Staying the farthest from the action as anyone on this excursion we would be up the earliest and arrive home the latest. The van met us @ 5:50 am at our hotel lobby. Celine, the guide from Ocean Divers, was full of energy even at this early hour. She is a very striking French girl working her way around the world resort destination by resort destination diving and leading trips. As we loaded our snorkel gear into the van she handed us a bag breakfast of banana (was not a good idea to eat this as after 4 trips to Mexico this was my first case of Montezumas Revenge and I think it came from this banana), breakfast bar, trail mix, and cookies. There was also a communal cooler holding soft drinks and water. She also informed us that there was another couple from our hotel joining us and that we'd have to wait a few minutes (this would be the first among several delays of the day). The other couple was only 5 or 10 minutes late and then we were on our way.
Not unexpectedly there were many stops planned as we headed up 307 toward the boat. The van was a large Toyota in very good shape with comfortable seating and a good air conditioner. Later in the day we'd learn that it could accommodate 16 passengers (so long as one person sat on the cooler in the back) with relative comfort. The first stop was a street corner in Playa Del Carmen about 30 minutes from our hotel. Playa is undergoing a pretty serious transition (at least more so than I've seen in past visits) with new hotels, tourist focused businesses, and condos being interspersed with older homes, apartments, and local businesses. On the street corner was a gentleman from the interior of Mexico on vacation that would be joining us for the day. It seemed that this might be a last minute decision to join the trip as he handed over cash to Celine and they appeared to be casual acquaintances. Our next stop in Playa would add a young girl/boy friend couple traveling together for the first time. They were from the Netherlands and spoke mostly Dutch. The next stop would add another couple to the group, a brother/sister pair also from the Netherlands staying at an all-inclusive for the first time. They were very fluent in English and we'd spend quite a bit of time talking for the rest of the day. The last pick up was a mother/daughter/son trio from Utah. So, our van loading complete, we were on our way to the boat.
We were set to arrive at the boat between 8:00 and 8:15 am and we did just that. I'm not sure of the name of the town where the dock was located but we were about 20 to 25 minutes to the north and west of Cancun. The facilities left a bit to be desired with little shade and limited seating. It did have restrooms but they were a haven for mosquitoes that were well practiced at the art of ankle biting. We quickly learned that there was yet another couple scheduled to meet us at the boat. They were taking a taxi over from their hotel and apparently were running late. We waited for about an hour before the boat crew got impatient (I believe Ocean Divers simply charters the van and the boat and they are each independently operated) and began pushing Celine to get a move on.
With that we boarded the boat without meeting up with the other couple. I was quite happy with the boat. It was about a 30 center console with twin 275hp Mercury outboards. It was well maintained and appeared quite capable for our needs. It was manned by a two person crew that operated well and gave the impression of competence and knowledge of the local waters. The bow area was a little crowded with gear but not excessively so. The plan was for an hour to hour and a half boat ride out to where the whale sharks congregate. It was a beautiful day and the shaded bow was welcome as the sun began beating down. Once getting to the area it took approximately 40 minutes to find our first whale shark. During those forty minutes every set of eyes was on the water scanning for signs of fins.
The instructions from Celine were clear and to the point. There would be two to three people in the water along with a guide for each encounter. The boat driver would position the boat in the apparent line of the whale shark, snorkelers would sit on the gunwale ready to drop at his signal. They'd slip into the water so as not to startle the fish and send it to the depths (alright we were in about 30 to 40 of water mostly so it wasn't exactly the Mariana Trench). There would be no touching and no harassment of the whale shark. Everyone had to wear either a big yellow horse collar snorkeling vest or, if you had one, a wetsuit. They didn't require that you inflate the vest so that would enable the more adventurous to dive below the surface and get a view from underneath.
The first group of two entered the water along with the first mate of the boat acting as a guide. The shark (whale sharks are also known affectionately as domino due to their spots) passed quickly by them and proceeded to dive. This fish obviously wanted nothing to do with us as it didn't resurface in the 15 minutes we waited. It would then be a pretty long wait before we found the next whale shark.
We traveled the area for another 30 to 40 minutes until via radio our captain was alerted to a grouping of whale sharks to the north and east. Those twin 275 hp Mercs got a workout getting us onsite quickly. A sister boat (its name was alongside 4 others on our Captain's shirt) to ours was onsite focusing their attention on one of the three sharks we could see. We intercepted one of the sharks and Carol and I dropped into the water for our first encounter.
These encounters are very brief and can take a fair bit of fast swimming to get a good view. There's no guarantee the whale shark will continue on its current course as you drop into the water and it can be a challenge to get yourself in the right position for good viewing. Our shark shifted course and gears and was moving away from us at a rapid pace. Our view was mostly limited to the back half as he/she swam away mouth agape collecting plankton.
