Postcard from Isla Mujeres

In Postcards From... by David24 Comments


My friend Andy dives without his prosthetic leg, and can swim circles around me.

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.


  1. Hi David. Your whale pics are so amazing, I’d love to have one of these as a wallpaper too! Thanks as always.

  2. Pingback: “Not always proud to be human” | Wolfgang Lonien

  3. Both are moving and powerful photos, David. I think you just *might* be underselling your underwater photography talent. You continue to act as inspiration to me. Thanks!

  4. Hi David I am very much enjoying your V.i.better vids, it’s great to hear you be so frank about making rubbish shots sometimes when presented with “beauty” I thought maybe some shots of the people circus inc the guy actually riding the whale shark would be an interesting side project for you. I am guessing you see this kind of thing enough to make it worth documenting on its own as a comment on human behaviour. Especially given the recent “lion” incident. J

  5. Don’t know that I’ve seen an image of a whale shark with it’s eye completely visible like that first image – very much adds life to the animal, one that is truly amazing no matter how you look at it! Sorry to say that you’re frustration in learning underwater photography is a bit pleasing to hear. It’s kind of nice to know that even great photographers, like yourself, still have a lot to learn when pulled out of their comfort zone! Some folks would have a hard time admitting that, too, so thanks for being truthful with us, as you always are! Good stuff mate!

    1. Thanks, Jimmy. I’ll always be honest with you – we all go through a learning curve. If y’aren’t learning, y’aren’t living! 🙂 Someone wrote to me today about learning language and said “we fail our way to fluency.” Couldn’t have put it better myself.

  6. Hi David,
    I really love this story. Wale watching is on the top of my bucket list and these photos just make the wish even stronger. Amazing. Meeting these creatures is just mind blowing. Same as when going for Safari. There is nothing better then just being next to a lion. In the safety of a car of course :).

    On a other note. I really love the style and design of your new blog and website. I was wondering who is the provider for this. I have to tell you that I have seen another photographer with almost same layout which made me think it is not custom made as I first thought. But I might be wrong. Please let me know if you have the time.



  7. It was fantastic to have you with us David. This is my third year with the whale sharks, and I never tire of being in the water with these amazing, majestic animals. It is such a privilege. As your images so eloquently show, they are very photogenic too!

  8. The underwater world has been my playground, photo studio and passion for over 40 years. Much like training and introducing folks to this playground, hearing and seeing stories of these adventures is like experiencing it all over again. I love it!!! Keep it coming.

  9. Thank you for sharing your experiences David.

    And thank you for being who you are. For what it’s worth: I feel you when you say you’re not always proud to be a human and although I would also accept you for what you would be if you were not – thanks while you are for the work you do, being connected with the universe and sharing with us.

    Take care

  10. Hi David,

    I can imagine how small you can feel in the large ocean between those huge fish (not said big dangerous mouth full of sharp teeth.
    A strong form of humility and respect and/but maybe also a little vicarious shame for tourists behavior as you describe.
    Enjoy and remember the big moments, those are always stronger and will win in mind.

  11. Thank you for sharing your amazing photos! I’ve been a photographer for 20+ years and am just beginning to learn underwater photography. I was actually commenting to someone the other day that it’s like learning photography all over again, underwater changes everything.

    1. Author

      It sure does, Heather! But what a wonderful challenge, isn’t it? 🙂

  12. Wow, David,

    That’s an amazing beautiful images. If you just got that one, you scored.

    Sorry about the rude folks you had to deal with, guess that’s an unfortunate part of modern life. Come and visit Maine, folks are so polite here.

  13. Hi David,

    Thank you for sharing your images and your story. Made me remember the time my wife and I swam with these wonderful creatures off the Western Coast of Australia. Such an amazingly surreal experience. I must also agree that humans should behave more conscientiously towards our world and all the wonder in it.


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