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Holbox III: Into the Blue with Whale Sharks

Although the “green” plankton-rich waters closer to shore are associated with the feeding congregations of whales sharks, a three-hour boat ride further offshore into the blue waters, finds us in the largest concentrations of animals. As many as 270 individuals have been seen in recent days, the largest concentration ever observed by Rachel Graham, Ph.D., who has studied the whales all over the world, and is here tagging the sharks and manta rays. We find ourselves in a relatively small(?) aggregation, estimated at 60-80 whale sharks by our guide Abraham Jesus Kantun Amaro, whose energy and enthusiasm is simply amazing. I can see as many as six sharks at the surface looking straight ahead and can count up to 16 doing a quick 360 turn before I am lose track of whether I am double-counting. So why are they here and not in the rich soupy green (and red-streaked) waters closer to shore? The water is apparently filled with “zillions” (that’s a scientific term) of nearly microscopic fish eggs. You can’t see them in the water, but you can find a few in your hair when you get out of the water. Later that night, Rachel Graham showed me a photo of a double handful she collected in a plankton net they towed for just three minutes! Rachel and her team are not the only scientists and/or conservationists here to witness this incredible spectacle, besides our group (which includes US National Marine Sanctuary folks, and myself from Turtle Island). Overhead a National Geographic team is taking aerial photos, and last night we met folks from Dr. Sylvia Earle’s Deep Search Foundation, and folks from the International League of Conservation Photographers at dinner. We are all blown away by what we have seen, but I keep reminding myself that that a vast array of life existed in the ocean everywhere (even right where you live!) in the days before industrial fishing, massive habitat destruction and uncontrolled pollution. It’s great to know there is so much concern and support for this incredible place and its amazing marine inhabitants, like the whale shark, listed as threatened by the IUCN. That is what it is going to take to take to save this remarkable marine oasis—and restore the ocean ecosystems on which we all depend. (photos by Emma Hickerson)