Whale Sharks that is; the largest Fish on the planet, technically not a Whale at all and with the ferocity and bite of a Butterfly. There are a number of places on the planet for which you can get up close and personal with these colossal creatures, today we are going to compare Mexico and Western Australia, two of the more prominent locations for which folks travel far to interact with these gentle giants.
Having recently engaged with the Whale Shark Festival on the Ningaloo Reef along the Coral Coast in Western Australia, I was quite interested to see another aspect of this type of celebration, so off to Isla Mujeres I went. This small island is off the coast of Cancun, which is located on the Eastern shore of Mexico, in a state called Quinta Roo. Cancun is known for it's party atmosphere and mile after mile of high rise hotels along white sand beaches in a hot and humid, sunny landscape filled with foreigners looking to soak up the Mexican sunshine. Only a few hours flight to places like Houston and New York, but that doesn't keep the Europeans or Canadians away, they too were here in droves. Crazy traffic, crowded sidewalks and waters full of folks on holiday. Arriving into the sleepy island of Isla Mujures, the only thing which changed was the amount of hotel rooms and transport is the ever loving golf cart.
Nobody could tell me anything about the Whale Shark Festival, which was happening that week, nor could any operators direct me to what the festival was about. The newspaper and website merely stated that a parade was to kick off the festivities on Thursday and that music and vendors would be set up through the weekend. Where? When? Not quite sure. After spending the entire week on the island, I am not anywhere closer to finding answers. After several failed attempts to book a Whale Shark tour with local operators, a friend hooked me up with a long time Whale Shark guide. We were to meet at his house at 8 am and to bring $100 US dollars. Isla Mujeres is not a large place, 5 miles at it's longest, so it didn't take long to wander from his front stoop to the dock and his tiny boat. Ten of us were heading out that morning, along with 4 staff members. I soon learned to hold on tight, as it would be a flat out 90 minute ride to get to the sharks. I was also told they are always in about the same location and that there could be hundreds or even thousands ( yup, you heard me). Though much of the Spanglish was rather broken, it was clear that the crew thought these creatures were huge, yet seemed to have a complete indifference to their annual occurrence off the coast. Early June through September with the largest counts in the August range. It was a way to make money, education and information were not on the agenda.
We arrived to this special feeding site, by 9:30 in the morning along with close to 100 other boats of the same size and shape. By golly there were a LOT of Whale Sharks, more than I have ever seen, but not close to hundreds, maybe a hundred, but not anymore. It was incredible, having this many Sharks, so many you could practically walk from one to the other without getting your feet wet. They were clearly juveniles, with the larges being perhaps 12 meters, most in the 3-7 meter range. The waters out in this are are very deep and quite opaque, so once swimming with snorkel gear, they were difficult to see, it was almost better to watch from the deck of the boat. The reality of swimming with Whale Sharks really does not describe the proximity of these animals, as you really only had to float and invariably, one or two or even three would swoosh by, not a care in the world, sucking up plankton, like you didn't even exist. Mexican law states each boat can only have two swimmers in with a guide at any one time, and that you must stay within 2 meters of the fish and that boats had to stay 10 meters away. This was truly a difficult feat to follow, and certainly nobody really even tried. Boats, people, fish....it's a wonder accidents don't happen daily with so many in such a confined area. The Sharks could certainly dive or just get outside the vessel range, but they didn't seem bothered at all. After 3 hours or so, we headed back towards land, stopping for a short snorkel along a small reef near Isla Mujeres and again for a lunch of ceviche made by the captain. We were back on the dock by 2.
By far a completely different experience than one encounters on the Ningaloo Reef on the remote shores of Western Australia. First off, access: Coral Bay and Exmouth, the only two locations which you can swim with Whale Sharks, are a good 14-16 hour drive from Perth. Yes, there is a local airport, with flights daily, but you are still quite in the middle of nowhere Australian Outback. The Ningaloo Reef is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the longest fringe reef on the planet. The amount of marine life here, within steps of the beach, is quite easily one of the best locations anywhere in the world, to snorkel and dive. That along with hundreds of miles of pristine, vacant, white sand beaches, makes this location a sure bet for those who love sunshine, warmth and water. High rises do not exist, most folks don't wear shoes, though the temps range in the mid 80's year round, humidity is not common. Exmouth is not actually on the water, so a car is definitely required. Coral Bay on the other hand is directly on the pristine waters of the Ningaloo Reef. With a laid back feel of yesteryear; everybody knows your name and you are never far from the beach or a short stroll to the pub. Accommodation is simple and most folks bring their caravan. Bill's Bay, which is the body of water which this hamlet resides, is like your own private fish tank/ pool, where the water is warm and crystal clear and the reef is a short stride of your flipper away.
Western Australia also has a lot of rules and is adamant on keeping it's shores as unspoiled as possible. This means that every tour operator must be licensed and regulated. Boats are routinely inspected and having Eco Certification is key to continuing your operation. There are only two Whale Shark operators in Coral Bay and ten in Exmouth. They can only have a maximum of 20 persons on their vessel, a restroom is mandated and 10 persons can be in the water at any one time, with a guide. Tours range from $300-$350 US per person, and usually last upwards of 10 -12 hours. Though I cannot speak for all tours, I can say Coral Bay EcoTours, the longest running Whale Shark operator on the Ningaloo Reef and the only Carbon Neutral Operator, is adamant on educating their staff and clients about the area, the reef and the marine life within it. Tours begin with testing clients ability to swim and snorkel, to ensure their comfort level when in the water with the Whale Sharks. Clients are offered morning tea and biscuits, a full lunch, and afternoon snacks. Though the outside of the reef is quite close to the dock, it is still deep water and the creatures migrating through this part of the Indian Ocean tend to be in the 9-12 meter size. The waters here are also crystal clear, allowing ease of viewing no matter how deep the marine life. A spotter plane is used to keep open water time limited, to allow for more snorkeling for clients as well as limiting the amount of petrol used in the Ningaloo Reef area.
Once visitors are in the water, they must stay with their guide and never getting within touching distance of the animals. The staff takes both video and photos in and out of the water for clients to purchase later in the day, to take home as souvenirs. When folks are not swimming, there is constant chatter with staff to get to know individuals and answer questions about the various marine organisms found while on tour. Besides Whale Sharks, on a typical tour, visitors can see; Dolphins, Manta Rays, Turtles, various Fish, Sharks, Dugongs, and Humpbacks, depending on the time of year. Whale Sharks are in this area migrating from the end of February to early June. Though up to 5 Whale Sharks can be seen in a day, it is much more the norm to see 2-3. After having several attempts to swim with these mighty creatures, another snorkel or two is arranged before heading back to the dock. The day ends with a glass of sparkling wine to celebrate the new found love of this incredible species. The Whale Shark Festival in Western Australia is during the month of May in Exmouth and provides a forum to educate and teach the public about the Marine life which surrounds them. Three full days of activities and fundraising; with thousands of folks coming from around the world to participate.
Overall, both countries provide absolutely amazing adventures. BUT if it is your intention to learn and enjoy other aspects of marine interaction, then the Ningaloo Reef is a clear choice. For those with little time or budget, Mexico is a great way to "get your feet wet" and practice your Spanish skills. I am more than happy to help with itineraries in either location, feel free to give me a shout @accordingtouna.