Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks - Juliet Eilperin (2011)

Chapter 9. GAWKING AT JAWS

I am very grateful to the sea because for the little I have, it was given to me from the sea.

—Luis “Meli” Muñoz, La Paz fisherman

Shark fishing in Mexico is a matter of economics and tradition. This nation has been catching sharks since the time of the Aztecs and the Olmecs, gloried civilizations that made distinctions between the different shark species swimming in the Gulf of Mexico. Even now Mexico remains one of the top shark-fishing nations in the world: men on the Pacific and Atlantic coasts troll for sharks that will primarily go for domestic consumption, whether it’s a dry, shredded jerky many Mexicans love or meat for fish tacos or for the Chinese restaurants in Mexico City that offer shark’s fin soup. But Mexico—like a handful of other nations, such as South Africa—represents the crossroads we find ourselves at when it comes to our relationship to sharks. It embodies our past, but could offer us a very different future.

One of the Mexican areas that still sustains a lively shark trade is La Paz, a major city on the Baja California peninsula, and the small towns that surround it. Now boasting roughly 200,000 residents, La Paz no longer embodies its name, which means “Peace” in Spanish. Its downtown waterfront promenade features an Applebee’s as well as multiple realtors’ offices, and is usually clogged with cars regardless of the time of day. As the capital of Baja California Sur, La Paz is the state’s economic center, the biggest of several fishing towns scattered up and down the peninsula. John Steinbeck traveled there in 1940 with his friend Ed “Doc” Ricketts, a marine biologist, aboard a seventy-six-foot sardine boat dubbed the Western Flyer, and the two men translated their six-week, four-thousand-mile expedition into the book Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research. Later, Steinbeck paid homage to La Paz in his novella The Pearl, describing how divers there sought out what they hoped would be the “Pearl of the World.”

Baja still banks on its marine resources to generate commercial, as well as tourist, dollars. Partyers flock to Cabo San Lucas (immortalized in the 1970s television series The Love Boat in well-worn lines such as Captain Stubing’s remark to Julie, “Do you like my sombrero? I picked it up in Cabo San Lucas!”) to the south, while ecotourists head farther north to see the gray whales, which congregate there in the late winter and early spring. The hardiest visitors usually opt for kayaking trips to the island of Espíritu Santo, which lies fifteen miles from La Paz. Steinbeck described the somewhat forbidding island as standing “high and sheer from the water.”

But when it comes to defining Baja’s cultural identity, fishing still dominates. The practice sustains tiny outposts like Las Barrancas, a Baja town five hours north of La Paz. Getting there is arduous. While there is technically a highway stretching from La Paz to a turnoff not far from Las Barrancas, this “highway” is more like a series of cratered potholes, strung together by small stretches of dirt. Driving there in a tiny rental car with my future husband, Andrew, and two researchers from the Mexican conservation group Iemanya Oceanica, we careen wildly from side to side on the road. Our assumption: skidding off the highway’s edge is a safer bet than dipping into one of the potholes, at which point our rental compact will surely crumple in on itself. We were right.

Far removed from either the state’s whale-watching center or its cruise ship ports, Las Barrancas is composed of a handful of shacks with corrugated metal roofs, the biggest of which have a beaten pickup truck standing out front. For most of the day, Las Barrancas is pretty much silent. At around 2:00 p.m., however, the fishing boats come in, and the entire town—about a dozen people—troops down to the beach to meet the fishermen and help process the fish.

One spring afternoon—the day we come to visit—Francisco and Armando Bareno, two brothers, manage to haul in nearly two dozen mako and blue sharks. The brothers have left their nets out for two days due to bad weather, so by the time they drag in their catch, the sharks are glassy-eyed and lifeless. In addition to having dull expressions, the sharks are less than formidable in size: all of them are clearly juveniles, about three or four feet long.

Standing in the shallow water, the Barenos methodically dismember the animals, always in the same order, in a process that takes less than sixty seconds per shark. After cutting off the head, they slice off the fins—the most valuable part of the body—and place them into one set of brightly colored plastic crates. Then they gut the animal, cut off the tail, and throw the remaining meat into a separate set of crates.

Just yards away on the beach, an aged white truck idles, waiting to take the Barenos’ haul to Mexico City. Unlike countries such as Indonesia, Mexico consumes an estimated 90 percent of its shark catch, mostly as a dried, shredded jerky. The Barenos couldn’t sell the fins right away, since they needed to dry them first: once dry, they fetch 1,000 pesos, or about $100, per kilo. By contrast, they hand over the fresh shark meat to the wholesalers waiting with their Mexico City–bound truck for just 15 pesos, or $1.50, a kilo. (As another Baja fisherman put it, “The fins are what bring the money.”)

Francisco Bareno leans against the truck as I ask him in Spanish whether he enjoys shark fishing. “Not much,” he replies, “but I have to live.”

One of the reasons Mexican shark fishermen are less than enthusiastic about their trade nowadays is there are fewer fish to catch. Mexican authorities have little idea of how many sharks their fishermen catch each year, so on Valentine’s Day 2007 they passed a law requiring observers on larger shark-fishing vessels and satellite tracking of these ships. The law, which also prohibits large commercial shark fishing within twenty miles of Mexico’s shores and grants special protection for great white, whale, and basking sharks, aims to provide regulators with an overview of how many sharks are killed in their waters.

Many Mexican fishermen are skeptical of the law. Manuel Espinoza Álvarez, who lives in La Paz and has spent thirty of his forty-four years working at sea, resents the fact that the government lets some large vessels scour the region’s depths for fish while he and other fishermen struggle to make a living. Like Francisco, he works with his brother, and he suspects the additional regulations will undermine his already-precarious standard of living along the shore. “Where’s the benefit for us?” he asks.

