As had been my pattern in Central America, I did no research before I arrived on the Yucatan Peninsula. Vague memories from a spring break there 11 years ago served only to mislead me. I got off the bus in Playa del Carmen, which I expected to be more backpacker friendly than nearby Cancun. It wasn’t. With signs advertising wet T-shirt contests and all-you-can-drink bars, it felt like spring break. After a quick walk along the main drag, I hopped into an internet cafe and did some reading. “For a more chilled out vibe, try Cozumel,” said one travel blog, so I booked a hostel and arrived at that large Caribbean island two hours later.
It did feel more relaxed, but no less touristy. Every day brings a new cruise ship and it’s payload of passengers shopping for jewelry and tacky souvenirs. Otherwise, Cozumel is a dive destination, and I’d already blown my diving budget. So I rented a scooter and drove the beautiful 40 mile loop around the southern half of the island. It was a fun day that felt like my last hurrah.
Done with Cozumel, I took a bus to Cancun. It was a dreaded stop; a not-so-grand finale I’d have to make the best of. I did find a hostel I was excited about, and quickly met two South Africans, Nick and James, who were traveling south and eager to pick my brain. We became fast friends, which is about all it took for me to shed the pessimism about a disappointing end to my trip. In between two nights chatting over beers at the hostel, I had one last day to fill, and I convinced them to join me on an adventure.
Whale sharks, which can measure over 40 feet long and weigh more than 20 tons, are the world’s largest fish. They are gentle filter feeders, and swimming with them has been on my bucket list since I first saw a photo of a big shark with a toy human several years ago. Opportunities had taunted me throughout the tropics, where I always seemed to have just missed their migration. When I checked into Ka’Beh Hostel in Cancun, however, I was greeted with the news that it was their peak whale shark season.
As excited as I was, I was equally concerned that we would spend the morning driving around searching for one fish, which we’d find surrounded by tourists. Initially, that’s exactly what happened. A flotilla of speedboats was unloading snorkelers into the water and circling a solitary animal. When I joined them, I could barely see through a cloud of bubbles and furiously kicking feet. Eventually I stole a glance of a young whale shark, retreating to the depths. It was breathtaking, but worrying.
Thankfully, it got better. Ten minutes further out to sea we came upon another island of boats, now spread thin by a herd of whale sharks 50 strong. I jumped in the water, turned hard to my right, and found myself alone, flanked by four full-grown adults. Swimming towards a head-on collision, I lost a game of chicken. Then I won a close-quarters staring contest. I escorted a giant through the water in what I told myself was an exercise in symbiosis, and his tail fin, my own height, gently brushed my shoulder as he swam off. I couldn’t decide if it was more meditative calm or heart-pounding adrenaline rush.
I hate to recommend this activity to anyone, because ecotourism associated with whale sharks has apparently grown to unsustainable levels. It was a guilty pleasure, and I feel a bit sheepish admitting how much I enjoyed it. Summarizing the experience exposes the limits of my vocabulary: really awesome, so beautiful, incredibly spectacular, very big, the best thing ever.
So much for concluding my travels with a fizzle.