My whale shark season started down in Xcalak, Mexico just south of Cancun where I did something really unique: got in the shallow water with American Crocodiles.! We survived and some of us came back north to Isla Mujeres for an opposite experience swimming with gentle giants in the open water.
Isla Mujeres is fun as always with some new restaurants to try and all the old favorites. It seems like there is a new whale shark or marine conservation themed mural going up each year.
The weather was settled with clear skies and beautiful water conditions for photography. Each morning we would board the boat and head out to where the captains estimated the aggregation would be – it can move overnight depending on wind, currents, and activity of the plankton food mass. We had no trouble finding them in short order.
This year I photographed with my Canon 5D IV and EF 15mm Fisheye f2.5
We would have several good “drops” into the water by mid morning. Often we could follow one individual and when they got ahead of us just stay in place because another whale shark or two was on its way straight to us. If none where nearby, the captain would come pick us up and take us back into the action and drop us again.
Occasionally we would get into an area with other boats of guests taking turns at swimming. No matter, because we could take a break while they had their chance then soon packed up to return to the mainland. We were out early and would stay late so we had plenty of time. By mid afternoon we were usually the only boat remaining. Some private time!
Giant Manta Rays
We would keep watch for mantas and would devote some time to looking for them either on our way to and from or when we needed a break form the whale sharks. We found them several times and had a good in water session with one of the groups of mantas. It is always harder to find mantas since they do not always feed on the surface and they do not have the large fins showing above water like the whale sharks to give them away.
A Great Trip Out of the Water Too
We would return to the island in the late afternoon. It was great to relax in or by the pool before changing and having a bit of technology time. We had so many nice places to choose from for meals, all a short walk from the hotel.
The food and atmosphere on Isla Mujeres is wonderful and really makes this a great getaway. It all ended too soon: this was exceptional season for the whale sharks.
I want to thank all of the wonderful and interesting people who were my guests this year. They made it so much fun and I enjoyed conversations with them and helping them with their photography.
Isla Mujeres is a great base for your Whale Shark Adventure
After a day out on the water with the Whale Sharks and Mantas, it is great to relax and dry out with a walk around through the streets of Isla Mujeres. Lined with fun shops and great restaurants, it is safe and full of the festive feeling of Mexico.
Great Places to Eat
After many years of leading Sailfish and Whale Shark trips to Isla Mujeres, I have found some really great restaurants both formal and hole in the wall. I think I can say I have never had a bad meal here and in fact had many great ones and all at a great or reasonable value.
Here is a few of my favorites:
Olivia (Mediterranean and Vegetarian)
Count the Whale Shark Murals
In the last few years, murals of whale sharks, sailfish, and mantas have sprouted up all over town. It is a great street photography outing to find and photograph the best all over town.
Unique Shopping – Bazaar and High End
The colorful shops are full of handmade Mexican items ideal for souvenirs and gifts to take home.
For a day off, there are beaches perfect for swimming and sunning: there might even be a hammock with your name on it. Picture a pool with a view of the beach. A ride to the south of the island takes you to a park and ruins. Numerous dive shops will give you opportunities for diving around the island. The Underwater Statue Museum is a unique experience.
Most come for the unequalled marine wildlife encounters, but Isla Mujeres is a holiday destination by itself.
Basking Sharks are the 2nd biggest fish in the ocean. (whale sharks are the biggest)
A basking shark can grow to over 10m (33 ft) long and weight several tons. Their mouth can open 1 metre wide for feeding on plankton. They filter fed on the plankton by sieving out the minuscule animals from the water column using special gill rakers. These rakers are specially adapted bone which sit in the sharks gills and act in a similar fashion as baleen in fliter-feeding whales. They are efficient and can filter up to 1.5 million litres of water her hour.
Scotland has some of the richest cold waters in the world and every spring the oceanic and weather cyles create optimal conditon ofr explosive blooms of plankton. The sharks migrate from their winter feeding grounds to feast on the plankton and for mating.
