Since I was a kid I’ve been fascinated by sharks and whales and anything large that swam the seas, and there’s none larger in the shark family than the Whale Shark. There are a couple places in the world you can reliably swim with congregations of these large, peaceful, sharks; the closest to me is Isla Mujeres off the coast of Mexico near Cancun. I’ve just spent the last 5 days looking for, and photographing, whale sharks: not as easy as you’d expect for something so big and given to feeding in large groups. Now sunburned and exhausted and heading home, my time with them is over and I’m wondering how it went so quickly.
We were up every morning around 5:30, out the door with our wetsuits and camera housings by 6:30, and on the water not long after that, bouncing across the waves looking for the large dorsal and tail fins that told us to slide quietly (but not always gracefully) into the water with our cameras. Some mornings we found them fairly early, some mornings we looked for hours and found nothing, but the moments in the water with these fish were everything I always thought they’d be. More than just something to check off a bucket list, these encounters were a lot like my recent experiences with grizzly bears closer to home – humbling, peaceful, and a reminder of my place on this planet. Floating there in a hundred feet of perfect blue water, while a 40-foot shark swims toward you, mouth open and undaunted by your presence, is pretty amazing.
Not all of it was beautiful. As the mornings wore on we were often surrounded with boats full of tourists, thrashing about, yelling, acting like this patch of ocean was their own cerulean amusement park. They pushed and shoved and acted badly. I saw one guy literally ride a shark. Show me any sanctuary in the world that hasn’t somehow been desecrated; it’s sad but it doesn’t diminish the sacred thing itself, just us. I am not always proud to be human.
My photographs, while important to me, were not the point. My photographs are rarely the first or only reason I go somewhere. I go to experience, to learn, to discover. Good thing too, because the learning curve for this underwater stuff continues to challenge me, and going home with these cards full of mostly rubbish would be a deep disappointment otherwise. But boy did I learn a lot over this week, like learning photography all over again. And while it stings a little to have to re-learn something I thought I was, frankly, getting pretty good at, I feel a little like a kid again, finding magic and joy in the learning and discovery, and if my photographs disappoint a little, there’s comfort in knowing they’re getting better. Though mostly I’m distracted by the memory of being out there, surrounded by hundreds of miles of ocean, bobbing up and down with my camera, waiting for the next shark to swim by like a great spotted school bus. Hard to tell you how happy that made me after all these years.