The Bucket List Fish

The wish of a lifetime comes true

Story and Photographs by Todd Pusser

I suppose my bucket list is different than most. Firmly in the grip of middle age, with likely more life behind me than in front, my list has remained constant since the days of my youth. Unsurprisingly, for those who know me, most of the items revolve around natural history in some form or another, and frequently involve travel to remote locations to see rare or poorly known animals. Over the years, I have been fortunate enough to check off a few items from the list but one, in particular, holds a special place above all others.

It all started back in the early 1980s when, as a 12-year-old kid, I stumbled upon a photo in National Geographic Magazine of famed shark researcher Eugenie Clark, clad in a wetsuit and scuba tank, grasping the tall dorsal fin of a whale shark off Baja, Mexico. Such behavior is frowned upon today but, back then, the sight of a person grabbing onto the world’s largest fish and taking it for a ride a hundred feet below the ocean’s surface, down into the abyss, sparked my imagination. I wanted more than anything to see a whale shark in the wild, and above all else, I wanted to swim with one, up close and personal, in its own element.

Fast forward to 1996. While standing on the flying bridge of a research vessel over 100 miles off the west coast of Florida, I encountered my first whale shark. The shark, nearly 40 feet in length, cruised gently beneath the placid surface of the Gulf of Mexico, its white polka-dot body practically glowing in the brilliant blue water, as it passed by within a stone’s throw along the starboard side of the ship. To say I was ecstatic is an understatement. I was completely over the moon with joy, having seen the beast of my youthful dreams.

Over the following 25 years, I encountered the immense fish a dozen more times in such varied locations as Hawaii, Mexico, Panama, Costa Rica and, once, off the coast of my home state of North Carolina. However, all of my sightings were made from the vantage point of steel decks on large ships, high above the surface of the sea. I never had the opportunity to actually get into the water and swim with these amazing animals. My National Geographic moment eluded me, until recently.

Isla Mujeres is an island located off the coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. It is here, in the clear blue water surrounding this tiny speck of land, that the largest known gathering of whale sharks on the planet was recently discovered. Upon learning this, my partner, herself a marine biologist, and I hopped onto a plane and headed south to observe this phenomenon for ourselves.

Capable of reaching lengths of over 45 feet and weights approaching 15 tons, a whale shark owes its common name to its immense size. Admittedly, it’s a name that can be quite confusing to the average person. Is it a whale or a shark, or some strange hybrid between the two? A whale shark is in no way related to the warm-blooded mammals known as whales, but rather is a cartilaginous fish — one of over 530 species of sharks currently known to science.

Understandably, some may question the sanity of wanting to swim with a fish the size of a school bus. However, whale sharks have extremely small, pointed teeth, and feed primarily on zooplankton and tiny fish, unlike the more carnivorous habits of their famous cousin, the great white shark.

Whale sharks flock to the waters off Isla Mujeres each summer to feed on the eggs released by spawning schools of false albacore tuna. A thriving tourist industry has built up in the area, and thousands of people have experienced the thrill of swimming with these gentle giants.

During our week there, we encounter well over 300 whale sharks, an astonishing number for such a rare fish. Though global whale shark populations are unknown, the species is considered endangered. At one point, as our boat drifted quietly on the calm Caribbean Sea, we could see whale sharks, with their immense polka-dot dorsal fins breaking the water’s surface, clear out to the horizon.

Donning a mask and snorkel, I finally have the opportunity to slip into the water among the sharks. Lying motionless at the surface and staring out into the infinite blue, I find myself unconsciously humming the theme to Jaws.

After a few minutes, near the edge of my vision, a dark shape appears. As it nears, I take note of the large mouth set on the front of a square-shaped head, and an immense body covered in a unique pattern of white spots. Powered by a tail spanning over 10 feet from tip to tip, the enormous fish swims closer and closer. Raising my underwater camera, I frame the shark in the viewfinder and press the shutter as it swims by within arm’s reach, completely ignoring me. Never before have I been so close to such a large creature.

Enthralled and feeling more than a bit humbled, I continue to watch the leviathan as it swims slowly out of sight, disappearing into the infinite blue void — a childhood dream, carried nearly four decades, finally realized.  PS

Naturalist and photographer Todd Pusser grew up in Eagle Springs. He works to document the extraordinary diversity of life both near and far. His images can be found at

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