Historically basking sharks have been a staple of fisheries because of their size, (former) abundance, and slow movement. Today basking sharks are still hunted all over the world for their livers containing a vast amount of oil. The oil is used in cosmetics, perfume and lubricants. Synthetics and conservation efforts have stopped the hunting in some places and they are now protected. They are also victims of the shark fin trade.
Basking Sharks are a cosmopolitan migratory species, found in all of the world’s temperate oceans. In additon they prefer to swim close the shore and also enjoy swimming near the water’s surface swimming at a slow pace while they filter. They travel through the Mediterranean Sea, Pacific and Atlantic ocean, sea of Japan, New Zealand, and Southern Australia. Nova Scotia and New Brunswick are great places to spot them as well. At times they travel in groups of about 100 but also are most often seen traveling alone.
Like many sharks, ovoviviparous basking sharks develop embryos which first rely on a yolk sac with no placental connection and develop inside the female. Gestation is unknow but might be a year or more. The small young are born fully developed at 1.5 – 2m. From the only pregnant mother ever caught we learned that the brood can be six pups. The lifespan is not known. Experts estimate about 50 years.
This article appeared in Issue #87 of Underwater Photographer Magazine UWPMag.com
Northeast off the coast of Cancun on the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico lies the small island of Isla Mujeres. The island is approximately five miles long and one half mile at is widest point. Just a short ferry ride from Cancun, the island offers beaches, scuba diving, and a relaxing place to shop and dine. In the summer months the island plays host to guests drawn in by the whale shark ecotourism trips. Guests travel out into the Gulf of Mexico and snorkel with the gentle giants. If they are lucky they also may encounter giant manta rays.
Isla Mujeres is best known for wintertime fishing and game fishing of sailfish. The sailfish attract many fishermen, but also underwater photographers. Watching the great coordinated predation of the bait balls is a thrill and photographing it underwater is challenging but rewarding. The sailfish work together as a fast moving team to keep the baitfish tightly packed in the bait ball. Being in the water to witness during this action is as exciting as catching a sailfish on the rod.
Adding to the adventure of Isla Mujeres is the chance to see shortfin mako sharks up close. Captain Anthony Mendillo is now offering this opportunity to photographers and shark fans during the winter season.
Captain Anthony was the pioneer of the sailfish freediving experience. Also he was involved in early efforts too preserve the sailfishing industry. The fishermen of Isla Mujeres all agreed to a Code of Conduct that only allows traditional fishing methods.
The same spirit of sustainability and responsible tourism extends to the whale shark trip and to the mako cage dives.
Capt Anthony and crew have worked with Guy Harvey Research Institute to catch, tag, and release Makos, which are then tracked to add valuable and previously unknown details about the timing and long distance migratory movements of this vulnerable species. This experience has added greatly to the knowledge of the Mexico shortfin mako population and their overlap with other populations tracked by the Guy Harvey Research Institute. Close interaction with the makos has also taught the crew the secrets of location, behaviors, bait preference, and seasonality. This know-how leads to a 70% success rate for attracting makos to the boat.
The makos in this area of the Caribbean are large compared to those in some other locations. Average sizes for shortfin makos are 3.2 m (10ft) in length and 60 – 135 kg (132 – 298lb). The Isla Mujeres population averages in the top of that range at 114 kg (250lb). Shortfin makos are a beautiful and photogenic fish in brilliant metallic blue and a white underside. They inhabit offshore temperate and tropical seas worldwide and this pelagic species can be found from the surface to depths of 150m (490ft) normally far from land, though occasionally around islands or inlets. Makos are seldom found in waters colder than 16’c (61’F)
Makos are curious and feel and taste everything with their mouth including the cages, floats, transom, and midwater bait or other targets. Their prey is cephalopods and bony fish including bonitos and swordfish. They hunt by lunging vertically up and tearing off chunks of flank or fins. Makos swim below their prey and have a high probability of reaching prey before it is alerted due to their high velocity. Makos are the fastest species of shark. This speed and hunting method makes Makos one of only a few shark species to accomplish a full breach out of the water as part of its predatory attack. Captain Anthony has observed makos of all sizes doing this full breach behavior and he has developed methods to allow guests to see and photograph the breaches.
