There are plenty of human-built wonders to see in the world, but for those looking for something amazing and unique in nature, it usually takes a little more planning and effort.
My son Josh had always been fascinated with whale sharks, the gentle filter feeders that seem more whale than shark. These beautiful spotted fish can grow to more than 30 feet in length and generally live in warmer waters. There are only a handful of places across the globe where you can swim with these gentle giants. The three “easiest” to reach are off the coast of Mexico, in the Philippines, and near Australia. I decided to surprise Josh with a trip to Mexico for his high school graduation.
Our destination was Isla Holbox, off the northern tip of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. We flew from Cleveland to Cancun, rented a car, and drove more than two hours northwest, winding through endless jungle to reach the tiny coastal town of Chiquilá. There we left our car and took a ferry across to Isla Holbox, a barrier island with an authentic, throwback feel — much more of a backpacking-and-hippie vibe than high-rise Cancún.
Here, our small hotel was sparse but comfortable, and our room opened onto a patio with a hammock and the beach splayed out before us. The next morning, we woke well before sunrise to meet our tour group and receive instructions. After breakfast, we boarded a relatively tiny — and very open — boat and headed out into the Gulf of Mexico. What followed was a mind-numbing two-hour ride, the wind battering us the whole time as we seemingly steered toward oblivion, surrounded by empty ocean.
Whale sharks are gentle giant filter feeders
Eventually, we arrived at the whale sharks’ feeding grounds, made obvious on the surface by the small armada of boats like ours spaced at regular intervals. Looking over the side of the boat, we would occasionally glimpse the leviathans gliding by in the crystal-clear water.
Due to the area’s fragility as well as its importance to local tourism, the Mexican government strictly regulates entry and time spent in the area. We were each allowed in the water, one at a time, for two 15-minute swimming sessions, accompanied by a professional local guide. We weren’t allowed to touch or approach the whale sharks, but by following the guide’s directions, we were able to get into positions where the whale sharks swam past us, resulting in fantastic views.
Swimming with these graceful creatures was magical. Knowing it would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, I talked with Josh extensively about not worrying about taking the perfect picture. Instead, he should focus on the present and really watch the action with his own eyes — saving the experience in his mind’s eye for decades to come.
He is normally quite good about this, but he’d recently bought a new GoPro and he wasted most of his first swim fumbling with it. He got no pictures and didn’t see the whale sharks up close. I took the GoPro from him for his second and final swim, and that time, he had the experience he really wanted. I took the GoPro out on my second swim, having already achieved my moment of nirvana, and ended up getting Josh one good video clip of a whale shark swimming by.
Illumination of bioluminescent plankton
More recently, I achieved a bucket list item of mine in Puerto Rico when my husband and I took a tour of one of the island’s bioluminescent bays. Puerto Rico has several, and these natural wonders can only be found in a few other places on Earth. These World Heritage sites contain a type of dinoflagellate (think plankton) that glow when disturbed. The effect is subtle but beautiful and best viewed on moonless nights.
We booked a reputable tour company through our hotel, the La Concha, and were picked up at the front door for a two-hour drive to the northwest corner of the island. After being instructed on dos and don’ts, our group boarded two-person kayaks and rowed single file across a small bay, into a mangrove river of sorts, and eventually out into the hidden bioluminescent bay.
As we recovered from the rowing workout, the guides hooked our kayaks together and explained more about the creatures that performed this magical light show as well as sharing some of the visible constellations in the night sky. As an almost-full moon was just starting to rise, we were directed to shade ourselves from the moonlight below provided tarps and run our fingers through the water. Spooky blue eddies appeared in response to the movement of our hands, like bubbles we were making glow in the dark.
I was warned taking photos of the effect doesn’t do it justice, so instead we focused on simply being present for the experience. Our culture has accustomed us to unbelievable special effects, from the glowing forests of Pandora to the stunningly rendered planets and nebulae of Star Trek. But this small, beautiful moment with nature was uniquely moving.
This piece originally ran in Out Traveler print magazine. The Spring 2022 issue is now available on newsstands.