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What It’s Like to Swim With Whale Sharks

By Sarah Purkrabek

06.27.17

From the July/August 2017 issue

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Photo by Dudarev Mikhail/Shutterstock

Get ready for a huge dose of perspective.

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Atlanta-based traveler Gloria Colley got to snorkel alongside these massive fish in Mexico—an experience so powerful, she made the sharks part of her life back home.

I was lucky enough to go on one of the first excursions offered by EcoColors Tours. My husband and I met the company’s founder, Kenneth Johnson, in Mexico in 2000, and soon after that he started leading snorkeling trips out to Isla Holbox, an island 40 miles north of Cancún. I jumped at the chance to join. The island is a well-known hangout for whale sharks from June to August.

That first trip, it was just us, Kenneth, and his family. The whale sharks were large and intimidating, but I trusted Kenneth. He’d taken me out on the water so many times, I was comfortable anywhere he brought me.

The sharks really are gentle giants. Some can be the size of a school bus—so you always swim to the side of them, and never go near their mouths. You don’t want to get pulled in! They’re mysterious animals. We still don’t know a lot about them, like how they mate or why they travel all over the world. But we do know that they can be found from Cancún all the way up to Florida, as well as in Madagascar, Australia, and the Philippines. Like humans, they seem to prefer tropical waters.

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Being near them is incredible.They’re very, very quiet. They just stay near the surface and feed on plankton—a collection of algae, small sea animals, and bacteria. That’s also why they like Isla Holbox so much: Right there, where the Gulf of Mexico meets the Caribbean Sea, the conditions are perfect for plankton, and therefore for whale sharks, too. You can observe the sharks as long as they linger, but you’d better be fast getting in the water once you spot one. After the food is gone, they don’t stick around for long.

I was so moved by the experience—which I have repeated several times since that first trip, including last season—that I started volunteering at Atlanta’s Georgia Aquarium, where we have four whale sharks in a football-field-size tank. People can swim with the sharks in this controlled environment, but it’s nothing compared to seeing them in the wild. —as told to Sarah Purkrabek

Make your dream come true: Whale-shark excursions with EcoColors Tours start at $144 per person. For more info, visit ecotravelmexico.com.

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