Paul Ahuja is one of the people who spend their time trying to convince Espinoza that protecting sharks is a smart economic move. A lanky, bearded six-foot-five-inch New Yorker, Ahuja stands out in a crowd when he walks the streets of La Paz. (He likes to say he resembles “Gulliver among the Lilliputians.”) Now in his mid-forties, Ahuja came to Baja by a circuitous route: he joined the U.S. Army before heading to grad school in California, and initially came to La Paz not to track sharks but to study the giant mantas that swam in the Sea of Cortez. Within a couple of years the giant mantas—huge, flapping creatures that look like bats or aliens, depending on your perspective—disappeared. But Ahuja stayed on as Mexico research director for Iemanya Oceanica, in an attempt to make sure Mexican sharks do not go the way of his beloved mantas.

Ahuja has a dark sense of humor, which serves him well in his line of work. Most days he heads out from La Paz’s waterfront in his small motorboat, named for an ex-girlfriend (his current one wants him to rename it, of course), to survey the fishermen’s wreckage. Just a few minutes’ ride away sits El Mogote, a narrow strip of land where La Paz fishermen fillet their catch and discard body parts with no value before heading to port. Ahuja and his colleagues, armed with cameras and vials for collecting DNA evidence, descend on El Mogote like a forensics team.

As we disembark, Ahuja scans the water for castoffs: he digs into the muck just offshore, and within moments he has begun pulling up the heads of hammerhead and angel sharks, as well as plenty of remains of mobilas, a species of ray protected under Mexico’s shark law, and whip rays. He pulls up the rays two at a time, by their skinny tails, as other researchers use their scalpels to extract small pieces of flesh to conduct DNA tests.

“There must be a manta taco special today,” Ahuja mutters, the rays hanging down behind him.

Ahuja holds out some hope that Mexico’s 2007 regulations will give federal officials enough information to correct the worst shark-fishing abuses—“For the first time we will have data,” he says—but he places more faith in the ability of Luis Muñoz to convert his fellow shark fishermen into conservationists. It’s a wise bet, since Muñoz—a La Paz fisherman who goes by the nickname Meli—is as charismatic as it gets.

Meli was born the same year Steinbeck and Ricketts journeyed to his home city. He remembers the very first day he began fishing at the age of twelve: June 5, 1952. At that time, he recalls, “the seas were full of sharks.”

Sitting in front of his house, with his shiny blue pickup truck behind him, Meli can hardly contain his enthusiasm. His face is wrinkled and dark after spending so many years in the sun, but he has the energy of a man decades younger: he freely gesticulates as he speaks, leaning forward intently to convey his points. He can divvy up shark species according to how serious a threat they pose—“There are some shark species you have to respect, like the mako shark; blue sharks are a little aggressive”—and can’t say enough good things about shark meat, which he describes as “delicious.” In many ways Meli sees sharks as willing partners in his fishing expeditions who have helped pay for the house in which he lives and the truck he drives.

“I love the sharks very much. I’ve been living with them. I’ve captured hundreds and hundreds of sharks; none of them have attacked me,” he says. “I feel a great love and affection for the sharks because the sharks have for many years given me food. For me, the sharks are my life.”

Meli doesn’t go out fishing anymore. For years he has belonged to a fishing labor cooperative, and now he takes the fish his fellow cooperative members catch in Todos Santos, a small town on the Pacific Coast a couple of hours away, and sells it in La Paz. The son of a fisherman, around 1992 Meli started getting concerned that he and his cooperative buddies had to go farther and farther out to catch sharks compared with a few decades earlier. It’s a complaint you hear often on the beaches of Baja: Jesús Orozco, a Todos Santos fisherman who goes by the nickname of Lobo, or Wolf (all Baja fishermen seem to have a nickname; it’s like a CB handle or something), says he spends the bulk of his days trolling the waters in search of sharks, rather than battling them from his boat. “It’s not difficult to fish the sharks,” he says. “It’s difficult to find them.”

Meli told his three sons they would be better off staying in school than following his example, but they opted to hunt sharks as well. “I’m studying and studying, when am I going to earn money?” one of his sons asked him. Meli had no answer, so he let his sons leave school.

But at this point, Meli spends much of his time worrying about “the future of sharks, and of our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.” So he has teamed up with the researchers at Iemanya Oceanica, and when he shows up on the Punta Lobos beach in Todos Santos on Saturday afternoons, he talks to his fellow cooperative members about whether they might want to ditch fishing for whale shark guiding.

Many cooperative members are open to the idea of starting a new tourism venture. José Mesa, who caught two hammerhead sharks and one mako shark on a day when Meli showed up, says he looks forward to the moment when he and other local fishermen will be shuttling visitors across local waters rather than foraging for sharks. “Economically, it would be better than fishing,” he reasons. “It would be easy to do, because we know the sea. The only thing that’s hard is the English.” Shark fishing, by contrast, is “too much work. It’s difficult work. We don’t have medical insurance, and it’s dangerous work.”

Everyone acknowledges Baja fishermen will have to overcome some logistical obstacles before they start bringing Americans down for sightseeing. The waters right off Punta Lobos are rough, so the cooperative needs a loan to build a marina with a proper deck from which to launch. As Ahuja puts it, “When the waves are big, if you get five overweight Americans in a boat, they’re not going to be up for it.”

Orozco fears building an adequate marina, from which whale shark–watching guides can push off their boats farther at sea, will cost “many thousands of pesos.” But a fisheries professor from a local university gave a lecture on ecotourism to the Todos Santos fishermen in August 2006, and cooperative members have been plotting a career switch ever since.

Todos Santos fishermen have done the math: on many days Jorge Cambillo Zazueta spends 500 pesos, or $50, on fuel—along with extra money on ice and bait—and he catches about 350 pesos’ worth of sharks.

