Lemon Shark in Bora Bora

Lemon Shark in Bora Bora

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

A Chance Encounter- Scuba Diving with a Whale Shark in Cozumel Mexico

As divers we are all aware of the many things that can come up to change our plans.  Weather, mechanical issues with a boat, equipment problems, illness, sometimes even the best laid plans have some unexpected surprises. 

 One of my most memorable dives was due to an unplanned surprise.  I was on a boat headed out to Palancar just off Cozumel Mexico.  We were leaving from the mainland so it was to be about a 45 minute trip.  The weather was terrific, the water was calm everything looked to be going according to plan.  However after only 10 minutes or so I felt the boat suddenly stop and the engine shut down I knew something was up. 

 Our Mexican Captain left the wheelhouse yelling something in Spanish that I did not understand but I can see he was excited.  All I could hear was “Get in the water” and that was all I needed.  While the other divers were asking what was wrong I already had my BCD on my back and my mask in place and with my fins in hand I was just preparing to jump when two things happened.  First I heard the word “Shark” and at the same time I saw the dark silhouette of what appeared to be a semi truck go under the boat. 

 Well this great lakes diver has seen every Jaws movie ever made and at that time had not had the opportunity to see a shark in the wild so needless to say I was no longer in much of a hurry to get into the water.  I was wondering if this was some sort of attempt to extort money from tourists the old “pay up or we feed you to the sharks routine” I don’t think that has ever happened but I was thinking it might be happening now. 

 As more people saw the ominous shape emerge from under our boat I heard the excitement growing and heard “whale shark, whale shark”.  By this time a second diver was geared up and ready to make the plunge.  He looked at me and said “Go ahead”, I have read about whale sharks and how they were gentle giants but I was not ready to be the first one in the water with something that big.  “You first” I replied.  He smiled at me and I could tell that he was having the same thoughts that I was, “Let’s go together” he said well that was good enough for me. 

 I rolled over the side and was pretty relieved to see the bubbles beside me from the other diver splashing in, I was a little concerned that he would renege on our deal and leave me alone with this monstrously big creature.  As I was securing my fins I could see the tail fin just disappearing into the blue.  Honestly I felt relieved.  I was not a coward I went in the water but I was not very sad to see the beast swim away. 

 For a couple seconds I thought my shark encounter was over. Then I saw the outline again.  This time it was not a tailfin but a huge gaping mouth that looked like it had the girth to swallow us both whole.  Man I was scared.  Bear in mind I was not an experienced saltwater diver at the time and had never seen a single shark except in an aquarium so I’m not ashamed to say hell ya I was scared. 

My new dive buddy put both his hands up in the air like he was signaling me to surrender.  No problem there I mimicked his maneuver and threw both my hands up high.  We were only a few feet from the surface and we were side by side as this graceful creature, slowly glided by us and gently rubbed against us as she passed.  The adrenaline, the excitement, the fear it was all of these emotions at the same time. 

 To this day I believe that she was well aware of our presence because she stopped her huge tail as she slid by as if not to harm us.  Then in a slow purposeful arc she reversed course and came back and again gently rubbed us as she passed on the other side.  It reminded me of a cat walking between my legs in a figure eight pattern rubbing against me.  Only this cat was about 42 feet long and at weighed at least 10 tons.

  By this time a few other divers had joined us in the water and the shark was now dividing her time equally among her new friends.  People were taking photo’s petting her and I watched as our dive master slipped beneath her and seemed to get pulled along in her wake all the while rubbing her belly with both hands in a circular pattern. 

 This trick I even attempted myself as my courage grew.  It was an amazing almost religious experience that something this large could be as gentle as it was.  Within 20 minutes of my heroic leap into what I was sure were the very jaws of death several other boats had arrived and there were probably 25 or more divers in the water all swarming to get a chance to touch this magnificent animal.  Then as suddenly as she came into my life she left.  I saw her heading down into the blue depths with a few divers trying to follow then she was gone.  But the man she left behind was changed forever by our 25 minute love affair. 

Whale sharks are the biggest fish in the world they are said to grow to be up to 50 feet in length and some say as big as 60 feet and 12-14 tons.  They are prehistoric and date back 240 million years to the Jurassic period.  They have over 3000 teeth yet they are filter feeders they open their mouths while swimming or sometimes while they hover vertical in the water they and suck in huge amounts of water and expel it through 5 gill slits located on either side of their body. 

Their backs are covered in light colored spots and each whale sharks spots are as unique as our fingerprints.  Scientists are building a database to record and track individual whale sharks using this pattern. They live between 70-100 years and they tend to follow the same route of migration. Cozumel is a regular destination for feeding and mating and whale sharks can almost always be found there between June and mid September.  I have repeatedly referred to the shark I was with as a female and I know this because the males have 2 claspers located near the pelvic fin.  She did not.

 I was told that my encounter was a very rare encounter because it was in December long after the usual migration and it happened much closer to the mainland than they are usually ever spotted.  I like to think that she came there to meet me personally and become yet another great reason why I love my underwater world as much as I do. 

Yes I was afraid, very afraid until I saw that this lovely lady of the deep had no intentions on hurting me only to be admired and caressed.  I think every diver should book a trip to Mexico between June and September to experience this wonder for them. 

There are few things I have ever seen or done that have moved me the way this particular dive did.  Man I love this sport!


  1. I saw some whalesharks from a boat in mexico but they would not let us get in the water. This sounds like a great dive and you really tell a good story