Our boat is the very comfortable Keen M , a 41 ft custom Michael Fitz Sportfish with a 580 hp diesel. We leave the dock on Isla Mujeres in the early morning and head to the waters North of the island. The cage is mounted on the back. Once we reached the deep 400 ft water, the trolling lines are baited. No hooks are used so as not to hurt the shark. It did not take long to attract a shark. When it hit the bait its whole body launched out of the water like a rocket and with tail flapping did a nearly complete flip smacking back into the water on its side with it prize in mouth.
I have my camera set to burst mode with a fast shutter of 1/1250 sec. I will only get a few frames per leap and it happens with little warning. A shout comes from a crewmember and I press my shutter capturing the full breach.
With a confirmed shark in the area, bait crates are set around the boat and scum scent slick started behind the boat. Now it is time to deploy cage in the water.
The cage adds a safety factor for the guests and piece of mind for the captain. This area is subject to wind, current and the boat is constantly drifting. Using the cage eliminates the worry that guests will drift too far from the boat or let go of the line drifting quickly out of sight of the boat and crew. Without the worry of where the guests are, the crew can concentrate on keeping the makos close to the boat and interested; coaxing them into the best position for observation and photos.
Engineered to be similar to the cages used in South Africa for great white shark encounters, this one has room enough for 2 people. It sports bars of stainless steel and aluminum with a solid floor and a top protected with bars. The cage floats a bit above the surface of the water to enable communication with the boat if needed. At eye level on the sides and front are clear panels made of Lexan polycarbonate sheet. The front has two open ports for cameras.
Captain Mendillo has experimented with different ways to rig the air supply to the cage: They tried bottles in the cage, but now opt to leave the bottles in the boat and run hookah lines to the people in the cage. This allows monitoring of the air supply and leaves more room in the cage for the guests.
Using a tether, the cage is floated 2m away from boat so the shark can do a complete 360’ around the cage.
In the cage I am able to see the makos up close and swimming very calm and curious right in front of me. They come to the bait floating nearby first to investigate then to strike. They even investigate the cage on a few passes. As the large eye connects with me I feel secure in this strong cage.
The makos will stay with the boat and cage for extended periods. Some encounters have been 3 hours long with the same shark staying with the boat feeding and circling. Our mako stayed for almost an hour doing many passes by the cage and boat. I am able to get great shots of the full shark passing by either the side or the front of the cage. As the mako comes close to check out the cage I get some close up and front opportunities. Later back on the boat it is still circling and I get some topside shots of attacks on the bait to add to my breaching shot. Capt Anthony has seen guests achieve great images with everything from professional cameras and video rigs to GoPros on a stick.
Hunting for and photographing shortfin mako was a fun and productive day. I returned with great underwater images from the cage and spectacular breaching shots from the boat. The cage experience is exciting: the sharks come close and stay close making many passes and allowing time to get a variety of images and angles. The encounters are very engaging and guests can get a great experience even if they stay in the boat and forego the cage. It is a good feeling to know that a sustainable tourism activity is being built around this vulnerable sport fish. Since the season overlaps with sailfish season it is possible to get both of these exciting large fish on the same holiday using the same crew. It is thrilling enough to appeal to both photographers and fishermen.
The 2015 whale shark season is not yet over, but I have returned from 2 great weeks with my guests and their whale shark experience. We had great weather (one of the reasons I choose July) and whale shark encounters each day including several days with manta rays.
Our first few days the whale sharks were feeding just under the water. Over the next few days they were again feeding on the surface and easy to spot from in the water. This also facilitated some great topside images. The water color and clarity was variable as we tried different areas hoping to find mantas and whale sharks feeding on the surface. On occasion it was more blue-green and on other days we had crystal clear blue water.
