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Isla Mujeres Whale Shark Expedition

A recent filming expedition to Isla Mujeres, Mexico was aimed at getting as much footage of the whale shark aggregations for which Isla Mujeres and the NE corner of the Yucatan is famous, during the calm balmy summer months. The predictable aggregation of large numbers of whale sharks was right on cue.

For the last couple of years Captain Anthony Mendillo, owner of Keen M Charters, has been telling me to get to Isla over the whale shark period. As many as 400 animals can form the aggregations over a couple of square miles of sea surface, criss-crossing, this way and that, mouths open feeding on fish spawn and plankton.

Our big group was composed of film maker and producer George Schellenger, my daughter Jessica and GHI staffers Greg Jacoski and Michele Grey plus Andi Marcher and his son James from Grand Cayman, Guy Harvey‘s Home.

We hit Ballyhoo’s Bar on arrival for some fish and shrimp tacos and cold Dos XX while we waited on the whale shark tour boats to return from sea. When they did, our good friend Jim Abernethy was with the group and recounted how exciting the day had been. The same afternoon, I met with Al Dove from the Georgia Aquarium who was conducting a photographic census and tagging of whale sharks.

Day one was slow, with lots of other pangas in the zone jockeying for position with only a dozen animals. It was amazing how the situation changed every day depending on current and food availability, but Anthony said the sharks will be in a general area and can pop up anywhere. His typical day started with an early departure, spend a couple hours with the whale shark group before the mosquito fleet got there, sit out while they were there and after they left around 12 p.m., you had another couple hours with the sharks if they stayed up at the surface.

That’s exactly what happened on day two. The captain of Anthony’s other boat, Rogelio, found the aggregation early and we enjoyed two hours with them on our own. It is hard to describe the sight. Jessica and I went up on the cabin roof, the boat bobbing on the calm swell, engines off. Everywhere we looked, great sharks were cutting the surface with snouts out, mouth wide open, spotted backs awash, dragging foaming water behind them, dorsal fins standing high and tails swishing back and forth as the sharks moved forward at a couple of knots. A third of the team went in, the rest waited and took shots topside.

A group of two dozen mobula rays came by winding their way through the whale sharks. The plankton was thick, reducing visibility to about 30 feet. The viz did not matter, having spent time with one shark and stopped to rest, the next was a few seconds behind. We quickly learned to put our heads up and look for a shark that was swimming towards us then, get in position for the shot. You could either let it go beside you or you could dive under it and get the silhouette shot.

Often, you were beside one and another would sneak up on you. You spin around to find a four foot wide mouth agape just inches away! Jessica said if they did not have spots they would appear menacing. True. They would amble past, turn around and come back for another pass. I tried to shoot every one that came by, often ducking down to confirm the sex, the young males had stubby claspers. They came in all sizes from twenty feet up to forty feet long.

George, a veteran of these encounters said you had to view these long creatures in zip codes; mouth section, mid-section and tail section. Many whale sharks had their own entourage of shark suckers, remoras, jacks and the occasional cobia. Some had bits of fins or tail missing from encounters with boats and fishing gear.

Which reminds me about the rules of engagement. This area is now so popular and so many pangas visit the sharks daily during the season of June, July and August that there is a cooperative that administers licenses and regulations for both operators and clients. We have to wear a dive suit (we all did) or a life jacket. Only three people from a boat in the water, at once, with a guide. No SCUBA diving. No touching, hanging on for a ride, etc. We had to leave the site by 2 p.m. We did. What a great day. On the way in we enjoyed some ceviche and took the inside route behind Isla Contoy, home to thousands of frigate birds.

On the third day, the whale sharks were hard to find and the fleet spread out. It was local fisherman who found a group about five miles east of where we were yesterday out in the blue water. What a difference the water clarity made. There were still lots of plankton, but we were out in 200 feet instead of 90 feet. The whale sharks seemed to mill, going around and around, so were easy to follow, jump off one go to the next as they came by in a procession of twos and threes. We used Go-Pros on poles to get the shot from in front of their open mouths as they swam along at the surface filtering food. Every so often, a clump of sargassum weed would go in a mouth and the whale shark would just blow it back out.

I also learned what the large remoras did for food. Whenever a whale shark defecated the remoras bunched up around its cloaca and consumed the thick yellow offerings. Occasionally, we were engulfed in a cloud of yellow custard as we tailed the big sharks.

That ended our wonderful bucket list experience with the bucket mouths. Each evening when we returned dockside, we had some cervezas, fish tacos and checked our footage and watched the sun go down over the mainland to the west. The boats, people and hospitality in Isla Mujeres are the best! There are some great hotels nearby and lots of good restaurants plus a superb public beach if you just want to chill for the day. I can’t wait to get back.

I was excited about the prospect of returning next season and doing some collaborative work with the Georgia Aquarium staff, tagging whale sharks perhaps. I also wanted to bring more friends and family. This was an experience everyone would enjoy.

On our last day, we went deep dropping for swordfish. Jessica caught a huge swordfish over 600 pounds, the largest ever caught by a lady angler in the Atlantic Ocean.

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