Published on May 17th, 2013 | by Mark Chesnut
Shark Master: Gabriel López Silva Swims with Whale Sharks for a Living
What’s it like to swim with the largest sharks in the world, nearly every day, for months on end? Just ask Gabriel López Silva, a professional guide based in Cancún, Mexico.
This 32-year-old master of the whale sharks, who is originally from Tampico, Mexico, is already gearing up for Mexico’s peak whale shark season, which runs from May 15 through September 15, with the months of July and August among the best times to view these gigantic creatures. The largest fish in the world (they’re not actually whales), whale sharks visit the waters off Mexico’s Caribbean coast every year to feed on plankton. They can grow longer than 40 feet and their giant mouths stretch open up to five feet – but their culinary preferences lean more toward tiny plankton than human visitors.
Gabriel offers expert guidance during his many boat excursions during whale shark season, taking visitors to the heart of the feeding area, where he leads guests on snorkeling trips among schools of slow-moving giant sharks. I had already gone swimming with sharks in Mazatlán — albeit they were of a smaller variety and in a tank, and also watched a bizarre shark-feeding demonstration at Islas Rosario, near Cartagena, Colombia. But swimming with whale sharks not far from the Cancun beaches was a very different experience.
When not surrounded by colossal marine creatures, Gabriel also offers his services for other water-based excursions and PADI scuba certification throughout the year (contact Gabriel via his Facebook page). In his exclusive interview, Gabriel came up for air to share his insight about life with the world’s biggest fish.
When did you begin your career as a whale shark tour guide?
I began in June 2012, because I really like to swim and snorkel. I had a friend who worked in the marina, and he worked as a guide and it seemed interesting and fun to me. Of course I went a couple times with another guide who was already experienced, in order to know what to do.
What do you like best about swimming with whale sharks?
Just seeing them is impressive — having the biggest fish in the world by your side. And not just one, but many, as you saw, and not in captivity but in the open sea. The most incredible is seeing an average of 150 to 200 whale sharks in one location.
What do first-timers find most surprising?
I think it’s their size — and knowing that they’re in contact with a fish that you usually just see in videos or magazines.
How intelligent are whale sharks? What do they think about us humans?
[Laughs] I don’t know how intelligent they really are, but they are very docile and when they see you, they just move aside. They’re only there for the food.
I got seasick when I was on the boat ride with you last year. How can people avoid that?
To avoid nausea, it’s necessary to take [anti-nausea medication] one hour before the trip.
What are some of your other favorite water-based activities?
Sailfish tours, coral reef snorkeling, scuba diving for beginners and people who are certified — wreck diving, night diving and diving with bull sharks from November to January.
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