Even the researchers who support the idea of whale shark–watching operations, however, worry about whether Baja will adopt adequate regulations. Deni Ramírez, a Ph.D. student at Centro de Investigaciones Biológicas del Noroeste who has been studying whale sharks in both Baja and Isla Holbox, an island off the Yucatán, says environmental rules in Mexico often come down to a question of nationalism.

“The gray whales have a lot of protection because they are Mexican; they are born here,” she says. No one knows exactly where the whale sharks swimming along the Baja peninsula are born, so they lack the same Mexican imprimatur. “It’s amazing in Mexico—in one area they protect the sharks, and when they move to another area in Mexico, they have trouble.”

Ramírez spends a decent amount of time underwater photographing whale sharks in Baja, since each animal has a separate coloring pattern that allows researchers to identify them. Much of the time she can spot propeller marks on their bodies, vestiges of the many run-ins the fish have had with commercial and tourist boats. While some high-end cruise lines focused on conservation, such as Lindblad Expeditions, take safety precautions, most do not. “It’s not fair,” she complains. “You’re making money with these whale sharks, and the whale sharks are getting hit by propellers.”

Ahuja harbors his own concerns about whale shark watching in Baja, fearing that the sharks one day might become like bears in Yellowstone that have become dependent on humans for food, or the stingrays in the Cayman Islands that have reversed their nocturnal feeding patterns to maximize their take from tourists.

“I have a problem with saying tourism is the way to go,” he says, right after detailing how his group has devoted much of its time to evangelizing about its virtues to local fishermen. “But I don’t see another road on which to go. So does everyone in Mexico. That’s all they talk about.”

The place the Baja fishermen are talking about is Isla Holbox (pronounced OHL-bosh, reflecting its Spanish and Mayan roots), a small Yucatán community that has successfully made the ecotourism leap. Rafael de la Parra, who is research coordinator for the conservation group Proyecto Dominó and splits his time between Cancún and Holbox, is confident it can serve as a model for Mexico and other developing countries. De la Parra is an unabashed ecotourism booster: in an effort to woo locals, his group printed up placards depicting a whale shark trailed by a bunch of dominoes (as a play on the shark’s nickname) and a slogan in Spanish reading, “Conserve the whale shark, it’s your best game.” It’s a mantra, he argues, that has finally begun to sink in here.

Sitting on the beach with hotels arrayed behind him and whale shark–watching boats tied up at the dock in front of him, de la Parra is satisfied with the transformation he has witnessed in Holbox over the past few years.

“This originally was a shark-fishing village. They were using mantas as bait till last year, and a long time ago they used dolphins,” he says, peering out at sea. “Now everything turns around the whale sharks.”

——

Back in 2002, Isla Holbox resembled Las Barrancas more closely than the holiday destination it’s become. Lying roughly ninety miles northwest of Cancún, Holbox has never managed to lure American frat boys the way its better-known neighbor has. (Perhaps this is because getting to Holbox, on the very northern tip of the Yucatán, involves riding over rocky dirt roads for two and a half hours and then taking a noisy, water-soaked ferry ride.)

But a few years ago a small cadre of scientists from Mexico, the United States, and Belize started making an annual pilgrimage to this narrow, twenty-five-mile-long island in order to observe the whale sharks that flock in the hundreds to its shores each summer in search of plankton-rich water. For decades researchers had paid little attention to whale sharks: as filter feeders with tiny, vestigial teeth, they did not hold the same scientific or popular appeal as murderous great whites or the other fierce predators roaming the seas.

In a world of shrinking shark populations, however, this summertime whale shark aggregation intrigued scientists: there is a higher concentrated number of whale sharks here than anywhere else in the world. The whale sharks have picked the Yucatán as their annual vacation spot, and researchers want to know why. Even better, whale sharks—hulking but harmless creatures with polka dots and stripes on their backs—are the kinds of animals a kid can love, making them a sort of conservation poster child.

As David Santucci, who trekked to Holbox to see this phenomenon for himself when he worked as a spokesman for the Georgia Aquarium, puts it, “There is no better species to represent sharks than whale sharks. They’re gentle giants, they’re awe inspiring, they’re magnificent creatures.”

And this is how, in just five years, Holbox transformed itself from a sleepy island into a whale shark ecotourist mecca.

Founded 150 years ago, Holbox is the type of place whose official history includes phrases such as “according to legend” and “the locals say” before any fact is given. Most people agree the former pirates’ hideout got its name from a small dark lagoon on the southern part of the island: Holbox means “black hole” in Mayan. A different, freshwater lagoon named Yalahau was the island’s real draw: the Maya viewed it as a fountain of youth, and around 1800 Spanish Armada ships stopped by to get their drinking water from the pristine source.

Despite its attractive lagoons, Holbox has remained a backwater for centuries. Even now its official tour guide describes islanders as “descendants of pirates, mestizos of several races, fishermen by trade.” Jungle mangroves divide the island, which is less than two miles across at its widest point, into three parts; only the smallest section is inhabited.

For years Holbox had one business: fishing. In the 1980s the town’s inhabitants started earning a decent living for the first time by exploiting the local lobster fishery in earnest, moving them solidly into Mexico’s middle class. That initial prosperity, however, sowed the seeds of class conflict in the mid-1990s as some of the town’s residents began dealing in real estate. By 2000, Holbox was divided between those who could afford to own property and those who could not, and with the lobster fishery depleted, villagers were left wondering what to do next.

Willy Betancourt Sabatini was one of the first Holboxeños to realize how the residents could benefit from the massive whale sharks that congregated near the island from May to September. Like most of the other men in Holbox, Betancourt worked as a fisherman, but he knew the sea was an unreliable seafood supplier. So when the scientists started coming to the island—and meeting with Betancourt’s sister Norma, a local environmentalist who now serves as the project director for the Yum Balam National Protected Area just off the island’s shores—Betancourt wanted in.

