them is shallow. And you know what shallow water means… more natural light! Strobes need not apply!
Whale sharks are enormous; they can be as big as a school bus, and that means you need to consider your lens. A wide angle lens and/or a dome port will help a great deal in terms of fitting these overgrown puppies into your frame. A wide angle lens and a dome port offer a couple of advantages:
Lining up the shot
Never try to out-swim a whale shark. They appear to be swimming slowly, but their fins are bigger than yours; you will exhaust yourself trying to keep up, and you won’t be able to hold the camera steady at the same time anyway. Try to anticipate the trajectory of the whale shark swimming in the water and intercept its path, or wait for a swim-by.
You can see in the photo below, that Trena has floated patiently in the line of the shark’s path, and the shark came straight towards her – right in the mouth! What a great experience! Husband Rick watches in awe. We all found it to be an awesome experience!
If it is possible, shooting up at the animal often results in a more dramatic and pleasing shot. A little freediving practice won’t hurt!
Photography and Protecting these Darlings
Did you know that whale sharks are listed as “endangered” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species? Your photography can actually contribute to the global effort to protect and learn about amazing whale sharks!
Link to Red List of Threatened Species: http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/19488/0
How Can Your Photography Help?
The patterns and scarring on whale sharks are as distinctive as a fingerprint, allowing scientists to identify individuals for long-term, mark-recapture analysis. If population models can be created to give conservation management authorities a better understanding of the habits and stressors on these animals, then well-informed plans may be developed to take action for their preservation.
How do I Take Photos for Wildbook and Whale Shark Conservation?
Submit Whale Shark Identifying Photos to:
Thank you for contributing to this global effort to protect the whale sharks!
* Solo Buceo Dive Shop (Cancun)– Have diving needs in the Cancun area? Visit Solo Buceo, and tell them Adventure Sports Newmarket (Jody) sent you! You won’t be sorry; their service and dive expertise will make you a very happy diver!
Want us to make your diving arrangements for you? No problem! 905-898-5338
Upcoming Whale Shark visit: July 18-25, 2017.
Cancun, Mexico in July? ...YES!
This is when the whale sharks migrate through the area to feed in plankton rich waters. One of our favourite experiences! A trip that can be tailored to your wants and needs. Some stay longer, and many add some extra dive adventure excursions while they are in Mexico. Available adventures:
-Cozumel scuba excursion
-Whale shark encounters
-Beautiful reef diving
-Great shipwrecks to dive
-Underwater museum (will a beautiful shallow reef beside it) - perfect for beginners!
There are many options for accommodations, and we are still able to meet up for dives and some meals too! Some options (our dive shop in Cancun, Solo Buceo, picks us up for our dives by boat at each of these hotels/resorts):
1. Sota Vento - Economy
Don't worry, we enjoy our stays there. It is clean, with dormitory-style rooms (pack a facecloth, they don't have any). It is not all inclusive, although they do offer a modest breakfast with coffee at the outdoor cafe in the morning. It is on water (yacht docking), but there is no beach.
Some of our divers like the affordability of the Sota Vento hotel in Cancun (roughly 55-65 per night).
2. Krystal Cancun Resort
We haven't stayed here yet, but are thinking of trying it. It is close to Solo Buceo dive shop, lots of beach!
3. Hyatt Ziva - High End Leisure
We stayed here for a portion of our whale shark trip last year, and it was lovely (all you can eat candy store included, HELLO!), but it is a pricier option. It is right beside the dive shop, so it is very convenient, and the rooms and restaurants are very, very nice.
Some accommodations offer all-inclusive, and some do not. You can make this a pampering sort of vacation, or go a little more econo, but whatever you decide, we are sure to have a great time! We have found some great places to eat in town, and look forward to sharing the water adventure stories around the tables while we fill our starving bellies!
You may choose to book several dives in addition to the whale shark excursion, or take a few days off to lounge in the sun. It's up to you! Talk to Jody about the diving you wish to do, Solo Buceo offers a better rate through Adventure Sports Newmarket Inc, than booking on your own.
I am planning to try out my new macro lens at the shallow reef by the underwater sculpture museum. Not an advanced dive, but the reef boasts plentiful marine life, and last time we visited, we even found a baby turtle swimming by us, and found a spotted moray eel. Gabriel tells me there was a sea horse living in amongst the statues for a time, but he hasn't seen it now for a while (he's a divemaster and photographer with Solo Buceo). I hope we can find one!
What Can You Expect?
Blog from our trip July 2015.
