Everyone remembers their first time.
Mine was in the bay off of La Paz, Baja California Sur, Mexico. And it was magnificent.
I’m a marine biologist, and have traveled to many countries and have seen some amazing things, so it might be a little surprising that the first time I ever swam with a whale shark was a decade into my career.
I leapt off the boat into the cool morning air and plunged into the water, mere feet from where the whale shark was feeding. Once the shock of the cold water began to dissipate into manageable shivers, I tried to focus through the green murkiness between a behemoth sea monster and me. Before I had jumped off the boat, I knew the whale shark would be close, and I figured I’d be able to see it as soon as I was in the water near it. No such luck. So the feeling of anticipation heightened with every tentative kick of my finned feet, as I inched toward it, knowing that at any instant, it would appear before me.
And when it did, I jerked backward, realizing that I was less than two feet from its cavernous, gulping mouth—a chasm wide enough for me to swim straight into. Being that close to an animal that big—and right in front of its mouth, no less!—triggered a primitive flight response that must have saved a few of my ancestors.
But I quelled my impulse to swim away, and began swimming around the shark, almost always close enough to be able touch it (but never did). Its mouth was right at the water’s surface, with its massive, shark-shaped body angled downward, growing hazier with depth. It turned slow circles while rhythmically opening and closing its enormous mouth, pumping gallons of seawater through its nifty gill-filter system used to strain its plankton prey.
As the rays of sunlight made their way through the water to reach the shark’s back, I marveled at the complex rusty-grey-brown color of its skin, dabbed by white spots like reflectors on a road, hopping off the surface when the light struck them at certain angles.
A couple of times, its tail rose from the turbid depths, paddling back and forth slowly. I tried to angle my six feet-tall body in parallel with the tail to gauge its size, and that of its owner. From tip-to-tip, the tail was every bit as tall as me.
A long strip of parallel gouges were clearly visible along its back, telltale signs of a run-in with a boat propeller. Whale sharks are the subjects of a rapidly growing—but unregulated—tourism market in the La Paz area. In the days prior to my encounter, there were reportedly at least a dozen boats—all with snorkelers—around a single animal. While the well-organized and controlled whale watching industry on the other side of the Baja peninsula demonstrates that communities and managers can responsibly exploit their natural wonders for tourism profit, the whale watching model hasn’t been adopted to whale sharks. At least not yet.
But on this particular day, we were alone with this one. Three of us took turns swimming with, above, and around this placid, slow-motion beast in the sparkling sun and brisk water. The more time I spent in the presence of that whale shark, the more I felt my own breathing become slower, deeper, fuller.
In the time since that experience, during moments of dizzying stress, buzzing text messages, full email inboxes, and screaming deadlines, I have closed my eyes to see that whale shark, mouth opening and closing…opening and closing, hulking body floating through emerald green water…My heart calms, and a smile grows on my face…
I’ll never forget the first time I saw a whale shark face-to-face. No one ever does.