Whale shark tourism had just begun to take off in nearby Belize, since researchers had figured out the animals tended to congregate around an area known as Gladden Spit during the full moon in spring. But some scientists there, including Rachel Graham, a D.C. native who had made Belize her home, became concerned that overenthusiastic divers were disturbing both the sharks and the red snappers whose eggs the whale sharks coveted. Graham started working with whale sharks in Belize in 1998, and by 2002, she says, tour operators told her they had “noticed if a lot of people jumped in the water and grabbed the shark’s tail, the behavior of this animal was evasive or elusive.” Graham wanted to make sure Holbox did not repeat these same mistakes.

So as Holbox began to establish its own marine tourism standards, Norma Betancourt and others made it clear they wanted a plan developed and enforced by members of the community, so that cheaters would face their neighbors’ wrath. Few Holboxeños have as much social standing as Norma, a direct descendant of one of the town’s founding families.

“I have Holbox everywhere,” she likes to say, in Spanish, with a smile.

A petite woman with a broad Mayan face, Betancourt brooded at first that the burgeoning whale shark–watching business “was going to end in disaster.” But in the spring of 2003 researchers and local entrepreneurs—including Norma’s brother Willy—worked to devise an ethical code that established the ground rules for frolicking with the polka-dotted giants. At any given time only two divers and one guide can be in the water with a single shark, and they must snorkel, rather than dive, so it’s obvious how many swimmers are in the water. Flash photography and touching of the sharks are forbidden. Any given boat can only have up to ten tourists in it, and each whale shark operation must apply for a permit.

“People said we were crazy, that we couldn’t do it,” Betancourt recalls. But she and her allies had made an apt calculation: the fishermen had learned enough from the 1980s lobster debacle to know they needed to set limits when it came to dealing with the sea. “They know if we don’t take care, all of us are going to lose.”

The economics of shark tourism are pretty clear: the fish are worth much more alive than dead. In Belize tourists flock to the small town of Placencia to gawk at whale sharks in the Gladden Spit Marine Reserve, and a 2002 study estimated they brought $3.7 million to Placencia over a six-week period. In the Donsol region of the Philippines, the number of whale shark tourists mushroomed from 867 to 7,000 over the course of five years, bringing $620,000 to the country’s economy in 2005. A third of all diving activity in Spain’s Canary Islands is linked to sharks and rays, according to a recent study by the Institute of Social and Political Sciences at the University of La Laguna, accounting for nearly $25 million a year of the region’s tourist economy. While shark tourism is not yet on par with whale watching, which generates roughly $2 billion a year worldwide, it has started to generate significant revenues. As Maldives president Mohamed Nasheed puts it, “We think that you can make more money by looking at a shark than by making it into a soup.”

From Willy Betancourt’s perspective, sacrificing fishing for tourism was a fair deal. “It’s simple and more predictable than fishing,” he explains, adding that the twelve men who now work for him as boat operators and guides earn as much in half a day as they used to earn fishing for an entire day. “We respect the rules. People understand it very well.”

Graham is not entirely convinced that Holbox is as much of a paradise as some of its residents think. A member of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Ocean Giants Program, Graham is as physically imposing as Paul Ahuja: the word “Amazonian” best describes her nearly six-foot, broad-shouldered frame. Equally at ease in English, Spanish, and French, Graham is adept at convincing local fishermen to confide in her about their activities, which is why she knows that some of them still fish some shark species, out of the tourists’ sight. Even more important, they’ve told her some of the whale sharks swimming off Holbox have begun to shy away from people the same way they do in Belize. This isn’t a coincidence: Graham has been tracking these whale sharks for years, and it’s quite likely that the same individuals are making their way from Belize to Mexico and Honduras, in search of the best available food as tourists gawk at them.

“This is the same population,” Graham says. “Along the Mesoamerican reef they’re being hit up in three locations. That, to me, is a worry.” It is, she suggests, akin to autograph seekers bothering you in a restaurant each time you begin to approach the buffet line.

The fact that now some tour operations in Cancún are bringing visitors in on fast boats to see the sharks, and that fishermen at nearby Isla Mujeres are also angling to become whale shark tour guides, only exacerbates Graham’s concern. Maybe the whale sharks can handle it. Or maybe they’ll give up on the buffet and head somewhere else.

There are still a few vestiges of the fishing village Holbox used to be, like the faded and cracked mural on the edge of the town square that touts the failed 2006 presidential candidate from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), Roberto Madrazo. “More Support for the Fishermen,” the mural reads. “Roberto, Yes We Can. President Roberto.”

But while those allusions still resonate somewhat—the once-powerful ruling authoritarian party is making a bit of a comeback from Mexico’s political sidelines—fishing no longer defines Holbox. The town’s Main Street now bears the name of the animal that has brought money to Holbox: Calle Tiburón Ballena, or Whale Shark Street. Every few yards boasts a storefront that is serving tourists one way or another, whether it’s the Cyber Sh@rk Internet café or the McRústico hamburger and sandwich shop, serving “the best subs on the island.” Images of whale sharks dominate the entire town, and every hotel offers sightseeing trips to see the famed fish in action.

Francesca Golinelli is a Holbox hotel operator whose parents, Greta and Johnny, came over from Italy in 1999 to build a vacation home. By 2001 they had enlisted their daughter in their plan to start a small hotel on the island, and a year later Casa Las Tortugas opened on the same skinny stretch of sand that houses the rest of Holbox’s accommodations. Casa Las Tortugas is pretty mellow: guests can eat their breakfast at a table planted in the sand, and air-conditioning in one’s room costs an extra $10 a night. Much of the building is made out of local wood, and each bathroom sports all-natural artisanal soaps from nearby Mérida.