Mexico sounds like a place you wouldn't want to be in July, but since whale sharks migrate through the gulf during July and August, it is unavoidable if you want a relatively inexpensive experience with these gentle giants. And we discovered it wasn't so bad after all...a swim up pool bar made the week entirely tolerable (it was awesome)!
*See video at bottom of blog.
Whale Shark Day
We arose that morning at 5:45 am. Completely ridiculous. Only the lure of catching a glimpse of these magnificent beasts could rouse me at such an obscene hour, and we were waiting with our snorkels, masks and fins on the dock at the appointed hour of 6:30 am. It was a beautiful day. We were touring today with Solo Buceo, a dive charter company in Cancun.
Info for Whale Shark Travellers
It is illegal in Mexico to scuba dive with these animals. Only snorkelling is permitted. And NO TOUCHING! Also, if you do not bring your own wetsuit, you will be given either a shorty wetsuit (first come, first served), or a lifejacket. No exceptions. I recommend bringing your own - at least you know EXACTLY who has peed in it.
...or a whale shark is no easy task. It took an hour to get out to the open ocean, thankfully the weather was fine and we enjoyed the ride...and the view - flying fish were everywhere and one of them even flew into our boat!
Having finally arrived out in REALLY open water, it was time to search. And search. And search. We sped to an area they are known to frequent, slowly trolled through the site looking for any telltale signs of fins, and then we were off to another site - repeat and repeat and repeat. We tried not to worry. After 2 hours of searching, the report came in we were waiting for - one of the other boats had found them - and we were off! As we approached, we could see many boats ahead already there, and several more speeding to the site to catch the action as we were. The sight of all those other boats made my heart sink a little. It seemed like an opportunity to glimpse these big guys was going to be all but impossible, and we were going to have to fight for the right with hundreds of other shark enthusiasts! Arrgh!
Fun Whale Shark Facts
They are the largest fish in the ocean (whales are mammals, not fish), and can grow up to 50 feet in length. For all their size, they eat tiny plant and animal plankton that grow and thrive near the water's surface. They just glide along with their enormous mouths open wide and filter lunch from the ocean water. They must have to eat constantly to sustain their giant size!
This activity is closely monitored by the Mexican government.
A helicopter flew over us several times watching the circus. Each boat operator must have a licence and follow very strict rules. Only 2 or 3 of us could jump in with a shark at a time. Our captain was excellent, and maneuvered the boat safely on the outskirts of the mêlée, dropping a team relatively close to a shark when the opportunity struck. It was a little stressful at first, as we were ordered to JUMP! JUMP! JUMP NOW! ...only to be called back again a few minutes later. It was a little disheartening, but then everything changed. Slowly, the other boat operators disappeared. They had promised their clients a different kind of excursion and had to return them at the appointed times.
We soon had the area to ourselves - space and freedom. Our captain loved it, as he could swing by and drop a team off in front of one whale shark, then float over to another to drop another team, and back again. We loved it too - it was heaven. THIS was what we came for! We were very lucky there were so many whale sharks in this area, as the day before they had only found two all day.
My Memorable Moments
The first time I jumped into the water, I was just in time to see the massive whale shark dive down into the depths of the blue. Although it was quite a sight to see, it was all too brief, but THEN! A manta ray swooped in and did a graceful back-flip right in front of me! WHAAAAAT!!!! WOW! I was struggling with my snorkel at the time, and I'm sorry, my video is a little (a lot?) shaky. There were manta rays everywhere, and we even spotted a school of mobula rays.
NOTE: snorkelling is actually HARDER than scuba diving! What I wouldn't give to put my scuba gear on, but I digress.
My next favourite moment was cutting across to intercept a whale shark that had decided to turn course. OHMYGOODNESS! Unfortunately, while I thought I was video taping this, I was, in actual fact, not. I know. Anyway, this big and beautiful bad boy is coming straight at me and opens his mouth wide - YES! He came so close, I had to lift the camera so it wouldn't get swallowed up in his big yaw, take a deep breath and suck in my gut to avoid touching him as he slowly glided beneath me. It was so incredible watching the gorgeous patterns on his back pass beneath me until finally the huge mass tapered to the end of him and I finned a bit to the side to avoid his swishing tail. I will never, ever forget it. I just love these animals so much!
If you consider this trip in the summer time, I highly recommend the Solo Buceo Cancun Dive Charter company. http://www.solobuceo.com/galeria.html Our captain was happy to stay as long as the whale sharks did, and we were happy to keep swimming with them, so we ended up enjoying a personal water park just for us. We will use them all the time when we visit Mexico.