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Swimming with Whale Sharks

At around 6:30 am Friday morning I awoke to Justine’s voice telling me (probably for the second or third time) that it was time to get out of bed. Immediately my brain went into a state of analyzation to check over my body to see if any injuries or sicknesses had sprung upon me overnight. My brain does this for the following reasons: If I am sick or injured I can sleep for a few more minutes. If I am sick or injured I don’t have to get out of bed. If I am sick or injured my body can do what it wants to do more then anything at the moment, and go back to sleep. Unfortunately, no soar throats, sprained ankles, or throbbing headaches were to be detected, so I slumped out of bed and into the next hard activity of the day: getting dressed. Originally, I had set out for myself a cute pair of jeans and a comfortable t-shirt to wear for our journey into La Paz. My 6:30-am-self decided that jeans were much too difficult to try to squeeze into at the moment, and the next thing my eyes saw were an enticing looking pair of yet-to-be-worn greenish-brown non-formfitting hiking pants. Perfect. Of course I knew that later I would regret my choice of attire for the day, but at that moment fashion was not important. Being the happy, morning-loving person that I am, I tried rejecting breakfast by turning around and sneaking away to slip in a few more seconds of sleep, but to my demise I was quickly pulled back into the kitchen and forced a croissant.

For those who do not know me well, I could be considered a professional procrastinator. Of course, I was told by my dad to complete all of my packing for this event the night before because I would be too tired in the morning to properly think; however, since I always hold myself to a high standard of procrastination, I waited till everyone was already loading into the car to pack a towel, dry clothes, sun screen, and a hat. Being the last person to enter a seven-seater minivan that is already occupied by six people is more then likely going to leave you with one seat option: the middle-back. Not only are you gifted with no leg space, like all the other very back seats, but you also get to sit in-between two, not just one, of your other siblings (more than likely the two siblings sitting next to you are also unhappy because they were also forced into the very back seat). With the van loaded with all seven members of the family, we took off for our journey to go swim with whale sharks.

Cabo Adventures (the company who provides this experience) provides wonderful means of transportation from Cabo to La Paz. All members from our large group of tourists, who were all decently lathered with a fresh coat of SPF 75 sport sunscreen, were squeezed into an overly air conditioned van and taken along the bumpy roads of Mexico to our destination. The guides of Cabo Adventures never fail to explain to our group all about the activity that we are about to partake in. After a thorough explanation, our guide, Alex, asked if the group had any questions. A nervous hand raised from the person a few seats away from me. “Umm…Are there any other sharks that swim around the whale sharks?” The person asking this question had happened to give a presentation on whale sharks to the entire family the night prior, and in his presentation he included extensive research showing that there were no other species of sharks that swam near whale sharks. Our guide laughed and responded in a sarcastic tone “Oh yeah! Usually we see some great whites, hammer heads, and mako sharks!” Luke slightly laughed, however, a look of slight fear crept onto his face as he was probably trying to assure himself of the fact that our guide was indeed being sarcastic. The ride up to La Paz was about two hours long, and it sure felt like it. Fabienne’s favorite part of the long van ride was most definitely the “Top Punk-Rock Hits from the 80’s” playlist that they had blasting on repeat the entire time. About half-way through, when she just couldn’t take the music anymore, she pulled out some headphones and listened to “Two Hours of Soothing Nature Sounds” for some relief.

When we finally arrived to La Paz we squeezed ourselves into wet suites, grabbed our snorkeling gear, and loaded onto the boats. The Sea of Cortez sparkled in the sunlight as we bounced over the bright blue lulls of the salty ocean, and searched for the victim shark that we hoped to swim with. After five minutes of searching we spotted one. An 18-foot baby whale shark. From the boat all one can see is the tip of a dorsal fin, and the massive distorted shape of a shark. The boat stopped, and Alex instructed five of our ten group members to gear-up. Justine, Juliette, Jacob, and Dad quickly pulled on their masks and flippers, and prepared themselves to jump off of the side the boat and into the 69 degree water.

