Learning Russian While Swimming With Whale Sharks

Hello! Priviet!

The last place I expected to learn Russian was in  Mexico.

On a boat.

Looking for whale sharks.

My main reason to vacation in Mexico during the summer was to see and swim with whale sharks. Between June and August, whale sharks come to feed on the plankton bloom off the coast of the Yucatan. Apparently the craze has caught on half way around the world.  I was picked up early Tuesday morning and noticed that the people who were there before me and came after me were all speaking Russian.  This is odd, I thought. Hearing Spanish, naturally.  Italian, German, or French I would also expect, but Russian? Turns out there are direct flights from Moscow to Cancun in service now.  I’ll keep that in mind for any Round-the-World flights I might go on.

We arrived at the boat docks and received our rules on swimming with the whale sharks.  Luckily, the guide spoke English and the Russian translator of the group, Micha, translated.

Only two people and a guide would go into the water at a time. When your guide says “jump”, jump in the water and start swimming towards the whale shark.  Don’t touch.  Try not to splash your fins on top of the water.  The whale shark can be 40 feet long.  Watch out for the tail.  Don’t touch. This was the standard of all the companies I researched. The Mexicans are very strict about this policy.

What is your name?  Kak tibya zavoot?

My name is Tiffany. Minya zavoot Tiffany or Ja Tiffany.

As we waited for the captain and guides by the boat, I learned a little more about my new boat mates. Micha was the Russian translator who has been living in Mexico for 3
months.  He hasn’t learned any Spanish yet.  Mom, Dad, and Son were traveling together on summer break. The other two couples were married, and both wives
were still students at the University. Olga helped me with pronunciations later.

An 18 mile boat ride into the middle of nowhere, and we spotted the whale sharks along with a few other boats that had beaten us out there.  People were already in the water splashing around awkwardly in their life jackets after the whale sharks.  Dorsal fins cut through the water. We slowed our speed and Chris and Pee Wee (the tour guides) got everyone ready for this awesome experience.

Whale sharkKetova akulaWhaleKeetSea Turtlecherripaha. Dolphindelfin.

A whale shark feeding on plankton swam up right next to the boat. The tip of his upper lip could be seen just above the water. Two people had all their snorkel gear on and their legs over the boat.  Chris said “Now!” and they jumped in beside him.  I lined up for my chance.

When it was my turn, I went with Dad.  We jumped in and swam over to a whale shark.  The water visibility wasn’t as clear as I thought it would be until we were close to the goliath.  As I got closer, the spots on the whale shark shown like stars, and I expected a lazy half open eye while feeding, but his eye was wide open and round while the gills pumped the water through harmoniously.  First one whale shark, then we turned and
followed another. We were battling 6 foot swells. We’d be several feet away from the whale shark, next thing we knew we were practically on top of him.  As our boat came to pick us up, “There’s another one.  Start swimming!” So we followed another one.  As mesmerizing as the head of the whale shark is, the tail was most impressive.  Tall and regal in the water, a slow fluid swish- swish, while we chugged and kicked to keep up with him. That was the first time.


How are you? Kak dilla?

Good- Horosho.  Perfect- Ot-leach-no.  Bad- Ploh.

When I got back on the boat for someone else to take a turn, two people were chucking off the side. The Son was whiter than white, and Mom didn’t feel so well either.  The second time, I brought my camera.  The first whale shark was moving faster than
we could keep up, and the second was nice and slow to where I was practically on top of it.  The beauty and grace of these creatures is indescribable.

After the second swim I realized I had swallowed some salt water, and didn’t feel very well. By this time everyone was dropping like flies from seasickness.  My turn came up faster than I was ready for, but this is a chance of a lifetime, so I sat on the edge waiting to jump in with Olga’s husband. She was on the floor curled up in a ball.

On the third swim, we followed a female, but other snorkelers were crowding her as well and eventually she dove down into the dark blue water.  Chris was frustrated at the group of people who scared her off. Many boats were leaving with their seasick
passengers and we weren’t far behind.
The ride back was gruesome for us all. The salty sea spray stung my nostrils and the bitterness in my mouth turned my stomach.  Everyone had their eyes closed, probably
praying to make it back to shore without getting sick again.  I was not so lucky.

Please- po-JAL-usta. Thank you- Spicey-bo.

We stopped at a shallow clear cove off La Isla Mujeres for a quick dip and shrimp ceviche.  As color returned to many faces, we all became a bit more talkative, but still using a lot of facial and hand gestures.  I found out that PeeWee and Barron, our captain, work for Azalea Tours which specialize in fishing and snorkeling, and Chris works for EcoColor Tours, a company that provides one to sixty day ecotours of exico. Just like many other tour companies, the two companies merge during whale shark season to promote conservation and profit from this natural phenomenon.


Captain Barron, First Mate Pee Wee, and Chris our Eco-Guide


Once back on solid ground, the hour long van trip back to the hotel was a language learning class, mostly for me, but also cultural learning for both nationalities.  Olga was fascinated that I wanted to learn Russian especially since I really have no use
for it in Florida.  But every trip should be a learning experience and this was an unexpected opportunity on my quest to swim with whale sharks.

Goodbye! Dosvidanya!

P.S. All Russian words in this post are spelled phonetically.

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Post Author: Tiffany

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