Golinelli had been working in the Italian fashion business before her parents started extolling the wonders of Holbox. “They just fell in love with the island, the environment,” she recalls. “It was so beautiful and so pure.” Tired of having other people telling her what to do in her previous job, Golinelli came to live on the island devoid of motorized vehicles, robberies, and tchotchkes.

Several years after her arrival, Holbox has changed. Even with the serious setback of Hurricane Wilma, which pummeled the island in October 2005, the place has exploded with business enterprises. There are at least a dozen hostels and more than fifteen hostels and posadas crammed into the island’s one inhabited section; restaurants offer everything from Italian fare to Cuban food. While cars remain scarce, golf carts have become ubiquitous, offering visitors fresh off the ferry a cheap ride from the dock to their hotel of choice. While Holbox’s full-time population hovers just below two thousand, registered tourist visits have increased exponentially in recent years: six thousand came in 2004, ninety-five hundred in 2005, and twelve thousand in 2006. And all that was before The New York Times and The Washington Post wrote about the place.

At times, Golinelli—like most people who live in Holbox—waxes nostalgic for the early days. As she flips through the pile of travel magazines featuring Holbox that are stacked up on the main table in her hotel’s reception area, she recalls, “When I came here there were not any golf carts. For me this was amazing, because I hate the golf carts … The thing that has changed the most was the Holboxeños. Money came to the island. The tourists arrived, we arrived, and the whale sharks arrived.”

Locals now stroll across the plaza wearing hip, angular glasses and brightly colored Crocs. As Willy Betancourt puts it, “There have been changes in the way people dress because we imitate the Europeans. We see orange Crocs, and we think, ‘Ooh, we should get those.’ ”

To a large extent the local government has yet to catch up with this proliferation of people and services: the island’s roads are still all sand, not asphalt. Residents question how that sort of rudimentary infrastructure, along with the unchecked growth in golf cart traffic and lack of decent sanitation, can support an ever-expanding visitor population. Vultures hover over piles of trash in the town dump, located right next to the village cemetery. There’s no school beyond junior high and no town hospital—only a clinic where a doctor occasionally shows up to see patients.

But despite this, the number of whale shark–watching permit applications increases every year, and it’s unclear whether officials will ever place a limit on them. “It’s so important for the hotels, the restaurants, the stores,” says Norma Betancourt. “Whale sharks are an opportunity. It’s good luck and we shouldn’t lose it.”

Or, as her brother Willy reasons, they’ve simply traded in lobsters for whale sharks: “We live off the fish.”

While Holboxeños may understand the economics of whale shark watching, nobody really understands whale sharks. They are, quite literally, the biggest fish in the sea. Many whale sharks weigh well over a ton; some grow as long as forty feet. Their common name stems from their superficial similarity to whales, since they are enormous and spend much of their time filter feeding on plankton at the ocean’s surface. Unlike whales, whale sharks don’t need to breathe air, and they have a different internal mechanism for gulping down the tiny creatures that sustain them. A group of a dozen researchers led by University of South Florida biologist Philip J. Motta have determined that whale sharks spend between eight and twelve hours a day cruising the ocean with their mouths agape and angled upward at roughly 13 degrees, swallowing more than 162,000 gallons of water an hour to get the small crustaceans and worms that sustain them. They estimate a whale shark measuring twenty feet long takes in 6,721 calories per day, twice what U.S. dietary guidelines suggest for a six-foot, two-hundred-pound, moderately active thirty-year-old man.1

Until researchers learned about the group of whale sharks congregating in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, even most marine biologists had never seen them. (Officials at the Georgia Aquarium, which is the only facility outside of Asia to house whale sharks, like to brag that ocean explorers such as Sylvia Earle and Philippe Cousteau never saw a whale shark until they visited the aquarium, which opened in downtown Atlanta in the fall of 2005.) Even the hundreds of thousands of dollars scientists have spent researching them in recent years has just begun to pin down some basic facts about whale sharks, and much of this remains speculation.

“There are a lot of unanswered questions out there,” says Ray Davis, the Georgia Aquarium’s former senior vice president of zoological operations. “Everyone’s admitting they don’t know the answers, and everybody’s working together to get the answers.”

So far, in fact, many of the answers have come from dead whale sharks rather than live ones. It wasn’t until 1995, when some scientists got a look at a whale shark fished off Taiwan, that they determined the sharks were oviparous, meaning they could reproduce young from eggs. “Up to that point everything was conjecture,” Davis says.

But as with other elements of shark scientific inquiry, that’s pretty much where human understanding of whale shark reproduction ends. When scientists say whale sharks can produce three hundred eggs at a time, all they’re doing is referring to that one shark that had the misfortune to find itself on a Taiwanese wharf in the mid-1990s, since no one’s ever gotten another peek inside a pregnant whale shark’s belly.

Even the death of a male whale shark can spark an academic boomlet, as when two of the Georgia Aquarium’s whale sharks died in succession in 2007. Shark scientists from across the country rushed to Atlanta to take part in the necropsy of first Ralph and then Norton, the two males the aquarium had imported from Taiwan in June 2005.

Scientists focus on whale sharks for a couple of reasons: the critters eat constantly, and this, in turn, makes them enormous. Mote Marine Laboratory’s Robert Hueter, who has been coming to Holbox since 1994 and tracking whale sharks there since 2003, compares them to cows. “You come out here and here’s these big beasts who are only about eating,” Hueter explains one afternoon as we are cruising the Gulf of Mexico tracking whale sharks from the yacht of Jim Jacoby, a major real estate developer and Georgia Aquarium board member. “It’s their own equivalent of the great grassland.”

In the same way that cows are straightforward feeding machines, so are whale sharks. Thanks to the Georgia Aquarium’s necropsies, scientists discovered a whale shark’s massive body contains a brain smaller than the size of a human fist. But whale sharks do something infinitely more interesting than cows: they dive. And they dive deep.

