Snorkeling with Senor Big
The Ultimate Experience

By Tammy Peluso

One of the most exciting things about underwater exploring is the dependable unpredictability; anything can happen, anytime. There is, however, one thing that is absolutely guaranteed: Whether you are a diver or a snorkeler, a photographer or a spectator, you are destined at some point to hear the gut wrenching, teeth clenching, enormously irritating phrase: 'You should have been here last week.' I've been told this so many times, I now ask upon arrival at a dive destination: 'What did I just miss?'

So last month, when I sat in the Amigos del Mar dive shop in Cabo San Lucas and Scott, one of the divemasters, told me about his hour long encounter with a 30 foot Whale Shark two weeks prior, I barely batted an eye. I was a pro; I could take it; but inside I was screaming, 'ahhhhhhhhhhhhhh!' I remained calm, smiled, congratulated Scott on his great luck and made plans to meet at the shop the following morning.

I had just arrived from La Paz and slid, luckily, into an open spot on a dive trip to Cabo Pulmo Reef; an adventure trip that would require a two hour car ride and a short ride to the dive site via pangas (small Mexican fishing boats) rented from local fisherman. It's a long day but worth every bit of effort; Cabo Pulmo is distinguished for having the only living coral reef on this side of North America.

This was the site of Scott's recent encounter but it could have happened anywhere in the Sea of Cortez. It's all a matter of being in the right place at the right time. I'd heard all the stories about big animal encounters at Cabo Pulmo but, during almost a dozen dives, I'd never seen anything larger than a Barracuda.

Although I have been skunked at even sure thing big animal spots around the world, I am eternally optimistic by nature. As we headed to the dive site I started thinking about Scott's recent encounter and scanned the horizon as the line 'lightning never strikes twice' flashed in my mind. With the tiniest glimmer of hope I shouted over the roar of the engine to our panga captain, 'any Whale Sharks lately?' 'Just one, several weeks ago,' he replied. There is one thing I have learned over the years: rarely do you get anything unless you ask. So I asked for a Whale Shark and went for a dive.

There were about 24 divers in our group, in half a dozen pangas. Everyone was headed for the seamount known as El Bajo, which comes within 50 to 60 feet of the surface. Less than five minutes had passed when I saw Scott off in the distance waving like a madman, making shark fin signs and swimming furiously; he was giving me the 'up' sign, telling me to get out of the water. On the surface I discovered that one of the boat captains had spotted a Whale Shark nearby and had signaled Scott with the engine.

I jumped in the panga and rode the short distance to where the Whale Shark was lazing on the surface with snorkelers. My heart was pounding as I grabbed my gear and spilled over the side. I was the first in my group to arrive and the scene was still and quiet; it looked as if the Whale Shark and one of the snorkelers were having a 'meeting of minds.' The snorkeler was motionless; crouched on the surface, holding the bowline of his inflatable like a kid holding a balloon. The Whale Shark was maintaining a two to three foot distance; looking him square in the eye.

The pace picked up quickly. Before long there were more than 30 people in the water. The divers in my group were from Wallin Dive Center in Northern California and Japan. Some snorkelers had their own boats; others were with local operators. Word spreads quickly when there's a Whale Shark in town, even the locals get excited.

At one point the scene resembled a three ring circus as the Whale Shark weaved its way through the human maze, gulping mouthfuls of bubbles; most likely mistaking the effervescence for plankton. Surprisingly, there was an underlying calm and, for the most part, everyone waited patiently for the Whale Shark to swim by, there was no chasing, grabbing or harassing.

I felt fortunate to be in the water with those particular divers and snorkelers that day, just as much as the Whale Shark. What was surely one of the exciting experiences of our lives could have easily been non-existent or a disaster. Instead, because of everyone's consideration of the animal, and each other, the Whale Shark stayed with us for more than an hour; even returning for an encore performance on the second dive. It didn't make any difference whether you were on snorkel or scuba that day, the experience was pure magic.

Many of us touched the Whale Shark (without gloves) and the animal really seemed to like it, probably mistaking us for a new type of cleaning service. Amazingly, during the hour long encounter, I only saw one person ride the Whale Shark and, to his credit, his actions were totally non-aggressive. Instead of gripping the dorsal fin he gently placed his hands on either side. Touching is not necessarily harmful but, unfortunately, some people don't know where to draw the line. I've personally seen a Manta Ray fiercely flick three divers off its back and disappear for the rest of the day. I've also witnessed encounters between humans and animals that were incredible. The most important thing is to keep the Whale Shark's well being and comfort in mind.

Photos of divers and snorkelers riding Manta Rays and Whale Sharks have fueled many fantasies, including mine. The reality is, if you are lucky enough to encounter a Whale Shark, the real gift is not being able to hold onto a body part, it's the privilege of being able to look this gentle giant in the eye and connect, for just a little while.