To complete the group of five people that were supposed to get into the water, either Luke or I had to go. We looked at each other and both kindly told the other that the other could go. Neither of us actually wanted to jump into the 69 degree water with an 18-foot shark at the moment, so we both just decided to wait and watch. For about three minutes, Justine, Juliette, Jacob, and Dad swam with the shark before it dove deep below the surface and disappeared. They swam back to the boat beaming, and explaining their experience to the rest of us who were all still a bit unsure about the whole thing. As boat started moving again I was glad to still be dry, as they sat in their wetsuits shivering, under the nicely provided freezing shade with the cold wind hitting their wet salty skin.

We were looking for another shark to swim with as Alex got a call on his radio that there was a group of five sharks a little closer to shore. “Group B, gear-up!” My mind briefly flashed back to a previous Cabo Adventure family activity that I went on a few years ago: Snorkeling. Seventh grade Hannah was deathly afraid of anything that moved in the water (even if they were tiny, beautiful, sparkling fish that were completely harmless), and she refused to participate in snorkeling with the rest of her family. She stayed safe in the boat eating the complimentary cookies, away from all of the terrors below. I assured myself that now I could overcome that fear, and the only the only thing I would see in these waters were the docile gentle giants.

I pulled on my flippers and spit in my mask to prepare myself to jump into the water. Alex explained to us that a great way to prevent fog in your goggles was to spit in them. I tried to push the thoughts of how many other tourists had been told to do the same thing in this same mask out of my mind as I pulled them over my face, sat on the edge of the boat, and looked at the large dark shadow of a 24-foot shark that I was about to jump into the water with.

“1…2…3…Now!” Luke and I, along with three other strangers, plunged into the blue waters of the Sea of Cortez. “Lets go!” Alex explained through his snorkel, as he beckoned for our group to follow him out to chase down the shark that by now was swimming away from the large group of adrenaline-filled tourists. The shark and Alex were moving pretty quickly. However, the rest of my group, and the group of about 20 other tourists (from other boats) were not. I could either stay with the mass of confused swimmers, and my little brother, or I could catch up with our guide and see the shark. Four years of competitive swim instincts kicked in as I rushed to catch up with Alex and the shark. As I finally caught up, I noticed how far away we were getting from the boat and group. Here I was, swimming in open ocean, with a 24-foot shark, and only one other person, who was way more interested in getting good GoPro shots of the shark than paying attention to how far away we were from everyone else.

The cold, salty water slapped against my skin as I told myself to relax and just try to observe the shark. If you looked up pictures of a whale shark you would see that it looks a little more like a whale then a shark, and you could convince yourself that these creatures look completely harmless, totally docile, and completely safe to swim with. It’s a little different when you're swimming right next to it, so close that you could move you're arm just a few inches and touch it. Although it’s face may look like a whale, it’s huge dark body and shark-like figure lets your brain know that this animal is definitely a shark. It was so amazing to be swimming so close to such a large creature.

Every once and a while I would have to remind myself that I could breath through my snorkel gear and didn’t have to hold my breath. I looked up from the beautifully spotted shark and looked around for Alex, who was just now realizing that I was the only member of his group to be actually swimming with the shark. “Okay, let’s head back in” he said. We turned around, swam through the group of confused swimmers who were still looking for where the shark went, and grabbed Luke along with the other lost members of our group, and climbed back into the boat.

We made about three more stops to swim with the sharks before we headed back into shore. Once back at shore we put our dry clothes on and sat down for some lunch. We finished up our fish tacos and loaded everyone back into the van. As I wiped some dried salt off of my face, Alex explained to us that we would probably all be very tired and that we were all more then welcome to take a nap for our long journey home. I am guessing that Alex has never tried to sleep on the job before because as soon as you shut your eyes and rest you're head, the well-kept roads of Mexico present the van with a pot hole, a large bump, or a foreign object for the van to run over. I accepted the fact that sleeping would not be an option, so I just listened to the Top Punk-Rock Hits from the 80’s that they so kindly provided and looked out the window at the cloudless blue sky, tall cacti, and beautiful mountains that spread themselves for miles across the horizon.

Here's the full video of me and the whale shark. Skip to 1:15 to see me!