Eugenie Clark, the founding director of the lab where Hueter works, encountered a whale shark off the coast of the Baja peninsula while diving there decades ago. Jacques Cousteau got most of the hype in the 1950s for surveying the underwater world, but women like Clark and Sylvia Earle were just as adventurous explorers, if not more so. Clark is in her late eighties now, but she is still a pixie, a diminutive researcher who relates her most daring adventures and shows off her latest scientific discoveries with relish. At one point, as we sit in her office at Mote Marine Laboratory, she casually mentions how deep she has gone diving recently and then realizes she needs to shush me before her colleagues find out. “Don’t mention how deep I went,” she cautions me, suddenly stern. “I’m not supposed to do that anymore.” Then she explodes into laughter.

The first time Clark ever encountered a whale shark, she grabbed on to a fold in the animal’s skin under its first dorsal fin, using it as a sort of handle as the fish cruised by. She zipped along with the shark for a while even though her air tank slid off her back; holding on to the tank, she went even deeper underwater. The shark was a massive pregnant female, so it was undisturbed by the lady on its back, but at some point it occurred to Clark that she had been going for some time.

“It was incredible,” Clark says now of her ride. “When I finally came up, I could barely see the boat, I was so far away.”

At the time Clark went on her whale shark ride, marine biologists had no idea how far these animals plunged below the surface. Rachel Graham, the first scientist to put satellite tags on whale sharks, determined that one of the nearly two dozen sharks she tagged in Belize between 2001 and 2002 dived as deep as 4,921 feet below the surface.

Hueter, whose team from the Mote lab has worked with Mexican scientists from the research group Proyecto Dominó, has also devoted much of his time to monitoring how whale sharks dive throughout their travels. One of his sharks has surpassed Graham’s poster shark by going 6,194 feet deep, more than a mile underwater. (Initially, scientists were limited by the fact that the satellite tags they attach to these fish would break off at 5,905 feet to ensure the tags’ computer circuitry remained viable, but as the gadgetry advanced, so did their findings.) As the sharks descend to these formidable depths, they move without trouble from balmy sea surface temperatures in the high seventies to water as chilly as thirty-nine degrees Fahrenheit. They don’t stay down for long, according to tagging data, but instead begin to rise once they’ve gone far down.

Graham sees this flexibility as one of whale sharks’ best assets: “Their ability to adapt to all sorts of different environments is an important part of their survival.”

But this deep diving also raises an obvious question: Why do the whale sharks go that deep? Even after several years of study, Hueter falls back on the process of elimination in order to answer the query. At first, researchers thought the animals were seeking food down below, but the plankton is pretty thin at those depths. Then they thought these dives might serve to regulate the sharks’ body temperature, but they haven’t found particular evidence to support that in the data they’ve collected. So now they’re leaning toward the theory that diving allows whale sharks to rest, as they engage in a sort of harmless free fall toward the seafloor. But they are still trying to figure out why whale sharks, along with basking sharks, dive in a number of distinct patterns, such as V-shaped spikes, a W-shaped sawtooth, and oscillatory staircasing.

Whale sharks are a hot property, scientifically and academically speaking: in 2002 the world’s governments decided to protect the species through CITES, one of only a handful of sharks to receive such protection. No one knows how many whale sharks are out there, though Proyecto Dominó and its partners have estimated that at least a thousand—and perhaps as many as fifteen hundred—of them come to Holbox each summer.

“There’s no question they have gotten attention because of their gargantuan size, and they’re polka-dotted animals people are attracted to,” Hueter says. “Does that mean they’re more important? I don’t think so. Does that mean they’re threatened or endangered? Not necessarily. They’ve been treated sort of royally because of the warm-and-fuzzy factor.”

In fact, Hueter and his Mote colleagues had been studying blacktip sharks in Holbox for close to a decade when local researchers mentioned in passing that each year, just after the Floridians left, whale sharks came to the island in droves.

“Why did they start paying attention?” Hueter asks, referring to the Holboxeños. “Because the outside world was telling them how special this is.”

In other words, the market—rather than some abstract environmental ideal—is what has driven conservation in Holbox. Once researchers from the United States and elsewhere in Mexico conveyed to locals that these animals—if kept alive and accessible—have an economic value, area residents started using it to their advantage. And that was the best possible thing that ever could have happened to the whale sharks. Other species, including several kinds of reef sharks, serve as viable tourist attractions across the globe. Once a community manages to turn live sharks into a commodity, they have a better chance of staying underwater instead of being hauled ashore to die.

In fact, whale sharks in the wild make for a stunning sight. Early one morning in August 2007, I headed out to sea with Hueter, de la Parra, and a few other scientists. One of the things locals (and scientists) know about whale sharks is they’re easiest to spot between 7:00 and 11:00 a.m., while they’re surface feeding. Around lunchtime they descend, at which point people don’t have much of a clue as to what they’re doing.

It took an hour to reach the sharks’ usual gathering place. At first the ocean was absolutely smooth: the reddish plankton in the water was so thick it was nearly impossible to discern anything underneath the surface. Then one of the researchers cried out, “There’s one of them!” pointing to a large, shiny dorsal fin poking out of the water. We pulled the boat alongside it, and I found myself gazing at the largest shark I had ever seen.

At twenty-three feet, it really was as big as a school bus. (The researchers have a very straightforward way of measuring the animals: they use a ruler to mark off feet on the side of the boat and then wait until the tail is aligned with the back of the boat to assess its proper length.) Its skin was dark gray and shiny, glinting in the sunlight, with mottled white dots on its back.

