The Sleeping Sharks of the Yucatan

When I was a kid, we watched Jacques Cousteau faithfully in my house. My dad was a diver, and we all snorkeled off of Catalina frequently. I still remember an episode from 1975, when I was 9 years old, where they dive into caves off of Isla Mujeres and for the first time, the world outside of the Yucatan peninsula saw sleeping sharks. Previously, it was believed that open ocean sharks had to swim constantly to keep water flowing through their gills or they would die. They are primarily harmless nurse sharks, although the expedition came across one of the more dangerous nurse sharks. You know, I like the sound of that. From now on I’m going to call everything I do an expedition.

You can watch the episode below, starting at around 20 minutes. It’s trippy to see them poking fish, petting sharks, and even catching a ride on a sea turtle, considering the current scientific practice of leaving sea animals the F alone. I was so startled at their behavior while watching the show, I impulsively shouted at the screen, “Stop touching that fish, Cousteau!”

So, when I saw that there was a shore excursion off of the ship that included rays and nurse sharks, I was doubly excited! As a child I had no idea what this exotic Isla de Mujeres was, but as a grown-up I definitely knew about Cozumel! I had just never made the connection. In fact, I had been here before to swim with whale sharks and had no idea I was so close to this childhood wonder.

The tour boat first took us to a reef, which was partly dead, but it was heartening to see that there were still live corals. There were a lot of small, brightly-colored tropical fish.

There was a bit of a current, which caused me to sometimes drift too close to the other snorkelers, so I avoided them. I veered over to the deeper waters, hoping to see a shark or a barracuda, but it was probably too close to the cruise ships to see any big sea creatures.

The guide yelled at me to stay with the group, as they do, and I dutifully tried. But one guy wanted to free dive and didn’t seem to realize that we were wearing inflatable life vests, so all he could do was turn upside down and kick like a duck. After getting whacked a few times with his fins, I did swim away from him. Check out this pic of a fin in my face from my GoPro:

But as close as I stayed to the cluster, it was never close enough for the guide. I finally cried out in exasperation, “Estoy con el grupo!!!” That made him laugh really hard and leave me alone for the rest of the time. People on the East Coast of Mexico are really surprised at my high school Spanish compared to Baja.

Maybe it’s dark, but I kind of feel like the caption on a photo like this will someday be, “…and this is the last picture ever taken of Elise before she disappeared forever…” And I wouldn’t be mad at that.

We docked and I saw the fenced-off harbor swimming with rays. I realized then that the rays and sharks were in captivity, and I was very disappointed. I thought we were just stopping for lunch, then heading off to other dive spots. Yeah, OK, I was naive enough to think we would be exploring sea caves without dive gear. I mean, maybe it could have just been sea cave-adjacent. I am against keeping sea mammals in captivity (I know sharks and rays aren’t mammals, but similar thing). I would never do a captive dolphin “adventure.” Now I was torn. The fenced-in areas seemed big enough, at least for the rays. It kept them fed and safe from predators. The rays had had their barbs removed for our safety, and we were assured it was like clipping toenails, not painful at all. I looked it up, and Wikipedia agrees. Here is some more info from Wiki on the Southern Rays:

“The southern stingray (Hypanus americanus) is a whiptail stingray found in tropical and subtropical waters of the Western Atlantic Ocean from New Jersey to southern Brazil.[2] It has a flat, diamond-shaped disc, with a mud brown, olive, and grey dorsal surface and white underbelly (ventral surface).[3] The barb on its tail is serrated and covered in a venomous mucus, used for self-defense. These spines are not fatal to humans, but are incredibly painful if stepped on.”

Buy the ticket – take the ride. I might as well do the full tourist thing. Here is my tourist picture. I joined the rest of the tour group in the water after donning very slippery water shoes they provided. I had decided I was over-packing and didn’t bring my own grippy water shoes. I eagerly slipped and floundered across the rocks over to the edge of the pool where I was directed. A ray swam up against my leg as the guide announced, “They know white legs in the water mean food!” A huge ray pushed into me. There was a big rock behind me, acting the part of a mischievous friend on all fours behind you, and I dutifully fell on my back with a splash.

Back on land, there was a barbecue set up for tacos, but this is what caught my attention, and where I spent my lunchtime. It was a tropical dream come true.

There was another larger fenced-in kind of lagoon with some sleeping nurse sharks and rays. I was bummed out that they were in captivity. I later told my nephew, “It was a captive situation,”

To which he replied, “Well, I’m glad they finally let you go.”

I felt bad for the sharks, all huddled in the corner. In spite of the chain-link fence, it was still magical to finally see the sleeping sharks of the Yucatan. My dad would have been thrilled for me.

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