Destination Weddings & Honeymoons

A Whale of A Time

July/August 2012


It may sound strange, but Jason and I planned our wedding around the migration of whale sharks. Both marine biologists — me a coral-reef researcher and him a high-school biology/environmentalscience instructor — we live in Miami and are obsessed with the ocean. We met while attending Occidental College, in Los Angeles. He’s a southern California native; I hail from Indiana; and we bonded quickly while working at the same research laboratory.


In April 2008, Jason and I took our first real vacation together. A year prior, we had seen a whale shark at the Georgia Aquarium, in Atlanta, and it became our ambition to someday swim with them in their natural environment. Honduras held the most promise, but unfortunately, during our visit, luck and the weather weren’t in our favor, and we had to leave with that top spot on our bucket list unfulfilled. In spite of our disappointment, we decided then that we wouldn’t give up on seeing whale sharks together in the future.


Eight years into our relationship, Jason popped the question. Since our loved ones are scattered across the country, we decided on a destination wedding. When we discovered that whale sharks are known to visit Mexico’s Riviera Maya every June and July — one of only a handful of places on the planet where you can swim with these elusive creatures — our destination was set. We chose Secrets Capri Riviera Cancun for its intimate feel and fantastic wedding planner, and we set the date for July 4, 2011.


The festivities began on Saturday with an event that was almost as important as the ceremony itself: the whale shark excursion. Eight guests came, including my mom, who thought we were more than a little crazy; even though whale sharks don’t pose a threat to humans, their size is intimidating — these are the largest fish in the world, after all! Jason and I couldn’t wait to get into the water. Plunging in, we gasped at the sight in front of our eyes — six whale sharks, all 30 feet long, eating plankton. They seemed to be moving at glacial speeds, but we struggled to keep up with them — those massive fins were strong! At one point I found myself stuck between two of them going in opposite directions and froze in awe of how big and powerful they were. It was the moment I’d been waiting for, and it surpassed my expectations.


After the excursion, everyone in the boat — including my mom — couldn’t stop raving about it. We were all blown away, realizing what we had just experienced was something most people would never get the chance to do. The rarity of the encounter made it all the more special for those of us who got to share it.


By Sunday, all 44 of our guests had arrived. Keeping things active, we toured Maya ruins and visited Tankah, a private eco-park, where we went zip-lining, jumped off cliffs, and swam and kayaked in freshwater cenotes. All the while, Jason was our storyteller, regaling the group with the tale of our whale shark adventure: how we swam as hard as we could to keep up and barely allowed ourselves to blink because of our excitement; our initial shock of coming face to face with a shark the size of a school bus; the wonder we felt when realizing their mouths (though of no danger to us) were easily as big as we were. I don’t think any of our guests left Mexico without seeing our pictures and videos of the whale sharks.


When the big day came, I donned my token of the ocean — a seashell hair vine from Etsy — in time for the sunset beach ceremony. My mom and brother walked me down the aisle, and during the personal service, family members read wishes for our future. As a fun touch for the kiss, we had maracas for each guest, hand-painted with starfish and the message, “Shake at the kiss.” (Which they did!) The reception was held in the resort’s ocean-view restaurant: a seafood dinner, of course. Afterward, the DJ played “Shake Señora,” and everyone started a conga line, kicking off a night of dancing.


It took four years to go from seeing whale sharks behind glass to actually swimming with them, but it’s a journey we would gladly undertake again and again. I can’t imagine a luckier way to start our lifetime journey together than by having such a unique experence with the people we love most.

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Katie Morell specializes in feature writing, breaking news and corporate communications.