All of a sudden it seemed as if there were whale sharks everywhere. It was not as if they were out of the water entirely. Often we could see only a fraction of their massive bodies: their gently curved mouths, agape as they sucked in volumes of water, or the tips of their tails, flicking back and forth as they glided through the water. But more often than not, we could spot their first dorsal fins jutting out of the sea from dozens of yards away.

After the researchers had made some of their basic measurements, I donned my mask, snorkel, and fins and prepared to jump into the water. This should be easy, I thought to myself. The shark does not appear to be moving so fast—Hueter estimates they move between one and two miles an hour—so I should be able to keep up. I’ve watched de la Parra hop over the boat, with his bright yellow plastic tag and slingshot pole in hand, and come back empty-handed, with the tag firmly attached to the shark’s skin. Surely, I can swim alongside this animal.

Wrong.

I made a cardinal mistake: I jumped in near the shark’s tail. From that point on, I was furiously swimming to try to catch up with the fish, an impossible task.

I tried again, with a different shark. Same problem: by the time I swam out to it, the shark had turned and I was out of luck.

Finally, I managed to plunge into the water near the animal’s head. Within seconds, I found myself facing an enormous, blunt-nosed creature, heading toward me at what seemed like a shockingly rapid rate. While I marveled at its massive nostrils and the eyes tucked on either side of its head, I was also cognizant of the fact that I was set for a head-on collision with a three-thousand-pound shark. It doesn’t matter that it didn’t boast sharp teeth, since I was simply going to get smushed. I ducked.

The whale shark cruised by, seemingly unperturbed by my last-minute bailout. It was on its way, and I was now on the sidelines.

By the time I scrambled back onto the boat, everyone was ready with their quips about my sudden evasive maneuver. I did not care. I had seen a whale shark, face-to-face. And I began to think that maybe whale shark tourism in Mexico has a future after all.

To get a sense of what this sort of sightseeing looks like when it becomes truly big business, one must travel thousands of miles away from the Yucatán Peninsula to South Africa. It has capitalized on shark tourism better than almost any other country, in part because it serves as a part-time home for the iconic great white. While scientists can predict when the white sharks will show up—they congregate around areas such as Dyer and Seal islands during June, July, and August and come closer inshore during September through December—it remains slightly unclear what draws them to the area. Food is the most obvious explanation: young seal pups are just beginning to venture out into the water during South Africa’s winter months (what is the summer for the Northern Hemisphere), making them vulnerable to predation.

The improbable idea of charging tourists for jumping into the water with lethal animals began on February 5, 1976, when the underwater filmmakers Valerie and Ron Taylor agreed to guide four Americans on an expedition to Port Lincoln, South Australia, to see white sharks in what Valerie Taylor later described as “their natural element.” The trip—organized by the U.S.-based See and Sea Travel—cost $4,000 a person, plus airfare, and generated significant publicity. Judging from Taylor’s diary of the trip, it’s miraculous that everyone emerged unscathed from the adventure. As she wrote on February 8 at 7:30 p.m. of the first great white the group encountered, “That poor shark. He must have wondered what kind of creature this wall of black eyes looking at him belonged to. Every pass of the boat was heralded by the excited cries from the Americans and a dozen clicking cameras. Never was a shark so photographed … The shark rammed into the far cage. Everyone yelled and cheered. From our boat, it looked chaotic and probably was. But the visitors were so happy it made us natives happy just watching them.”2 The events on Dangerous Reef were captured on film, not only by Ron Taylor, but also by some of the Americans, and sparked an unexpected backlash. Shark hunters flocked to the reef and killed at least twelve sharks, while some members of the public recoiled at the idea that great whites were that accessible. A similar trip planned for the following year was canceled.3

For years, cage diving was the exclusive preserve of the very rich and the occasional adventure-documentary filmmaker. But around 1989, Kim Maclean—who at the time was earning extra money on weekends taking people out fishing on a small jetty—was strolling along the harbor in Hermanus, South Africa, when she saw a little Afrikaner boy fishing with a rod and reel. He happily plunked one fish after another into his bucket, until he reeled in a small sand shark. That one he tossed aside and left to die on the sand.

Maclean—who had grown up “shark mad,” as she describes it, with shark posters covering her bedroom walls—was horrified. “This little boy had been trained the only good shark is a dead shark,” she thought to herself. And she decided there was a straightforward way of convincing people to think otherwise. It just meant getting them into water with great whites.

Maclean is a blunt-spoken, stocky bleached blonde who’s spent years taking on the fishing boys’ club. She started Shark Lady Adventures in 1992, and she’s still the only woman running her own great white diving operation on the Eastern Cape. Maclean can operate in every position on a ship, and isn’t shy about saying so. But while she’s not above a bit of self-promotion, she also is a genuine conservationist. There’s a visible divide among the eight cage-diving operators who work out of Gansbaai, the impoverished town two hours away from Cape Town. Several of them have brochures that picture a great white with its mouth agape (the typical shark money shot), with phrases like “The JAWS … of LIFE.” While nearly every operator touts its eco-friendly credentials, several highlight the scarier aspects of getting in the water with white sharks.

Shark Lady Adventures, by contrast, appeals to the higher-end, tree-hugger crowd. With catchphrases like “We care, protect and educate” and “This time, it’s you in the Zoo,” the operation navigates the line between typical thrill-seeking tourism and environmental protection. Maclean has established strict rules for the dive master, including making sure the bait is at least six feet from the boat so that the sharks don’t come into contact with the divers. In 2009 she constructed the White Shark Embassy, an attractive building right on the water that includes educational panels on sharks prepared by the Save Our Seas Foundation as well as plenty of stuffed animals, sweatshirts, and beaded wire sculptures. Maclean has little patience for backpackers, or the tourists who have put cage diving on their to-do list, right after bungee jumping and skydiving. “I’m not there to entertain people who just want to tick it off their list,” she says. “They want to see the gory blood, and want to see the fierce teeth.”

