Whale-Shark Tour in México!

Wall art in Playa del Carmen

So remember that story I told you about my Costa Rican waterfall tour where I thought I was being kidnapped and taken to Nicaragua!?! Well, here in México, I just got back from a seven-hour whale-shark watching boat tour where we almost made it to Cuba! I kid you not! I legitimately almost died, and we had to save a man from drowning. It was An Adventure!

Swim away!

I recently made friends with a friend of a friend who currently lives here in Playa del Carmen. They mentioned it was whale-shark season and would love to go on a tour to see them. I had no idea what that entailed. But… yes, please! Okay, so really I did not know what I was getting myself into.

Whale-sharks are these crazy big fish that eat krill (and other tiny critters) similar to whales. However, unlike whales, they don’t breathe air, so they don’t have to breach. That makes them hard to spot in the open ocean. You can’t just look for that distinct puff of whale breath to find them. They spend most of their time on the surface, since that’s where their food is, but you still really have to search for them.

To make matters worse, whale-sharks don’t always stay on the surface of the ocean. If they go even a few feet underwater such that their dorsal fin isn’t visible, it’s a no go on the spotting them. The cost of the tour is quite high but the tour companies have money-back guarantees, so that tourists don’t think it is too much of a risk.

A tour? What could go wrong?

I started my day at 6:10am with a shuttle ride to Cancún. Why do these tours start so early? I met our fun guide (who spoke Spanish, English, and French!) and picked up other guests (including my new friend) along our route. We picked up two people originally from Hungry, three from Germany, and two from France. It was fun seeing where everyone was staying. There are some crazy big resorts here!

Street art of a crab
There are some really talented artists around town!

We had a small breakfast (and used the restroom!) at a cute restaurant on the ocean and then walked to the pier next door to get on the boat (which did not have any bathrooms!). If you needed to pee during the tour, you would ask the driver to stop the boat, climb down the latter into the water, and pee away into the open ocean. Very entertaining for everyone on the tour!

The tour companies had seen the whale-sharks yesterday, so they knew approximately where they might be. There were about 100 boats out searching the waters for a sighting. Any sighting. They would all chat back and forth on the radio, looking for a dorsal fin or anything of interest. They all have a very vested interest in finding those fish (money-back guarantee).

I get freezing cold while snorkeling because I’m a tiny person. I put on my wetsuit, as we would have to jump in the water the instant we spotted one of the giant critters. Bad idea. We kept searching and searching and I got hotter and hotter. Then I noticed that my friend was not only in the sun with no sunscreen (don’t want to poison the fish) but he was also in the bumpiest area of the boat. Nope.

Now I was in the sun! I took some seasickness meds that morning, which turned out to be crazy smart of me, as some people were for sure getting seasick. So we had people vomiting, people boiling in the sun, and people in pain. My friend had some crazy nerve spasms and lost near complete use of both his hands for like 30 minutes. Unpleasant. We stopped for refreshments from the boat’s cooler.

Colorful street art
Look at the color and detail! So amazing.

Do I need my passport?

After a quick break, we started searching again. We just kept going and going and turning and going and trying different routes. This goes on for hours. We played with some spotted dolphins, which are pretty rare. So much fun to see them messing with all the boats. You don’t swim with those guys. They can really hurt you. We also saw a couple of sea-turtles getting their freak on. Gotta make them cute babies!

After a while, the guide mentioned we were getting closer and closer to Cuba and, if we didn’t turn around, we wouldn’t have enough gas to make it back. Sigh. No whale-sharks. The one child on the boat cried. We all felt terrible for him. I got the feeling he wouldn’t be in México long enough to try again. It was around 1pm and we were all tired and hungry.

It took us about an hour to make it back to land. We stopped at Isla Mujeres for lunch and a swim. This was the first beach I have seen with crystal blue waters and white sands and no sargassum! It was gorgeous! As one of only a few beaches in the area without sargassum, it was crazy crowded. The boat anchored in the water and we jumped in for a swim while they prepared lunch.

Sargassum on Playa del Carmen beach
This is what the beaches look like in Playa del Carmen. The stinky sargassum is crazy! You do not want to swim in that.

Is anyone else seeing this?

It was 2pm by the time we ate, but the shrimp ceviche was amazing. I had like three servings! So good. As we were eating, I looked over at another guest and saw a shocked look on his face. I looked in the direction he was looking and spotted a man clearly drowning. Like for real drowning. He was panicking, had already knocked off his own sunglasses while flailing, and kept going under.

Looks like the party boat he had been on was trying to send people who couldn’t swim to shore by using a life vest tied to a rope. The person was supposed to float on the life vest until they were close enough to shore to stand up. This guy must have fallen off. Why the crap was he not in a life vest!?! And why was no one on his boat paying any attention to him?

This dude was very large and I don’t swim well, so I was out of the running for a rescue. My friend has a metal plate in his neck and was already having a ton of nerve issues, so nope for him. Luckily for the man, every time he would sink and push off the sand, he could get another quick breath and he was making progress in the right direction. A big German from our boat helped him the rest of the way to shore. No dying! Plus, I spotted his sunglasses in the sand under the water and the German dove under and got them back to the guy.

Herding cats.

During the excitement, we lost the two French ladies from our group. No one knew where they went. It took some searching, and the guide had to go find them in the vast crowd of people on the beach. It’s like herding cats. On the boat and heading home. There were a lot of sunburns… including my lips. Sadly, they eventually got infected, and I had to use some MRSA topical antibiotics again. WTF!!!

Mrs. ItchyFeet with lip infection
This lip infection is not as bad as the one I got in Honduras, but it is close. So painful!

We must have gotten a new driver for the shuttle home. He didn’t know where anyone was staying, kept getting lost, and driving a bit on the wild side. Had a few beers? Unknown. At one point, he pulled out from a hotel and I heard a squeal of brakes and a blaring horn. I looked to my left, and all I saw was the front of a large red bus two inches, if that, from my window. The bus was too close for me to see the driver or passengers. That bus was all up in my grill! My friend looked from the bus to me with a panicked look on his face and said, “You almost just died!” For real!

It took about four days to recover from this adventure. I popped out a rib, so I used a bunch of physical therapy equipment to set myself right. I get to try the tour again for free. I am going to wait at least a month before I jump back in for another once in a lifetime opportunity to see whale-sharks. Always an Adventure!

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  1. You guys seem to have a talent for adventure! Those lips look bad. No cover on the boat?
    Where were the hats?

  2. “ It took about four days to recover from this adventure. ”
    What a gem!
    I hope you see whale sharks and NO huge bus fronts next time! A month from now sounds too soon!

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