Yucatan RAVE Dispatch from the Field, Isla Holbox, Mexico

There is no better cure for a mild case of sea-sickness than to get a little adrenaline rush. When you first catch a glimpse of the giant fin coming out of the surface, you can’t help asking yourself “uh-uh….am I really going to get in the water with a giant shark?”. And then you remember that the large fish in the water is nothing more than a plankton-eater with no interest in higher carbon forms.

This is the second time I have been lucky enough to swim with whale sharks off the coast of Holbox; an idyllic Mexican town in the northernmost point of the Yucatan Peninsula. The bumpy boat trip to find the sharks as they feed in the plankton-rich water off Holbox is a small price to pay for the exhilaration of having a face-to-face encounter with these gentle giants.

This time, however, there is an added element of excitement, we are here to launch the most ambitious RAVE (Rapid Assessment Visual Expedition) carried out by the iLCP (International League of Conservation Photographers). The RAVE is usually comprised of a small team of photographers deployed to document an area in need of media attention. RAVEs are carried out in distinct locations and for a limited amount of time. This RAVE, however is different. Because of the size of the Yucatan Peninsula and the wide range of natural treasures (both above and below water) and the scope of the threats facing them, the Yucatan RAVE, the 7th to be carried out by the iLCP, is the largest one to date.

Holbox is the perfect location to launch a RAVE. We have a great partnership with the local conservation NGO coalition, led by the prestigious and highly effective Mexican organization, Amigos de Sian Ka’an and on the first mission we are working with acclaimed National Geographic photographer, Brian Skerry. Brian has photographed over 16 articles for the magazine and most of those have dealt with threats to the marine environment. From the impact of fisheries to the plight of Right whales, Brian is a photographer who has dedicated his career and put his talent forth to help shed light on important issues that are otherwise difficult to grasp. He is also a founding fellow of the iLCP and this is the first time he participates in a RAVE.

We travel in two boats, one carrying Brian, his equipment and his assistant and the other carrying me and the members of the Deep Search Foundation, an organization dedicated to marine exploration and conservation and one of our newest partners. The Deep Search team is led by its director, John Racanelli, who in addition to being an expert in strategy and communication is also a great ocean swimmer; Kip Evans, a Carmel-based photographer and videographer dedicated to conservation, and Shari Sant Plummer, a dynamic and charismatic lady who spends most of her time learning about and supporting initiatives that might help conserve marine resources. The Summit Foundation, on whose board she sits, has financed the Deep Search expedition and also part of the RAVE.

After traveling for a couple of hours we are surprised by an unexpected storm. While the rain and wind pound on us, we bob on the waves munching on soggy sandwiches and feeling miserable and cold. When the clouds part we are greeted by both a blue sky and several whale sharks placidly eating on the surface.

The captain maneuvers next to the feeding sharks and the next thing I know I am immersed in green water trying to gasp for air through a flooded snorkel. I swallow some sea water while I frantically search for the fin and I am surprised when I peek underwater to realize I am right next to a wall of smooth blue skin adorned with white spots. I start swimming as fast as I can, trying to not lose sight of the large fish. The shark is placidly, yet decidedly swimming as well. I look below me and catch a glimpse of John, submerged some 15 feet and looking at the shark from the bottom. I have to do my best not to get left behind. I swim as fast as I can but after a few seconds, with a silent stroke of its tail, the whale shark is gone. There are no words to describe the exhilarating feeling of having this wild experience. You can hear your heart pound in your ears and your pulse race; the mere knowledge of the mysterious giant swimming by you and of the less gentle creatures that might lurk in these green waters filled me with wonder and excitement.

To watch Brian work from the other boat is also thrilling. He has great experience doing this kind of photography, but it is easy to sense his excitement as well. He has the disadvantage of having to paddle while he carries the heavy underwater housing for his camera, and then he has mere seconds in which to get a correct exposure and shoot as many frames as he can. Kip Evans, working out of our boat is doing the same, but his camera, a Canon 5D MK II, also shoots video, so we have a great visual record of the first day of this adventure.

I will have to leave tomorrow, but both Kip and Brian will stay on for several days to take as many images as they can of this amazing gathering of whale sharks. The plan is to have Brian also shoot from the air and to photograph the scientists, like Dr. Rachel Grahame from the WCS, who are working to understand what brings these large fish to this place in such large numbers.

I sign off here but invite you to stay tuned to see the images created for this first mission of the Yucatan RAVE. They will be added to the work produced by 25 other photographers shooting in various locations in Mexico, Belize and Guatemala. The challenges facing the natural and cultural resources in this area are many and we hope the RAVE images will help inform the decision-making progress