That said, everyone who decides to cage dive with a great white is looking for thrills. And all of them are at least a little bit scared when they show up at the Shark Lady’s launching point.

Gansbaai—the so-called White Shark Capital of the World—is a grim town. The largest local commercial establishment appears to be Dit and Dat Trading, and the most cheerful roadside signs all feature sharks. There are none of the usual trappings of a destination spot: small bed-and-breakfasts, restaurants, or curio shops. Tourists come first thing in the morning to head out to sea, and they depart in the afternoon for either Hermanus or Cape Town. Maclean tried to put on a white shark festival one year, to generate a little income for the town, but her competitors weren’t interested in cooperating. While cage diving might support more than half a dozen tour businesses, it’s done little to lift the standard of living for these operations’ departure site.

By the time I arrive at the White Shark Embassy—a freshly whitewashed building with clipper ship chandeliers and ocean views—a small group has begun to assemble on the building’s second floor, where there’s a hot breakfast being offered. It’s an eclectic mix of people: a professional South African cricket player and his girlfriend; a Scottish business consultant and his daughter, fresh out of university; a Brazilian sales representative for Caterpillar, his wife, and their nine-year-old daughter; and a Malay-British couple with two teenage sons.

“It was his idea,” Jeanne Kietzmann says bluntly. Kietzmann’s boyfriend, Dale Steyn, is one of the South African national cricket team’s star players. After seeing a show about great whites on a sports channel, he decided they needed to go. “I’m just being dragged along,” Kietzmann offers, glancing out the window at the boats docked below. “I’ve actually got a massive shark phobia. So it’s going to be interesting.”

Lance Coetzee, the dive master, is a cheerful sort, sunburned all over his face except for the strip of white skin protected by his sunglasses. He gives a decent lecture on the white shark basics—their anatomy, different senses, feeding habits—and does his best to reassure the most jittery customers. “It will not come up on the boat and attack it just because you’re afraid and your heart is beating,” he lectures, just after describing how the sharks can detect the heartbeats of other creatures underwater. “These animals have been portrayed by the movie Jaws as bloodthirsty monsters. They’re not.” (Later, Coetzee confides, “I’m sure Jaws sells the product for us. I’m sure it helps, sensationalism. But sensationalism isn’t going to keep the sharks here.”)

Then we’re off, with Coetzee shepherding us gently on the boat. Stuart Richardson, the Scottish businessman, relishes the idea of crossing paths with a dangerous animal underwater: “The ultimate is swimming with something like that. It’s almost a religious thing. If God wants to meet you, he’s going to meet you.” This is what sustains the cage-diving industry—the idea that one is doing something theoretically dangerous, even though every possible precaution is taken to minimize risk.

After motoring for fifteen minutes, we’re within reach of Dyer Island, a well-known congregating spot for sharks. Several other boats have already made it out there, and from the cries we can hear nearby, they’ve presumably found what they’re looking for. As one of the mates starts chumming the water with a reddish fishy soup, Coetzee lowers the cage into the water. It doesn’t look anything like what I had envisioned: black rubber covers the metal contraption, which has four separate chutes divers can lower themselves into simultaneously. And only the most rudimentary gear is required—a hooded wet suit and snorkeling mask—since once in the cage, divers keep their heads above water until a shark comes close enough to observe.

Before heading out, Coetzee warned that great whites don’t just circle in the water with their fins jutting out. But within minutes of our anchoring and throwing out bait, an ominous, nearly black fin appears just yards away from the boat. The shark we had been anticipating—and fearing—had arrived.

By the time I manage to get an underwater look at a great white, my fear has dissipated. Maclean isn’t exaggerating when she says, “It’s you in the Zoo.” The cage is a solid piece of equipment, an assemblage of firm, crisscrossing bars that show no sign of failing. As Coetzee shouts, “Divers, look left,” I draw a deep breath and push myself down, whipping my head around to catch a glimpse of the shark heading for the tuna head Coetzee is dangling on a rope before it. The shark moves slowly, making lazy figure eights in and out of range of the cage. While there are plenty of whites in the area, they never congregate. One fish will come in for the bait, give up after a few attempts, and swim away. Then another will do the same.

The great whites that parade before us are elegant despite their size. They lack the hulking mass of the whale shark, along with the cartoonish markings. There is a seriousness to the torpedo-shaped bodies that slice through the water, a wedge of muscle ready to flex when necessary. And then the moment comes: a white lunges for the fish head, its teeth bared. While much of the diving experience smacks of being in a glorified aquarium, this is the one time when it feels, for an instant, as if we’re witnessing nature in its element. The shark’s teeth are jagged, and it manages to snatch a bit of the head before shoving off. It’s the money shot.

Everyone makes it into the cage but Kietzmann, who is held back not by fear but by seasickness. And the tourists go away with exactly the impression Maclean had predicted they would: reverence, and affection. It’s an odd sort of adventure tourism, whose proprietors depend on long-held stereotypes to lure customers but harbor a hidden agenda to unravel them at the end of the day.

Boarding a flight out of Cape Town a few days later, I happen to run into Richardson as he and his family are embarking on the same plane. “I loved it,” he reminisces about our dive. “It was surreal. There you were, in with the shark. You felt like you could reach out and tickle its tummy.”

Climbing up the stairs on the Jetway, he pauses to contemplate why sharks have such a terrible reputation. But even if it’s unjustified, he notes, it’s what brought him to Gansbaai. “Of course, if they didn’t demonize it, we wouldn’t have come. Now I get to go back and tell my friends, ‘I’ve been with a shark,’ and they’ll think, ‘What a man.’ ”

And with that, he makes his way with his wife and daughter to their designated seats, headed home to tell his fish tale. He has managed to conquer a formidable predator while allowing the animal—like himself—to live another day.