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Swimming with Whale Sharks

As a scientist, the concept of magic in the real world seems like a load of rubbish, but there are some things that can only be described as magical. One of these is to swim with a Whale Shark.

I had just missed out on the chance to see Whale Sharks on my time in Mexico and I was monumentally gutted. As soon as I found out Mafia Island had Whale Sharks and that peak season fell slap-bang in the middle of my time here the idea of swimming with the biggest fish in the world was always at the back of my mind.

However, Whale Sharks also make me rather sad because the main reason I was so desperate to see them was because like a lot of things in the current natural world these days, I wanted to see them before they’re gone and that’s not an exaggeration. Humans kill at least 100 million sharks a year, including Whale Sharks. Awkwardly Whale Sharks feeding aggregations occur in some of the world’s most prized fishing grounds so Whale Sharks and fishing vessels often clash, leading to collisions and sharks accidentally being caught as bycatch. Unless things change soon the Whale Shark will be on a one-way ticket to extinction.

Now you see why I was so keen to see Whale Sharks and you can probably imagine my disappointment when my first attempt in Mafia yielded nothing. As is always the way with wildlife there are never any guarantees and I was preparing for yet more failure on my second attempt.

On that day I was very wrong in my assumption. I can’t have been more than 10mins since we left the beach and there it was: a big black dorsal fin breaching the surface of the water. As soon as I saw this my mind went crazy. I just had to get in the water with this thing. The tension was unbearable. Those last few seconds before we went in felt like an eternity.

Then we were in.

The water was a tad gloomy so you can imagine my shock when this giant, gaping mouth comes straight towards me. I wasn’t worried because I knew that Whale Sharks are gentle giants and only eat plankton. Sure enough the shark angled itself and swam by, minding its own business. When it was gone the relief just washed over me. The waiting was over.


During that first sighting I was so preoccupied with seeing a Whale Shark for the first time that I really wanted to see more so I could enjoy the experience properly. It took a few minutes but then we were back in again. I swam like hell to try and keep up with the shark but it was nowhere near enough. The shark didn’t even look like it was breaking sweat. I would love to see Michael Phelps try and race one.

The sharks just kept on coming. For the next 2 hours we were in and out of the water with no more than 5mins in between. I eventually reached a point where I couldn’t swim after the shark anymore. I could only float and let the shark just pass by. We are really not worthy.

After now seeing Whale Sharks for myself for the first time I cannot imagine the world without them but that is a prospect we have to face unless urgent action is taken to halt their decline and improve conservation on this amazing species.

By Jonathon Cains - Assistant Research Officer

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