Once its clear the encounter is over the boat comes in to pick up those in the water. They attach a boarding ladder to the side, you hand your fins and/or camera up to the crew, climb aboard, and then the next group gets ready for their turn. As people drop in and swim with the whale sharks people start getting tired. Some have had enough after just one or two encounters while others are at the ready to move up spots in the rotation.
I did 8 to 10 drops on three or four different whale sharks during the morning. Picture taking can be a challenge as its difficult to be in the right place at the right time. Attached are the images I was able to capture. With patience you can definitely get a great shot. I missed my perfect opportunity by not having the camera set before getting in the water. One of my drops was perfect positioning me just off to the side of the path of one of the larger whale sharks. I inhaled deeply and dove to about 15 to 20. The whale shark remained at the surface and stayed right on course. I had an incredible view of the sunlight shining down and the school of fish under the agape mouth as the big fish filtered the plankton. I pointed the camera amazed at my luck and pressed the shutter. Nothing. I had been reviewing the pics I had already taken while awaiting my turn for another drop and never switched the camera back to picture taking mode. In the seconds it took me to remedy the situation the shot was gone. Ahhh well, nothing new to the photographers out there. You gotta be ready to get the shot when your planning pays off or you walk away with yet another fish butt shot.
Ocean Divers allowed you to make as many passes with the sharks as you wanted. We all did this till we were more or less sick of climbing up the boarding ladder. The second half of the trip consisted of a cruise past the island of Contoy home to a large population of local birds. This wasn't anything special in my opinion. We weren't close enough to the island to get good views of them and the birds weren't particularly interesting.
The next stop was a shallow reef for more snorkeling. This too was less than spectacular. The reef had spatterings of fan coral but there was also a fair amount of damage with broken coral lying in the flats and bleaching evident in many areas. The fish life was limited and almost not worth jumping in the water for. While we were snorkeling the crew made up lunch, a very nice shrimp ceviche that my wife absolutely loved.
Getting back to the dock we thought we were set for a leisurely drive back to our various hotels. Unfortunately this wouldn't be the case. The couple that had missed our boat was able to get on one of the other boats and was relying on our van to take them back to their hotel. This would be the biggest complaint I have for Ocean Divers. Having 12 people waiting on 2 for hours on end is unacceptable. We stood in the blistering afternoon sun (remember the lack of shade at the dock I mentioned earlier?) for almost two hours waiting for the other boat to get back.
At first it wasn't a big deal as we were more than happy to stand around getting to know our other passengers. We spoke with the brother and sister from the Netherlands extensively (neither of them got in the water with the whale sharks as the sister was very seasick and the brother stayed on board to comfort her), as well as with Celine and the family from Utah, comparing weather (interestingly Netherlands weather comes directly from the east coast of the US days after we get it), fuel prices, world political views, vacation activities, work stories, etc. But as the minutes turned to hours and we had to repeatedly reapply sunscreen as the sun found the weak spots in our protection the wait got old. The group offered to chip in for a taxi for the couple so that we could begin our rides home. I think Celine was getting direction from someone in the office as it appeared that her hands were tied and she was faced with a dozen unhappy campers.
Finally, after what seemed an eternity the other boat appeared on the horizon. This left us all wondering how we were going to fit another 2 people in the seemingly filled to capacity van. Celine gave up her passenger seat position and moved to the cooler (which was now empty after being fully depleted during the blisteringly hot wait) enabling the other couple to squeeze in next to the driver. Now loaded back in the van the air conditioning was a very welcome feeling. This, however, would not be our final delay we would learn as we dropped off the family from Utah. Celine had been shooting video throughout the trip and was offering the finished product, sight unseen, for sale for $60. The Utah family wanted one but didn't bring any cash with them (which also meant they left no tips for the boat crew or for Celine). So we had to wait in the van while the mother went to her room to get cash from the safe to buy the video. This took at least 25 minutes while the rest of us waited at least this time we were in air conditioning.
Overall it was a very nice day. It was a twelve hour trip door to door. It cost $200 per person for the experience plus $20 tip to the boat drivers and $20 to Celine. Would I do it again? Probably not from the Riviera Maya or Coz as it would be too full of a day for vacation but if I were in the Cancun area I' d most definitely do it again.
Now, having seen the whale sharks in their natural habitat, some may wonder if my stance on whale sharks in captivity has changed. I am a believer in the ability of aquariums to spread the message of conservation and appreciation of ocean life to those who likely wouldn't experience it any other way. Without doubt the whale shark is a majestic and awe inspiring sight in the wild. Unfortunately the experience isn't very prolonged in their natural habitat and the viewing can be measured in seconds or, at best, a minute or two. It takes a fair amount of effort to get a good view of the animals and the cost, to many, is prohibitive. All that said I can still see why aquarium viewing may offer a good alternative. For full disclosure I will add that I have not seen whale sharks in an aquarium so I'm basing my opinion on assumptions that they have a modicum of room in their pens.