I “worry” about everything. Not in big, dramatic ways, but in smaller, “What if?” and “How can I plan ahead?” sort of ways. The strange part about that is that it’s mostly a social sort of worrying. When I went ziplining, I wasn’t at all concerned about falling to my death. Instead, I was concerned with whether or not I’d launch off the platform correctly and if I’d land without looking like an idiot. To clarify, it’s not that I’m really worried about what other people think of me… honestly, I don’t care that much. It’s more that I’m worried about what my own perception of me will be. I just don’t like to feel foolish (although I manage to do it quite often!).
As such, when my friend and colleague Jodi Grundig asked if I’d like to cover a press trip (aka FAM trip) to Moon Palace Resort in Cancun, Mexico for her, my first thought was, “Absolutely not.” I haven’t been in a bathing suit other than in my own back yard in about 25 years, I don’t really do water sports, and the idea of lounging around poolside with drunk people in bikinis seemed totally unappealing (for the record, there weren’t a whole lot of drunk people in bikinis on the trip). But I’ve determined to not let silly worries keep me from having a good time, and I’m even more determined to be a good role model for my daughter, so instead I said yes. And starting researching. I found a bathing suit that I felt comfortable in, learned everything I could about the resort I was staying in, and decided that I would at least try anything that didn’t seem like I would break an arm doing, including an excursion to swim with whale sharks. In fact, I was so caught up in all of these trivial details, I didn’t have time to think about the reality of swimming out in the ocean with sea creatures.
Which is how I found myself bobbing in shark (and stingray) infested waters, 22 miles out to sea, saltwater stinging my eyes, and starting to hyperventilate into my snorkel.
It was a beautiful day with the sun shining and light clouds in the sky. We started early, meeting at a painful 7am. I should have known when our transportation was a half an hour late that it could be the start of a rocky day. I’ve had a travel curse on me as of late and all of my transportation everywhere I go is delayed. And typically those days are followed with other frustrations along the way. But I wasn’t thinking about it. I just couldn’t wait to get out on the water. Looks inviting, doesn’t it?
Solo Buceo, our tour provider, specializes in these kind of experiences. They do all kinds of dives and swims. We were greeted by a representative from the World Wildlife Federation who talked with us about the do’s and don’ts of diving. We were to swim out from the boat in groups of twos with a guide. We were to stick with him at all times and follow his instructions. We were not to touch the sharks, or any other sea life. We were not to allow the sharks to touch us. The list went on, but those were the highlights. Oh, and we had to wear biodegradable sunscreen, which no one had. I had done my research and knew that I would need some. When I was unable to purchase any locally as home, I assumed the dive company would sell some (seems like an obvious money-maker to me!), but they did not. Most of us ended up without sunscreen for a morning on the ocean. We probably all got a little more sun than we needed, but it all worked out OK. And then we set out for an hour and a half journey to find the whale sharks.
We boarded a speed boat that didn’t really look like it was equipped for transporting 10+ people. A small bench at the front for about two, and one in the back for about four was all of the seating available. The rest of the group propped themselves along the edges, or stood. Most of us were in the sun. As the boat revved up to about 40 mph, it was clear that it was going to be a rocky ride. It was, and I was very thankful for the Dramamine I had taken as we slammed along through the waves. And that was just about when I started to get a different kind of worried. As we cleared the hotel zone and the water got deeper and darker, I started to notice the rolling waves. Not dramatic, but certainly more active than I had imagined in my mind.