Being in the water with whale sharks teaches you much about their life and role in the environment. One afternoon we witnessed schools of tevelli fish swimming close to the whale sharks; by their fins and mouths and even cowering underneath. The reason because clear when I heard dolphin squeaks underwater. A pod of 4 small but fast Atlantic spotted dolphin charged up to me, did 2 complete circles around me then raced on to confront the whale sharks. I saw a few fish meet their demise.
The giant mantas are my favorite to photograph. We would see the tell tale signs in the form of wingtips above the surface. When we dove in they were coming from all directions feeding at about 1.5m below the surface. Some had formed a convoy of 4 to 5 individuals all slowly flapping and scooping in food. A few times I was present to photograph their looping up and down feeding.
Each manta has a unique pattern on the underbelly. I donate all images I can get of these identification markers to the Manta Trust so they might add to their Caribbean database. It would be wonderful if some images from this season match individuals from last season.
Each day we left the dock in the morning and then returned in the mid afternoon around 3 or 4pm. While on boat we had comfortable space, shade, sandwiches and snacks. We could enjoy ourselves while the captain and crew placed us in the best areas for whale sharks and mantas. All boat cooperate to take care of the wildlife by limiting numbers of boats and people in the water around each group of whale sharks. At the conclusion of our swimming each day we enjoyed freshly ceviche specially prepared by the first mate before embarking back to Isla Mujeres.
When not on the boat we had comfortable hotel rooms with plenty of public spaces for relaxing and connecting with wifi. Restaurants are plentiful and very good and most are very affordable. We had many very excellent meals and the shopping was fun and diverse.
At the opposite end of the island is a part to explore and take in the rough coastline.
I will be hosting Whale Shark Trips again next year. I have again secured great boats and crew and rooms at the Playa Media Luna. Our boats are limited to 6 guests so space is limited
The Manta Trust works to conserve manta rays through research, awareness and education.
They work all over the world to study and identify manta ray populations
Anyone who has photographed a manta anywhere in the world can contribute directly to their global research and conservation by submitting images and sighting encounters though a portal on their website: Contribute your Manta Images
They need images that best show the spots on the underside of the manta ray – this is how they identify individuals. With a growing database of individuals it is becoming possible to give you feedback about your sighting and a history of the individual.
The Manta Trust recently contacted me about a video compilation I posted featuring whale sharks and manta rays filmed off Isla Mujeres, Mexico. This lead to me submitting several dozen images of mantas from my collect to add to their research and database.
Karen Fuentes, Project Leader for Mexico, was so pleased with my images that she awarded me a Manta Certificate. I get to name one of the mantas I encountered in Mexico.
My manta is a Male and I chose the name Atarau – the New Zealand Maori word for Moonlight
Here is information about their project in Mexico:
I just returned from a magical two weeks in Isla Mujeres, Mexico swimming with whale sharks and our special guests, the giant manta rays.
Our groups of 6 guests each had abundant whale shark encounters and we had no problem finding them each day: usually we were the first boat to get to the aggregation and the one of the last to leave in the afternoons.
The water was clear and warm so our pictures were really sharp.
The many whale sharks swim at a constant rate feeding on the krill at the surface while we swim alongside. They don’t dive down or even seem to know we are there.
On a few days we found giant mantas and swam with them as they do loops up and down from from the surface.
When not in the water we had fun and great conversation on the boat. Our crew provided lunch and a special ceviche treat in the afternoon.
Each evening after relaxing by the pool, showering, and downloading our photos, we headed out for a fun and delicious meal at the local restaurants. We enjoyed great music and some soccer action.
We chartered from the Keen M group who have the best captains & crew and multiple comfortable boats perfect for this trip (ps I use them for the sailfish and sardine trip with is a bit more hardcore)
Hope you will consider joining me next year for all of the fun and magical whale sharks