From the month of May through September, an estimated 1,400 whale sharks migrate through the waters surrounding Isla Mujeres in Mexico. Officially the biggest fish in the ocean, they’re nicknamed the “dominoes” because their skin is dark gray, punctuated by large white spots and stripes.
Whale sharks officially belong to the shark family because their skeletons are made of cartilage rather than bone. They earned the first part of their name due to their striking similarity to whales in both appearance and dietary requirements. These gentle giants can weigh up to 21 tons and grow as large as 45 feet long, and scientists believe their lifespan can reach 130 years of age. That’s approximately the size of a Greyhound Bus or three full grown elephants.
With a diet largely consisting of plankton, whale sharks spend most of their time cruising through the water with their substantial mouths gaping open, actively drawing in and filtering everything in their path through 300 rows of tiny teeth. Larger fish are spit out and all the excess water and other unwanted particles are expelled by gills on both sides of its body.
Protecting this endangered species
Hundreds of whale sharks are killed every year in China for their skin. Their numbers have also been depleted by habitat destruction, vessel strikes, and catch-fishing practices, where unintended animals are caught and die in fishing nets. As a result, whale sharks are considered an endangered species.
Isla Holbox, located off the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, has become a dedicated research center for scientists studying sharks and promoting conservation of their local habitat, the second largest reef on the planet. In an effort to raise awareness of the need to preserve the surrounding ecosystem and protect all the native species that migrate through the area, the Whale Shark Festival is held every year in July.
Support Ecotourism and swim with the whale sharks
During the festival, visitors attend environmental education workshops and conferences on marine biology, and are encouraged to join conservation efforts to protect all the endangered species who migrate through the area. During the festival, attendees have an opportunity to see traditional dances, sample delicacies, browse local artisan’s works, and best of all, swim with the whale sharks. Out of respect for the wildlife, there are only 2 swimmers and a guide allowed in the water at any one time, and people are asked to refrain from touching the whale sharks. For their part, these giant animals seem to be aware of and yet unconcerned by the people swimming next to them.
It must be an out-of-body experience to swim in a clear, blue ocean with a polka-dotted fish the size of a commercial bus! And all while supporting a very worthwhile cause; ensuring the health and safety of one of the largest and most gentle creatures on planet Earth.