Despite some misgivings, I enjoyed the journey with the salt water splashing on us, each person quite with their own thoughts. We passed some frolicking dolphins and even a sea turtle along the way. I can’t explain how amazing it was to pull up to a sea of whale sharks. The largest fish on earth, whale sharks are beautiful. They have gorgeous polka dots all over, and wide mouths that they use for scooping up plankton, fish eggs, and other small food sources. They are filter feeders and generally regarded as calm creatures. Still, they can grow to be more than 41 feet long with mouths as wide as 4.9 feet. I once took my kids to the New England Aquarium where they have a life-sized model of a whale shark. The adults all speculated on whether it was a whale or a shark, since it had clear attributes of both. My son, who was probably about 5 at the time, schooled us all. “It’s a whale shark!” he told us. And, although none of us believed him at first, it’s true. And I got to see them up close and personal as they filled this stretch of water seeking out a special plankton that is in abundance.
I should mention now that I have never really been snorkeling. Sure, I’ve USED a snorkel (and hated it), but I’ve never had to do it out on a body of water. Our guide promised me a quick lesson, but apparently forgot in all of the excitement once we arrived. So I muddled through getting the correct life jacket and flippers from our driver using a lot of hand signals (and what little high school Spanish I could muster) and tried to think calming thoughts. The ocean is usually a calming place for me, but today, all I could see was this:
Our driver said, “Jump!” I hemmed and hawed and well… jumped.
The water was balmy, so I didn’t have that moment of pure shock you feel when you jump into cold water. What I did have was the thought that I was sinking into the ocean and I should probably start kicking any time now before I drowned. I reached the surface and immediately grabbed onto the ladder of the boat. And this is about when it all hit me. It goes against every water survival instinct in your body to deliberately put your head under the water and breathe. I could have climbed right back up that ladder (and, trust me, I wanted to), but instead, I popped on my goggles, inserted my mouthpiece, and flailed (ahem, snorkeled) my way over to our guide where I promptly grabbed his arm and said, “I’m not OK.”
He asked if I wanted to go back to the boat and, once again, I was tempted. Instead I said I wanted to give it a try for a few minutes to see if I could get my breathing regulated.
We swam out as a group and I kept bumping into people. I couldn’t see my guide. I felt like I wasn’t quite doing anything right (although I was clearly keeping up if I was bumping into everyone!). But most importantly, I couldn’t get my breathing to regulate. I was thinking every calming thought that I could, but nothing was working. Someone tapped my shoulder and said, “Look!” and there, under the water was a beautiful whale shark. I took a photo (maybe – it’s hard to take pictures under the water with goggles on), and decided that I had succeeded at swimming with whale sharks. Check. Done. [Here’s what they look like under water. Photo by Kaz2.0 on Flickr]
My guide swam with me back to the boat and I somehow managed to climb back inside. It took a good 10-15 minutes for me to get my breathing back to normal. The group members on board were kind, telling me reassuring things about how it would be easier the next time. I think they thought I would be disappointed somehow. But the truth is that I succeeded. I got in the water, swam out, and saw a whale shark under the water. It was more than I thought I could do. It was more than I needed to do. And listening to them talk later about trying to dodge sharks as they came swimming up behind you made me fairly certain I had made the right choice to depart when I did.
We’re all different and, for some of us, the journey really is about the journey. I recently wrote about my daughter growing up and challenging herself to do and try things, even when she’s not sure she’ll do it right. My family has dubbed the concept, “Milking the Cow” since that was one of the hurdles she experienced. I am proud to say that I milked that cow in Cancun!
Here’s a little video from National Geographic about the feeding habits of Whale Sharks. It has some beautiful footage!
Solo Buceo offers a range diving and snorkeling experiences, but the whale shark excursion is available during the summer months. If you book through their website, it is $165 per person, which includes gear, boat transport, and lunch. They say it’s open to the whole family, but it does take place in the open ocean. While life jackets are provided (and required), a child needs to be able to jump into the water and swim independently. They need to be able to follow directions from the guide and use the snorkel. I’d recommend it for ages 10+, but it will depend on the skills and maturity of your child.
Disclosure: This was part of a media trip to Moon Palace Resort in Cancun, Mexico. I took the trip at no cost, but no additional compensation was provided. All opinions (and hyperventilation) are my own.