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Why whale sharks go to Mexico for their spring break

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Swimming around the world’s oceans is hard work, especially if you’re 40 feet long and weigh 15 tons. So it’s no wonder you need a sort of spring break now and then to flop around in sunny waters, get together with old friends, meet some new ones and maybe hook up with a 15-tonner of the opposite sex.

You’re the big dog of the seas, a whale shark (what else would they call a cross between a whale and a shark). And you’ve picked a spot for your annual getaway in the tropical waters off the tip of eastern Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, between Cancun and a little island called Isla Mujeres.

Besides their spa-like temps, a big draw to these waters is that they’re loaded with your giant species’ favorite chow: plankton (tiny plants, algae, minute krill, teeny mollusks and the like), ironically the seas’ smallest critters.

What’s more, the local plankton is even tastier because it’s seasoned by different nutrients from the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, which meet up around these parts.

Throw in some yummy hors d’oeuvres (like a school of little fish), and – voila! –you’ve got a feast fit for a king.

A few months ago you were swimming in the chilly waters of the Atlantic. Now you’re doing lazy circles in a tropical Shangri-La along with a dozen or two of your buddies. Zipping along close to the surface, your herd of sharks’ dorsal fins cut long, widening lines in the water – to the delight of mobs of tourists watching you from tour boats bobbing around the area.

After things calm down from the fin show, snorkelers and scuba divers leap off the boats to swim near you. Guides on the boats have told them you’re pretty much a gentle giant, and that you’re a “filter feeder,” that is, you dine by filtering huge gulps of water through internal sieves to capture that tasty plankton and small fish. After that, you pass the remaining water out of gills on the rear sides of your rectangular head.

So the divers know it’s perfectly safe to swim alongside, above or below you -- as long as they stay away from your mouth (especially when you’re about to open that barn-door-size orifice to gobble up a luckless school of a few thousand little fish).

Oops, was that a swimmer you just swallowed? No, just an oversize guppy. They seem to be getting bigger and bigger.

There must be something in the water around here.

More info: Besides their hideaway off the Yucatan, whale sharks are known to take R&R breaks at lots of other hot spots around the globe, such as the waters of Honduras, South Africa, the Philippines and the South Pacific.

As many as 1,400 gentle giants typically show up near Isla Mujeres each summer, sometimes for as long as six months. Tens of thousands of tourists come by to watch their antics, some staying in the island’s 70 or so hotels and inns and others in the 500 mainland hotels of Cancun and the Riviera Maya.

It’s about a 20-minute ride by water taxi from docks around Cancun to Isla Mujeres. Advance bookings are recommended for ferry rides during peak periods, such as the three days of Isla Mujeres’ upcoming 7th Annual Whale Shark Festival July 25-27.

Among highlights of the celebration will be parades, tours of the five-mile-long island (perhaps best known as one of the sacred islands of Ixchel, the ancient Mayan goddess of love and fertility), art shows, dining on local delicacies and many parties.

Whale shark tours conducted by professional guides are offered from both Isla Mujeres and Cancun.

Isla Mujeres and two other offshore islands at Isla Contoy and Isla Holbox are promoted by the Cancun Convention & Visitors Bureau along with the nearby town of Puerto Morelos.

About the island’s name: Spanish sailors came across an island the local Mayans called Ekab in 1517 when they were sailing around the Caribbean looking for slaves to work the sugar plantations back on Cuba. The sailors renamed the island Isla de las Mujeres (Island of the Women) after the female figurines in the likeness of Ixchel they found scattered around shrines there.

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